Friday, June 21, 2013

Sutherland`s differential theory

Sutherland`s differential association theory and Agnew`s strain theory

The study of criminology constantly changes according to the economic, spiritual and political concerns within the society. The theories keep on changing as the society evolves. Several theories have been developed to explain various aspects of criminology. Delinquency is one of the major issues in criminology. Both Sutherland’s differential association theory and Agnew’s strain theory focus on factors that may lead to delinquency. This paper gives a detailed explanation of both theories and a discussion on how these theories differ.
Sutherland`s differential association theory
The differential association theory was introduced by Edwin Sutherland who proposed that individuals learn the attitudes, techniques, motives and values for criminal behavior through interaction with others (Burgess & Akers, 363-383). This theory mainly focuses on how human beings learn criminal behavior but it is not concerned with why they become criminals. It is normally considered to be a positivistic approach since it focuses on the specific acts as opposed to a more subjective position of one`s identity. The differential theory holds that individuals learn the criminal acts, the motives, rationalizations, attitudes and drives. This makes it socially easier for them to commit a crime. Their inspiration for engaging in crime is process of cultural construction and transmission. The Sutherland`s theory deviates from the biological and pathological perspectives by attaching the cause of crime to individuals` social context.
Sutherland rejected the extreme individualism and the biological determinism of psychiatry, as well as the economic explanations about crime. The Sutherland`s differential theory is based on the principle that an individual becomes delinquent as a result of excess definitions in favor of violation of the law as compared to definitions that are unfavorable to the violation of the law (Charles et al, 76-115). According to this theory, criminal behavior arises when an individual is exposed to more social messages in favor of the conduct as compared to pro-social messages.

The Sutherland`s differential theory is based on nine principles. The first principle states that criminal behavior is normally learned. It therefore means that the criminal behavior is not inherited from one generation to the other hence a person that is not trained in crime cannot invent a criminal behavior (Charles et al, 76-115). The second principle states that the learning of criminal behavior occurs through interaction with others in a communication process. Communication plays a very important role in the learning process. Although communication is usually verbal in most cases, it also involves gestures. The third principle holds that the main part of learning criminal behavior takes place within the intimate personal groups. This means that impersonal communications like newspapers and movies do not play a significant role in development of criminal behavior. The fourth principle of Sutherland`s theory is that learning of criminal behavior includes the techniques of committing a crime as well as the direction of drives, attitudes, motives and rationalizations.

The fifth principle clarifies that the direction of drives and motives is learned through definitions of legal codes as either unfavorable or favorable. This is evident in the United States where there is a conflict in relation to the legal code. The sixth principle of Sutherland`s theory states that a person becomes delinquent when there is an excess of definitions in favor of violation of the law as compared to those that are unfavorable to the violation of the law (Burgess & Akers, 363-383). People become criminals not only as a result of interacting with criminal patterns but also as a result of isolation from the anti-criminal patterns. It therefore means that neutral associations have little or no effect at all on the criminal behavior. According to the seventh principle, differential association can vary in duration, intensity, priority and frequency. The eighth principle states that the entire process of learning criminal behavior through association with anti-criminal and criminal patterns involves all mechanisms in any other learning process (Charles et al, 76-115).

This means criminal behavior learning is not only restricted to imitation. For instance, a person who has been seduced learns the criminal behavior through association. This is not the same as imitation. The final principle of Sutherland`s theory is that although criminal behavior expresses the general values and needs, those values and needs cannot explain it since the non-criminal behavior also expresses the same values and needs. For instance, thieves go to steal so that they can secure money. Similarly, genuine laborers also go to work so that they can secure money. Criminal behavior, therefore, cannot be explained by the general values and drives since they do not differentiate between criminal and noncriminal behavior.

Agnew`s strain theory

The general strain theory of criminology was introduced by Robert Agnew (Agnew, 47-87). This theory is normally considered as a solid theory which has accumulated a lot of empirical evidence. Agnew noticed that the original strain theory that had been introduced by Robert King Merton did not fully conceptualize a wide range of potential sources of strain within the society, particularly among the youth. The Merton`s theory occurs when the society emphasizes on the socially approved and desired goals but it does not provide adequate opportunity for achieving these goals through legitimate means (Burton et al, 213-238). As a result, members of the society are held up in financial strain and they wish to achieve material success hence they resort to crime as a way of achieving their socially desired goals. Although Agnew supports this assumption, he also believes that when dealing with the youth, there are several other factors which incite criminal behavior. He therefore suggests that the negative experiences may lead to stress that is not only financially induced.

In the year 1992, Robert Agnew stated that although the strain theory was important in explaining the deviance and crime, in needed some revision so that it is not just tied to the cultural variable or social class but focused on norms (Burton et al, 213-238). He therefore introduced the general strain theory which is neither interpersonal nor structural but it is emotional and individual. Agnew revised the original strain theory to include more variables which sought to address criticisms of the original strain theory. He explored the strain theory from a new perspective which accounted for other goals apart from money. The Agnew`s strain theory also considered the position of an individual within a social class, association with other criminals and future expectations. This theory is based on the idea that if individuals are treated in a bad way, they can be upset and engage in crime. According to this theory, there are three types of strain. They include failure to achieve positive goals, loss of positive stimuli and presentation of the negative stimuli.

The Agnew`s strain theory pays special attention to immediate social environment of an individual. According to Agnew, the actual or anticipated failure of an individual to achieve positive goals, anticipated or actual removal of the positive stimuli and the anticipated or actual presentation of negative stimuli lead strain (Agnew, 47-87). The negative relationships are confirmed by frustration and anger. The behavior patterns are normally characterized by more than the share of independent actions since an individual has the natural desire of avoiding unpleasant rejections. The Independent actions further contribute to a person being alienated from the society.

The rejections from the society can be translated into feelings that the environment is not supportive leading to negative emotions that motivate individuals to engage in crime. This is more evident among young people. When young people are isolated or treated badly by the society, they become frustrated and engage in crime.


Although they both focus on factors that lead to delinquency, the Sutherland`s differential theory is different from the Agnew`s strain theory in various factors. First of all, the Sutherland`s theory holds that individuals learn criminal activities through interaction with others while the Agnew`s strain theory holds that the criminal behavior comes as a result of an individual being treated badly by the society. According to Sutherland, individuals learn the attitudes, techniques, motives and values for criminal behavior through interaction with others.
This makes it socially easier for them to commit a crime. Engaging in crime is therefore considered a cultural transmission and construction. The Agnew`s strain theory, on the other hand, holds that the failure of an individual to achieve positive goals, removal of the positive stimuli and the presentation of negative stimuli lead strain. According to this theory, when an individual is isolated from the society or treated badly, he or she becomes frustrated and engages in crime. The Sutherland differential theory also believes that a person who is not trained in crime cannot invent a criminal act but the Agnew`s theory holds that frustration can force an individual to commit a crime.

Work cited

Agnew, Robert. Foundation for a general strain theory of crime and delinquency. Criminology. 30(1), (1992) 47-87.
Burgess, obert & Akers, Ronald L. “A Differential Association-Reinforcement Theory of Criminal Behavior.” Social Problems, 14: (1966), 363-383.
Burton, Velmer, Francis Cullen, T. David Evans, and R. Gregory Dunaway. Reconsidering strain theory: operationalization, rival theories, and adult criminality. Journal of quantitative criminology. 10(3), (1994), 213-238.
Charles R. Tittle, Mary Jean Burke, Blton F. Jackson. Modeling Sutherland’s theory of differential association: Toward an empirical clarification. Social Forces. (1986), 76-115