Differential association theory is not directed at the issue of the origin of crime in society, but concentrates instead on the transmission of criminal attitudes and behavior. It is a behavioristic theory—“previous behavior causes subsequent behavior”—and contains elements of a “soft social determinism,” that is, exposure to groups does not cause but predisposes individuals to criminal activity or causes them to view it more favorably. Why, then, do not all with similar exposure become similarly criminal? Sutherland’s notion of variations in contacts provides for individual reaction to social groups and exposures. Contacts in Differential Association Contacts in differential association vary according to frequency, duration, priority, and intensity. Frequency deals with the number of contacts; duration with the length of time over which an individual is exposed to such contacts. The sheer length and volume of association with criminogenic influences affect different people in different ways. Humans are not robots responding in a predictable manner to a given number of influences. Priority refers to the preference individuals express toward the values and attitudes to which they are exposed, while intensity entails the degree of meaning the human actor attaches to such exposure. While Sutherland (1947) admits an inability to reach a quantitative or exact measurement of these modalities, a very general example should illustrate their operation: What explains the good child in the bad environment? Despite a great frequency and long duration of exposure to criminal attitudes, such individuals fail to prefer such values and attach greater meaning to noncriminal attitudes that, although less frequently available, may be found in “significant others,” perhaps role models such as teachers, coaches, peers, and the like. A Critique of Differential Association Because it is a general theory of criminality and is relatively compatible with many other crimi- nological explanations of crime, differential association theory enjoyed widespread acceptance in the field. It was not, however, without critics. Donald Cressey, Sutherland’s coauthor, explains that since Sutherland’s principal propositions are presented in only two pages in his textbook, the theory is often misinterpreted by some critics, most notably Vold (1958, p. 194). Among these claimed errors of interpretation, Cressey (Sutherland & Cressey, 1974, pp. 78–80) mentions the following: The theory is concerned only with contacts or associations with criminal or delinquent behavior • patterns. (It actually refers to both criminal and noncriminal behavior, as demonstrated by the use of terms such as “differential” and “excess” of contacts.) Handbook Article Link 6.4 Read an article on social learning theory.
INTRODUCTION TO CRIMINOLOGY 160 The theory says persons become criminals because of an excess of associations with criminals. • (It actually says that criminal attitudes can be learned from the unintentional transmission of such values by noncriminals.) Using the 1939 version of the theory, critics believe the theory refers to “systematic criminals.”
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