Is Differential Association Theory the Same as Social Learning Theory?


Diego Sanchez

Differential Association Theory and Social Learning Theory are two widely discussed theories in the field of criminology and sociology. While these theories share some similarities, they also have distinct differences that set them apart.

Understanding Differential Association Theory

Differential Association Theory, developed by sociologist Edwin Sutherland in the 1930s, emphasizes the role of socialization and interaction in the development of criminal behavior. According to this theory, individuals learn deviant behavior through their associations with others.

Sutherland argued that criminal behavior is not innate but is instead acquired through exposure to attitudes, values, and techniques of committing crimes. He proposed that individuals become delinquent when their exposure to definitions favorable to law violation outweighs their exposure to definitions unfavorable to law violation.

Key concepts of Differential Association Theory:

  • Definitions: These are attitudes or beliefs about whether a particular behavior is right or wrong. Individuals who associate with others who hold favorable definitions towards crime are more likely to engage in criminal behavior.
  • Differential Associations: These are the social interactions and relationships an individual has with others.

    The frequency, intensity, duration, and priority of these associations play a significant role in shaping an individual’s behavior.

  • Imitation: Individuals learn criminal techniques through observing others. They imitate the behaviors they see as successful or rewarding.
  • Reinforcement: The rewards or punishments associated with criminal behavior reinforce or discourage its repetition.

Exploring Social Learning Theory

Social Learning Theory, also known as observational learning theory, was developed by psychologist Albert Bandura in the late 1970s. This theory expands on the ideas of Differential Association Theory and incorporates additional elements of cognitive processes.

Social Learning Theory posits that individuals learn by observing others and imitating their behavior. Bandura argued that learning occurs through a process of observational learning, imitation, and reinforcement.

Key concepts of Social Learning Theory:

  • Observational Learning: Individuals acquire new behaviors or modify existing behaviors by observing others. They pay attention to the consequences and outcomes experienced by those they observe.
  • Imitation: Once individuals observe a behavior, they may imitate it if they believe it will lead to positive outcomes or rewards.
  • Vicarious Reinforcement: Individuals are motivated to imitate behaviors based on the observed consequences for others. If they see someone being rewarded for their behavior, they are more likely to imitate it.
  • Cognitive Processes: Social Learning Theory also emphasizes the role of cognitive processes such as attention, retention, production, and motivation in the acquisition and reproduction of learned behaviors.

The Similarities and Differences

While Differential Association Theory and Social Learning Theory both highlight the importance of learning through social interactions, there are key differences between them.

Differential Association Theory focuses primarily on associations with others who engage in criminal behavior as the main factor influencing an individual’s likelihood of becoming delinquent. It emphasizes definitions favorable to crime as the key determinant.

In contrast, Social Learning Theory expands on Differential Association Theory by incorporating cognitive processes such as attention, retention, and motivation. It highlights observational learning as a key mechanism for acquiring new behaviors.

Overall, while both theories acknowledge the influence of social interactions and learning in the development of criminal behavior, Social Learning Theory provides a more comprehensive framework by integrating cognitive processes into the explanation.

In conclusion, Differential Association Theory and Social Learning Theory are related concepts that share common ground in understanding how individuals learn deviant behaviors. However, Social Learning Theory builds upon Differential Association Theory by incorporating cognitive processes and placing greater emphasis on observational learning. These theories contribute to our understanding of the complex factors that shape human behavior and have significant implications in the fields of criminology and sociology.