A clip from the TV show The Wire” shows how differential association theory applies to real life.
• Explain in your own words what Edwin Sutherland’s theory sought to explain juvenile delinquency.
• Demonstrate and provide two real life juvenile delinquencies that differential association theory could be applied to.
• Provide how and why many juveniles learn delinquent behavior from other juveniles.
• Under what social conditions are juvenile delinquency more likely?
• Respond to each portion of the assignment for full credit.
Edwin Sutherland’s Differential Association Theory is a sociological perspective that seeks to explain the occurrence of juvenile delinquency. This theory posits that individuals learn deviant and criminal behavior through interactions with others in their social environment, particularly within their peer groups. The more an individual associates with those who exhibit deviant behaviors, the more likely they are to adopt and engage in delinquent acts themselves (Sutherland, 1939).
Differential Association Theory and Juvenile Delinquency
Differential Association Theory, developed by Edwin Sutherland in 1939, offers a comprehensive sociological framework for understanding juvenile delinquency. This theory posits that individuals learn criminal and deviant behaviors through their interactions with others in their social environment, particularly within their peer groups. In this section, we will delve deeper into the Differential Association Theory, its key concepts, and how it applies to the phenomenon of juvenile delinquency, while providing in-text citations to relevant literature.
Key Concepts of Differential Association Theory
Differential Association Theory is based on several key concepts that help explain how individuals become involved in delinquent activities.
Definitions: Sutherland emphasized that individuals are exposed to both pro-criminal and anti-criminal definitions within their social circles. These definitions are essentially the attitudes, values, and beliefs surrounding criminal behavior. If an individual is consistently exposed to pro-criminal definitions, they are more likely to adopt these perspectives and engage in criminal activities (Sutherland, 1939).
Frequency and Intensity: The theory also considers the frequency and intensity of associations. The more an individual interacts with peers who hold pro-criminal attitudes, the greater the influence. Moreover, associations with individuals who are highly committed to criminal behavior have a stronger impact on the individual’s learning (Sutherland, 1939).
Priority: Differential Association Theory suggests that individuals acquire their criminal or delinquent tendencies early in life. If delinquent associations and definitions precede anti-delinquent ones, the individual is more likely to engage in criminal behavior (Sutherland, 1939).
Duration: The longer an individual is exposed to pro-criminal associations and definitions, the more likely they are to internalize these beliefs and engage in criminal activities (Sutherland, 1939).
Learning: According to the theory, criminal behavior is a learned behavior. Individuals learn how to commit crimes, the techniques involved, and the motivations through their associations with others (Sutherland, 1939).
Application of Differential Association Theory to Juvenile Delinquency
Differential Association Theory has been widely applied to understand the causes of juvenile delinquency. Juvenile delinquency refers to unlawful behaviors committed by individuals who are below the age of adulthood. The theory provides insights into why some adolescents become involved in delinquent activities, such as vandalism, theft, drug abuse, and violent crimes.
Peer Influence and Delinquent Behavior
One of the central tenets of Differential Association Theory is the influence of peers on an individual’s behavior. Research has consistently shown that peer associations play a crucial role in shaping juvenile behavior (Akers, 1998). Adolescents are highly susceptible to peer pressure and often seek approval and acceptance from their peers. When they associate with peers who engage in delinquent activities, they are more likely to be exposed to pro-criminal definitions and become involved in delinquent behavior themselves (Akers, 1998).
For example, a longitudinal study by Moffitt (1993) found that adolescents who associated with delinquent peers during their teenage years were more likely to engage in criminal activities throughout their lives. This study highlights the lasting impact of peer associations on delinquent behavior.
Family and Neighborhood Influences
Differential Association Theory also recognizes the role of family and neighborhood environments in the learning of delinquent behavior. Dysfunctional family environments characterized by neglect, abuse, or the absence of positive role models can contribute to juvenile delinquency (Hirschi, 1969). In such environments, juveniles may seek validation and guidance from deviant peer groups as a substitute for the support they lack at home.
Additionally, the theory acknowledges that delinquent behavior is more likely to be learned and perpetuated in neighborhoods with high crime rates and limited access to positive opportunities (Shaw & McKay, 1942). Adolescents growing up in impoverished and crime-ridden neighborhoods are exposed to a greater number of pro-criminal associations, making delinquency a more probable outcome.
Learning Techniques of Delinquency
Differential Association Theory not only explains why juveniles become involved in delinquent behavior but also how they learn the techniques of delinquency. This can encompass the practical aspects of committing crimes, such as burglary techniques, drug dealing methods, or strategies for evading law enforcement.
For instance, a study by Weerman and Smeenk (2005) explored how juveniles involved in theft and vandalism learned the specific techniques of these crimes from their delinquent peers. The researchers found that through their associations, juveniles acquired knowledge about breaking and entering, shoplifting, and other criminal techniques. This study illustrates the practical applicability of Differential Association Theory in understanding the learning process of delinquent behavior.
Limitations and Critiques
While Differential Association Theory has provided valuable insights into juvenile delinquency, it has not been without its critiques and limitations. One criticism is that it does not adequately address the question of why some individuals resist the influence of delinquent associations and maintain law-abiding behavior despite exposure to pro-criminal definitions (Akers, 1998).
Additionally, the theory has been criticized for its lack of specificity in explaining the transition from non-delinquency to delinquency. It focuses more on the process of learning criminal behavior rather than the factors that trigger the initial involvement in delinquent activities (Akers, 1998).
Differential Association Theory remains a prominent framework for understanding juvenile delinquency. It underscores the importance of social interactions, peer associations, and the learning of criminal behavior. By examining the key concepts of the theory and its applications to peer influence, family dynamics, neighborhood factors, and the learning of delinquent techniques, we gain valuable insights into the complexities of juvenile delinquency. However, it is essential to acknowledge that while the theory offers a compelling explanation, there are still aspects of delinquent behavior that require further exploration and refinement in the field of criminology.
Real-Life Examples of Juvenile Delinquency
Gang Involvement: One real-life example where Differential Association Theory can be applied is gang involvement among juveniles. When young individuals are part of a peer group or neighborhood where gang activities are prevalent, they may be exposed to criminal behaviors as the norm. These individuals learn the codes, values, and behaviors associated with the gang culture, leading them to participate in delinquent acts such as violence, drug trafficking, and property crimes (Esbensen et al., 1999).
Substance Abuse: Another example is the prevalence of substance abuse among teenagers. When adolescents are surrounded by friends who use drugs or alcohol and perceive such behavior as socially acceptable or desirable, they are more likely to experiment with substances themselves. This association with peers engaging in substance abuse can lead to addiction and involvement in criminal activities to sustain their habits (Kandel, 1978).
Learning Delinquent Behavior from Peers
Juveniles often learn delinquent behavior from their peers due to several factors:
Peer Pressure: Peer pressure plays a significant role in pushing juveniles to conform to the behaviors of their social group. Adolescents may feel compelled to participate in criminal activities to gain acceptance or avoid ridicule from their peers (Akers, 1998).
Social Reinforcement: When juveniles observe their friends being rewarded or praised for engaging in delinquent acts, they are more likely to view these actions as desirable and acceptable. This reinforcement further reinforces the adoption of such behaviors (Sutherland, 1939).
Social Conditions and Juvenile Delinquency
Several social conditions can contribute to an increased likelihood of juvenile delinquency:
Poverty: Juvenile delinquency is more prevalent in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods where access to quality education, healthcare, and other resources is limited. Lack of opportunities and exposure to crime can lead juveniles towards criminal activities as a means of survival or social mobility (Shaw & McKay, 1942).
Family Environment: Dysfunctional family environments characterized by neglect, abuse, or absence of positive role models can contribute to juvenile delinquency. A lack of parental supervision and support can lead juveniles to seek validation and guidance from deviant peer groups (Hirschi, 1969).
Differential Association Theory provides valuable insights into the factors contributing to juvenile delinquency by emphasizing the role of social interactions and peer associations. The TV show “The Wire” serves as an illustrative example of how this theory can be applied in a real-life context. Gang involvement and substance abuse are two concrete examples where Differential Association Theory is highly relevant. Understanding how juveniles learn delinquent behaviors from their peers and the social conditions that foster such behaviors is crucial for developing effective prevention and intervention strategies to address juvenile delinquency and its consequences in society.
Akers, R. L. (1998). Social Learning and Social Structure: A General Theory of Crime and Deviance. Transaction Publishers.
Esbensen, F. A., Winfree, L. T., He, N., & Taylor, T. J. (1999). Youth gangs and definitional issues: When is a gang a gang, and why does it matter? Crime & Delinquency, 45(3), 366-387.
Hirschi, T. (1969). Causes of Delinquency. University of California Press.
Kandel, D. B. (1978). Homophily, selection, and socialization in adolescent friendships. American Journal of Sociology, 84(2), 427-436.
Shaw, C. R., & McKay, H. D. (1942). Juvenile Delinquency and Urban Areas: A Study of Rates of Delinquents in Relation to Differential Social Areas. University of Chicago Press.
Sutherland, E. H. (1939). Principles of Criminology. J. B. Lippincott.
Frequently Ask Questions ( FQA)
Q1: What is Differential Association Theory, and who developed it?
A1: Differential Association Theory is a sociological perspective that suggests individuals learn criminal and deviant behavior through interactions with others in their social environment, particularly within their peer groups. It was developed by Edwin Sutherland in 1939.
Q2: How does Differential Association Theory explain juvenile delinquency?
A2: Differential Association Theory explains juvenile delinquency by emphasizing that individuals become delinquent when they are exposed to an excess of definitions favorable to violation of the law over definitions unfavorable to such violations. In other words, when juveniles associate with peers who engage in delinquent activities and receive positive reinforcement for these actions, they are more likely to engage in such behaviors themselves.
Q3: Can you provide real-life examples of juvenile delinquency where Differential Association Theory can be applied?
A3: Certainly. Two examples include gang involvement, where juveniles learn criminal behavior from gang peers, and substance abuse, where adolescents adopt drug or alcohol use patterns from friends who engage in such activities.
Q4: What role do peer associations play in the context of Differential Association Theory?
A4: Peer associations play a significant role in shaping juvenile behavior according to Differential Association Theory. Adolescents are highly influenced by their peers, and when they associate with delinquent peers who hold pro-criminal attitudes, they are more likely to be exposed to criminal definitions and engage in delinquent behavior themselves.
Q5: What social conditions are more likely to lead to juvenile delinquency, as suggested by Differential Association Theory?
A5: Social conditions such as poverty and dysfunctional family environments are more likely to contribute to juvenile delinquency. Adolescents growing up in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods or in dysfunctional families may have increased exposure to pro-criminal associations and definitions, making delinquency a more probable outcome.