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In criminology, Differential Association is a theory developed by Edwin Sutherland proposing that through interaction with others, individuals learn the values, attitudes, techniques, and motives for criminal behavior.
The Differential Association Theory is probably the best known Interactionist theory of deviance. This theory focuses on how people learn to be criminals, but does not concern itself with why they become criminals. Sutherland was following in the tradition of Gabriel Tarde who argued that criminals were ordinary people who learned criminal behavior through imitation of those with whom they interacted. Sutherland refined this proposition by requiring that the interaction occur in intimate groups, where the level of communication is more personal. They learn how to commit the crime; they learn motives, drives, rationalizations, and attitudes. Over time, it grows socially easier for the individuals to commit a crime: and their inspiration? The processes of cultural transmission and construction. George Herbert Mead had developed the idea of the "self" as a social construct, i.e. a person's self-image is continuously being constructed and reconstructed in interaction with other people. Phenomenology and ethnomethodology also encouraged people to debate the certainty of knowledge and to make sense of their everyday experiences using indexicality methods. People define their lives by reference to their experiences, and then generalise those definitions to provide a framework of reference for deciding on future action. From a researcher's perspective, a subject might view the world very differently if employed rather than unemployed, if in a supportive family or abused by parents but in a gang. Hence, individuals might respond differently to the same situation depending on how their experience predisposes them to define their current surroundings. A wallet might be found on the street. One individual might see an opportunity for altruism, returning missing property to an owner. The other might see an opportunity for self-enrichment. Differential association predicts that an individual will choose the criminal path when the balance of definitions for law-breaking exceeds those for law-abiding. This tendency will be reinforced if social association provides role models of significance to the actor. The earlier in life the actor joins a gang subculture and comes under the influence of those of high status within that group, the more likely the actor to follow in their footsteps. This does not deny that there may be practical motives for crime. If a person is hungry but has no money, there is a temptations to steal. However, the use of "needs" and "values" is equivocal. To a greater or lesser extent, both non-criminal and criminal individuals are motivated by the need for money and social status. Frustration and boredom may be felt by all.
It is interesting that Sutherland should have focused on social dynamics as the learning medium when so much may be learned and observed through reading and the visual media. The cinema was a major cultural influence with hard-boiled detective and noir crime stories popular. In more modern times, television has assumed the role of passive educator. Similarly, it elects to address long-term influences rather than considering why people act impulsively or opportunistically. Both of these omissions are symptomatic of a more fundamental difficulty. The theory is deterministic, proposing a precise cause and effect arising from exposure to given stimuli over a significant period of time. But it does not explain why some people who have never been in contact with established criminals also commit crimes, nor why people do not learn from their reading or watching of relevant materials. If the operational cause is imitation or emulation, fictional role models may be as inspiring as real-life gang members.
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