EDWIN SUTHERLAND: Sociological Contribution

Edwin Sutherland (1883-1950)
Edwin Sutherland (1883-1950)

WHILE SUTHERLAND CRAFTED HIS THEORY NEAR THE BEGINNING OF THE 20th CENTURY, his contribution is absolutely the most influential criminological theory to date. Sutherland termed his theory, Differential Association, and its precepts were espoused in Sutherland’s 1939 book, Principles of Criminology. In addition to his famous theory, Sutherland also provided insight into white-collar crime.


The late 19th-Century to early-20th Century United States experienced large scale emigration such that the social flux of the times provided many social scientists a vast field in which to work, draw statistics, and to map crime in newly, densely populated areas, such as Chicago, New York, and Boston.

Coming from the Chicago School influence, Sutherland’s contemporary academics were largely in agreement that social disorganization incubated crime just as criminogenic values do; that is,the attitudes of criminals.


Sutherland’s differential association theory sought to determine reasons why the poorer classes suffered higher crime rates and Sutherland also provided suppositions as to why this seemed to be the case. Before delineating these concepts it is fair to note that there are no perfect explanations for criminogenesis, and even so, Sutherland’s theory had a few criticisms. For instance, differential association does not account for crimes of passion (domestic violence, spousal murder) nor rapes, which are crimes not particularly learned through ones peers. Aside from such inquiry, scientists must ponder the infamous chicken-and-egg question of which comes first, as regards learned criminality: the individual deviant behavior, or deviant group?

Accepting these criticisms let’s sift through the nine (9) major propositions of Sutherland’s differential association, and try to see how these ideas may apply or not to your situation.

• Criminal behavior is learned;
• like all learning it stems from
communication and experience;
• and this learning is accomplished
through people closest to us.

• Know-how of crime, tools,
techniques, attitudes and
rationalizations for
committing crime, stems from
such learning;
• There is a determination as to
whether or not certain laws are
legitimate (to be followed); a
code of the streets.
• The number of negative beliefs
which support committing certain
crimes, outweighs typical
values such as “doing the right
• Simple motivations are
insufficient in and of themselves
to produce crime (considering most
people work for money and the
majority of jealous people do not
kill their spouses);
• The acts involving differential
association vary in four (4) ways:

1) frequency-number of times
involving interacting with
2) duration-length of time
interacting with deviants;
3) intensity-emotional importance
one places upon deviant
4) priority-how early in ones
development that these
interactions occur.

Thus, while differential association is not a catch-all law of criminal development, this theory, in 1939, represented a legitimate shift to a more scientific approach to criminology–which differed from simple assertions at the time that alleged big noses, large eyes (anthropometry), or that ones race (eugenics) somehow correlated with propensity to break the law.

Sutherland remains a towering figure in criminology/sociology, and one can notice traces of his influence in Merton’s strain theory, Aker’s’ social learning (and other sociological) theory. If one studies criminal justice, criminology, or sociology you will often run headlong into Dr. Edwin Sutherland.

Think about this theory for a moment: by using Sutherland’s notions, could you become a more effective parent, draft more tolerable/sensible rules, or even design a habilitation curriculum/program for prisoners that seeks to reduce reoffending?



• image, Sutherland, public domain
• image, custom font


• Steven Barkan. Criminology: A Siciological Perspective, 2nd ed. NJ: Prentice Hall (2001)