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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)

VIOLENCE: An Evasive Symptom

VIOLENCE IS A VERY COSTLY SYMPTOM of a more acute set of problems. Every violent act has ingredients, roots, branches, and results, and sometimes they are ongoing. It is at certain periods in our development that predilection to violence seeks to assert itself. Indeed, violence is “default programming”, vital to early human survival and presents when the self is endangered.
Our perceptions can be fooled, thus, to be at our rational best, our sense of reality must align with our emotionality.

What can be done to restrict irrational violence, and when?


If we eliminate genetic predisposition/gender factors, perhaps personality factors (sociopathy, psychopathy) we divest a large number of males from scrutiny as producers of violence–particularly males from fatherless homes and having had a parental, or co-substance abuse history. As the foregoing characteristics are factors unique to individuals, we do not review them here although they are specific ingredients of violent criminality as the overview would be infinitely broad. Moreover, we will not discuss spontaneous acts (mob violence/roits) concentrating upon developed violence as adopted behavior through lenses of: social strain, socio-economic factors, social relationships, peers, media violence, and culture, and not individual traits, which are unique anomalies.


Social Relationship and Crime

Setting aside nuances of personality and biological defecit, our resulting assumption is that violence is learned without it having to be taught. Thus, violence is preventable as much as predictable, as it is cultivated through ones peer-associations and social environment.

Peer groups, clubs, and cultures possess particular “values, norms, beliefs, and technical knowledge”, “socializing forces”, as from a classroom, religious affiliation, or gang. It’s the cherished anti-social ideas/traits that coalesce as a set of sub-cultural ingredients from which violence (and crime) becomes incubated (Jensen, 2007).
We largely obtain our behaviors via interaction, imitation, and guidance (reinforcement) not through Tabula Raza solitary meditation in a cave, thus , consider the following hints from which you could reduce violence in our world.


• Be aware of how we introduce/place our progeny at the outset of life, as learning is very difficult to overwrite;

• Structure stimuli around low-violence activities. Violent video games, movies need to be minimized as they tend to desensitize to violence;

• Instruct upon appropriate responses to bullying, teasing, self-defense parameters, and alienation. This reduces reliance on instinctive aggression;

• Model prosociality; that is, the expected behaviors in situations, even if parents have to create a sham situation (role-play) to provision opportunity for cognitive absorption.

Recalling these concepts over time will insulate against social pressure and individual susceptibility that sometimes turns into rage, or the mind-emotion imbalance.


 General/Social Strain and Crime

According to David Farrington, in Origins of Violent Behavior Over the Lifespan (2007), low socio-economic status, intergenerational exposure to disrupted families, and life within neglected neighborhoods are contributors to what is termed as, strain, or social strain. These many types of strains- often beyond individual control-create an atmosphere of stress and hypervigilance when commingled, too much of any negative experience will frustrate the best of us given sufficient time. Multiple strains upon legitimate opportunity lends itself to improvised, non-conformist short-cutting called crime or violence, as a means to gain a foot up (see the post below re: ROBERT MERTON). Resulting in higher crime rates and intergenerational lapses, perpetuating cycles of violence and victimization.


The notions here, are nevertheless built upon lifestyle  and choice: individual factors which have a ripple effect in society. While this may seem an oversimplification, upon initial review, we may recognize susceptibility in our lives, despite any freedom of choice or free will argument. Nevertheless, we can adjust our range of lifestyle factors to minimize risk of becoming victims, and reduce contribution to violence by not being a passive ingredient in its development.

The point here was simply to reiterate the importance of individual relations and the subsequent impressions we leave in our communities as crafters of our own violence. Whichever the excuse: time is money, there doesn’t seem to be enough of one parent to go around, or walking the streets at night is cool, etc. Upon deeper inspection of our reality we may find this to be untrue. We CAN adapt to 3-less work hours per-week so as to ref a flag-football game, or share a pizza to foster bonds with those around us, and stop jogging at midnight. We reduce violence by sharing our attention, laughing, and letting someone know they are important in our eyes, and being responsible knowing our behavior affects others.

Transcend any personal defecit through investment in other people. Watch your energy reduce violence, crime, and victimization. Our result in mind must be taught.



Flannery, D., Alexander Vazsonyi and Irwin Waldman, eds. CAMBRIDGE HANDBOOK of VIOLENT BEHAVIOR and AGGRESSION. N.Y. Cambridge, UP (2007)


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