Is the Differential Association Theory a Social Learning Theory?


Vincent White

The Differential Association Theory is one of the most prominent theories in criminology that seeks to explain how individuals learn deviant behavior. Developed by Edwin Sutherland in the 1940s, this theory suggests that criminal behavior is not innate but is instead acquired through social interaction and learning from others.

Understanding the Differential Association Theory

The Differential Association Theory posits that individuals learn deviant behavior through their interactions with others, particularly within small social groups such as family, friends, and peers. According to this theory, criminal behavior is not a result of individual characteristics or biological factors but rather a product of socialization.

Key Principles of the Differential Association Theory:

  • 1. Learning: Criminal behavior is learned through social interaction.
  • 2. Definitions: Individuals become more likely to engage in criminal behavior when they are exposed to definitions favorable to such behavior.
  • 3.

    Differential Associations: The frequency, duration, and intensity of associations with others influence the likelihood of adopting criminal behaviors.

  • 4. Imitation: Individuals imitate and model their behavior after those they associate with regularly.
  • 5. Reinforcement: The rewards and punishments associated with criminal behavior determine its continuation or discontinuation.

Differential Association vs. Social Learning Theory

The Differential Association Theory is often compared to the Social Learning Theory due to their similarities in explaining how individuals acquire behaviors through social interaction. However, there are some key differences between these two theories.

Differential Association Theory

In the Differential Association Theory, the emphasis is on learning deviant behavior through interactions with others who hold favorable definitions towards criminal activities.

Key Points:

  • Focuses on the influence of social groups and associations on criminal behavior.
  • Views criminal behavior as a learned behavior.
  • Emphasizes the importance of definitions and attitudes towards deviant behavior.

Social Learning Theory

The Social Learning Theory, on the other hand, expands upon the principles of the Differential Association Theory by incorporating additional factors such as observational learning and reinforcement.

Key Points:

  • Emphasizes learning through observation and modeling of others’ behaviors.
  • Considers the role of reinforcement in shaping behavior.
  • Incorporates cognitive processes in understanding how individuals acquire new behaviors.

The Importance of Differential Association Theory

The Differential Association Theory has significantly influenced criminology and our understanding of criminal behavior. By highlighting the role of socialization and learning from others, it challenges traditional notions that criminality is solely determined by individual characteristics or biological factors. This theory reminds us that our social interactions have a powerful impact on shaping our behaviors, both positive and negative.

In conclusion, while the Differential Association Theory shares similarities with the Social Learning Theory in explaining how individuals acquire behaviors through social interaction, it places greater emphasis on the influence of social groups and definitions towards deviant behavior. Understanding this theory allows us to delve deeper into how criminal behaviors are learned and provides valuable insights for crime prevention strategies.