Within the field of criminology, Differential Association is a subcultural theory of criminality developed by Edwin Sutherland which proposes that through interaction with others, individuals learn and adopt the values, techniques, attitudes, and motivations for criminal behaviour. Subcultural theories within criminology view criminal activity as normal and resulting from learned behaviour, and focus on the content of that behaviour as opposed to the processes by which they become ingrained in subjects; in accordance to this principle, differential association theory states that criminal behaviour is likewise learned through association via social interaction. Sutherland’s argument is that in a situation of differential social organization and conflict, differential associations made at that time will result in differences of behaviour, emphasizing the content of what is learned. The primary reference group for behavioural influence within differential association is the nuclear family, followed by other intimate personal groups such as friends and close associates.
Differential Association theory operates under the assumption that the individual’s interactions with these intimate social support networks formulate said individual’s conception and understanding of societal restrictions, norms, and values. However, it is important to distinguish that while criminal behaviour is an expression of an individual’s learned values, it is not explained by those values since they express non-criminal activity in equal measure. According to Differential Association theory, an individual turns to criminal activity because of an excess of definitions or classifications favourable to violation of the law in lieu of definitions unfavourable to violation. Additionally, the processes by which criminal behaviour is learned by association are the same, and involve the same mechanisms, as that of any other learning method.
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