Many citizens, politicians, and criminal justice practitioners believe that 'theory' is irrelevant and not factual. Theories are often a mistaken image in criminology; these individuals often refer to facts as being real and theories being interesting ideas that have little to do with what truly motivates real people. In the English language, as early as 1592, 'theory' was first used to describe a concept or theme; but by the 1630's scientists had begun to use the word to describe an explanation or thought which was based on observation and testing (Akers, 1999). An effective theory in the present, if developed properly, can be tested against new facts and help make sense of facts we already know; by using real situations, feelings, experience and human behaviour (Akers, 1999).
Theoretical criminology tries to explain theories of why and how crime occurs by examining the various facts related to criminal behaviour and crime. These theories offer the sociological, psychological and psychiatric views of the causes of crime and other forms of deviant behaviour. There are many different theories which try to explain the causes of crime, most if not all of which can be applied to the causes of youth crime. Some famous theories are; the labelling theory, control theory, conflict theory, and differential association theory. Juvenile delinquency refers to children who act against the law. Youth crime is a major issue around the world. This essay will identify and explain what differential association theory is, the weaknesses of it, theories derived from this theory and the policy implications of it.
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Differential association theory is one of the most important theories within criminology. It has influenced many sociologists and criminologists up until this present day. In 1939, a sociologist and professor Edwin H, Sutherland introduced this theory in the third edition of his text, Principles of Criminology (Renzetti, 1994). 'Edwin Sutherland (1883-1950) is regarded as the leading criminologist of his generation' (Renzetti, 1994). He developed the differential association theory to explain how youths commit acts of deviant behaviour.
Differential association theory defines that 'criminal behaviour is learnt behaviour and acquired by means of social contact with other individuals' (Maguire, 2007). This theory explains how individuals learn to commit criminal acts; they learn motives, drives, and attitudes. If a person speaks or spends more time with people who believe breaking the law is acceptable and have criminal backgrounds than people who think criminal behaviour is unacceptable, the person will most likely be involved in criminal activities. Furthermore, in Sutherland's fourth edition, he identifies nine main factors as to why a person engages in criminal behaviour. (Sutherland, 1974)
The first factor which Sutherland believes in why a person engages in criminal behaviour is simply because 'criminal behaviour is learned' (Curren, 1994). Differential association theory and most other social learning theories believe that the actions of a person are influenced and created by other individuals they associate with. The main associated group is the family for the individual, as that's where they live and grow up with everyone. 'It is generally believed that these interactions formulate the individuals understanding of societal norms and values. In addition, it is assumed that if the individual is capable of learning what is acceptable in society, they are also capable of learning what is considered unacceptable'. (Curren, 1994) Secondly, criminal behaviour is learned in 'interaction with others in a process of communication' (Curren, 1994). Children at a very young age are accustomed into the norms of the society. They are taught the roles of both genders through their parents and people around them by observing the specific gender and relating those characteristics to that gender. Observations and interactions between people are all ways of communication, and this is how criminals are misled into a life of crime. 'Learning criminal behaviour occurs within primary groups (family, friends, peers, their most intimate, personal companions)' (Curren, 1994). This is Sutherland's third point as to why youths commit crime. An individuals' behaviour is primarily influenced by their family, as when they are born, they would be their first interaction received. Also, an individual's behaviour is mostly influenced by a group of friends they have (through direct and indirect interaction), which could be either at school or work. The behaviours can also be influenced through their intimate relationships with other individuals, such as relationships.Â The fourth principle of Sutherland differential theory is that 'Learning criminal behaviour involves learning the techniques, motives, drives, rationalizations, and attitudes' (Curren, 1994). Having a primary group such as family or friends doesn't necessary mean the individual will take part in committing crimes, but it does mean that they have a resource into the criminal rationale. 'Criminals are not inherently deviant, they learned the deviance' (Curren, 1994). The individual may now think something that was unacceptable behaviour, is acceptable. 'For example, many convicted sexual assailants admit that the first time they committed sexual assault they felt guilty. The guilt comes from their socialization of societal norms that rape is unacceptable' (Curren, 1994). 'The specific direction of motives and attitudes is learned from definitions of the legal codes as favourable or unfavourable' (Curren, 1994). This is the fifth principle of Sutherland's theory. This principle can be noticed when you consider different cultures. For example in the United States of America or the United Kingdom, there are many various cultures, and each cultures has different perceptions of what is favourable and unfavourable which hence causes conflict in society. 'A person becomes a criminal when there is an excess of definitions favourable to violation of law over definitions unfavourable to violation of law'. (Curren, 1994). The sixth principle is a very important factor in Sutherland's differential association theory. When the individual associates with groups of people who believe committing crime is acceptable more than the ones that don't. The individual becomes in favour to the societies norms. 'Pfohl writes in his book, images of deviance and social control, that the likelihood of deviant behaviour could be determined by calculating the difference between favourable and unfavourable associations'' (Pfohl, 1994). The seventh and eighth principles are 'differential associations vary in frequency, duration, priority, and intensity' (Cullen, 1994) and 'the process of learning criminal behaviour involves all the mechanisms involved in any other learning' (Cullen, 1994). Like other learned behaviours, criminal behaviour is learned through observing, but also through various methods. An example of this may be that cruelty or seduction may lead to deviance. Lastly, 'although criminal behaviour is an expression of general needs and attitudes, criminal behaviour and motives are not explained nor excused by the same needs and attitudes, since non-criminal behaviour is explained by the same general needs and attitudes'(Cullen, 1994).
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There have been a number of cases taken to try and prove differential association. The case with Reiss and Rhodes in 1964 proved that this theory can be proved right; they saw boys choosing friends who engage in similar activities like them and McMarthy has evidence to friends teaching each other criminal activities in 1996.
Many people have criticised Sutherland's differential association theory on a number of grounds; but people who agree to Sutherland's theory have said that criticism is often resulted from misinterpretation. Donald R. Cressey and others have argued 'persuasively that many of the critiques were simply 'literary errors' or misinterpretation on the part of the critics' (Renzetti, 1994). For example, the theory was judged by critics to be illogical because people, who had come into contact with criminals, did not become criminals themselves as a result of this. This misinterprets the theory's proposition that criminal behaviour is learned through differential association not simply through any contact with persons who have violated the law (Aker, 1996). Also, Cressey pointed out two major weaknesses of Sutherland's theory. The first issue was the concerning the unclear definitions by Sutherland. Many sociologists had a problem with it as well. The second real problem was that it left the learning process unspecified. 'There is virtually no clue in Sutherland's theory as to what in particular would be included in 'all the mechanisms that are involved in any of other learning' (Akers, 1996). Sutherland was also criticised for having a very broad theory in explaining crime, even though this can be argued as general theories needs to be broad in nature. 'Perhaps the most fundamental research problem involves identifying the content of definitions favourable to crime. This is related to the criticism that differential association theory cannot be tested empirically' (Matsueda, 1988). Differential association has been subject to a number of other criticisms as well, such as it is 'defective because it omits consideration of free will, is based on psychology assuming rational deliberation, ignores the role of the victim, does not explain the origin of crime, don't not define terms such as ' systematic' and 'excess', does not take 'biological factors' into consideration, is of little or no value to 'practical men', is not comprehensive enough because it is not interdisciplinary, is not allied closely enough with more general sociological theory and research, is too comprehensive because it applies to non criminals, and assumes that all personal have equal access to criminal and anti criminal behaviour patterns' (Greek, 2005).
Even though differential association theory has some weaknesses, differential association theory still is popular among criminologists for its simplicity, logic and consistency. There are many theories which are derived from Sutherland's differential association theory. Many theorists have been highly influenced by him and have made theories relating to his. Due to criticisms made by many theorists, they have extended and modified the issues in Sutherland's differential association theory. Theories such as differential reinforcement theory, social learning theory, and differential identification theory are some examples. 'Burgess and Akers extended Sutherlands theory to specify the components of learning process, and created links to psychology' (Burgess & Akers, 1966). Glaser's differential identification theory implied that not all learning takes place in a face-to-face context. Taking this theory into account, it highlights that new technological advancements and gadgets will assist and be favourable to crime.
There are policy implications for every theory. The policy implications for differential association theory are plain and simple. Sutherland suggests that socialization with certain groups who think criminal behaviour is acceptable give a reason for individuals to cause crime, so the youngsters must be kept away from these certain groups. The ones that already are caught up in criminal behaviour need re-socialization with people that have a positive view to life and are not involved in any sort of crime. Community programs and family based counselling can help if that is the reason in the first place as to why the child has been committing crimes. Special interventions like peer-led interventions, team-working skills, social and personal skills will be needed. Policy implications of differential association theory are extremely valuable as it can make a different to a child life. Sutherland believes criminal behaviour is learned which means legal behaviour can be taught to the delinquent. Many therapies are available and should be considered such as rehabilitation through re-education and re-socialization. These approaches may work to produce behaviour change.
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Differential association theory was developed by Edwin Sutherland. He suggested that criminal behaviour is learned behaviour through the social interaction with others. He believes that people learn the attitudes and techniques for criminal acts. The Differential association theory is one of the most talked theories in criminology. The meaning of Sutherland's theory remains strong in multiple contemporary works of criminology and sociology. No one theory can perfectly define every aspect of crime and deviant act. It needs to include various theories for better explanation. However, even though Sutherland's theory had some weak points, it mainly had strengths. Many other theories have been influenced by differential association theory and many theorists still are trying to test the usefulness and validly of Sutherland's theory. Sutherland is still the father of American Criminology (Gaylord & Gilliher, 1994).
'A person can become a professional thief only if he is trained by those who are already professionals' (Sutherland, 1937).