Differential Association, Theory of

Differential Association, Theory of


in bourgeois (primarily American) criminology, one of the social psychology theories of the causes of criminal behavior. It was formulated in 1939 by the American criminologist Sutherland and is followed by such criminologists as Cressey, Glaser, Sykes, and Matza. According to the theory of differential association a person becomes a criminal if during the process of his communication (association) with the people he considers models for himself and during evaluation of his own personality he is primarily in contact with people, concepts, and definitions that favor violation of the law. In its turn, the predominant influence of certain contacts in comparison with others and the relationships that arise as a result of these contacts depend on their intensity, frequency, length, and significance for the person.

The theory of differential association was supplemented by the so-called theory of differential identification, according to which a person’s reactions to influence exerted on him depend on his image of himself, that is, his self-evaluation (the model person and norms of behavior he compares himself to and, therefore, which social group he identifies himself with). Here the theory of differential association is close to the more general so-called sociocultural theory.

The authors who support the theory of differential association try to describe the psychological ’“mechanism” of preparation for crime. They believe that even before such a person commits a crime the social disapproval of illegal behavior is “neutralized” (rejected) in his consciousness, through such mental processes as finding a personal justification for violating the laws. Specifically, the violator of the law frequently sees himself as a victim of exceptional circumstances or bad influence and therefore feels that he cannot bear responsibility for the crime. He commits the illegal act without changing his image of himself.

These propositions reveal the key point of the theory of differential association—that crime is caused by a person’s image of himself and of the relationship between himself and others and by the prior removal of social and psychological restraint. The theory of differential association is completely unsound scientifically because its representatives try to explain the causes of criminality without a class analysis of the basic economic, social, and ideological preconditions that give rise to criminality in modern capitalist society.


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