How Differential Association Theory Explains Juvenile Delinquency

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Differential Association Theory asserts that criminal behavior is not biological but learned primarily within interpersonal groups and that youths will become more delinquent if definitions they have learned are favorable to violate the law exceed the definitions favorable to violating the law within that group. The theory was developed by Edwin Sutherland, in first 1939, in his text Principles of Criminology, then the final version appeared in 1947. His work was continued on through his long time associate Donald Cressy. Another way to think about this theory is, according to, just as societal norms are learned through social interaction and observance, so too are social deviations.

One of the major strengths of differential association theory is that at the time it was developed to today, it has changed people's view on how we look at juvenile delinquency and crime in general. I firmly believe that most criminals learn the things they do. The primary distinction of differential association theory from the earlier positivistic theories is that instead of biological or psychological traits being emphasized as primary factors in causing criminality, it is social interaction and learning. Criminology studies has shown us that these delinquent traits aren't just with the child at birth, they learn them from outside sources. There are 2 main sources to which children will look up to for advice. According to, primary associations include those with immediate family and friends. Like for example if there is a parent that is a criminal, the chances of that juvenile becoming deviant is increased. Secondary sources of social learning include a much wider range of people and would include, for example, teachers, neighbours, and church groups. The primary source is where most children develop their delinquent ways, from close friends and family. While the secondary sources are mostly attributed to help groups like teachers, church groups, and other help groups. Also if you think about it, it can be easily seen that most children learn their criminal ways from people close to them. In addition to early antisocial behavior, family characteristics are important potential predictors of early onset offending. The number of family risk factors to which a child is exposed to delinquency and the child's length of exposure to these stressors also are important. The general trend is that the more a child is exposed to a certain peer group, delinquent activities and other criminal actions, the more likely they will turn into criminals. According to our text book one set of research studies have found that the influence that parents have on their kids is unmistakable; they found that kids whose parents were devients and/or criminals saw that those kids would be more likely to become criminals themselves. According to some family characteristics that may contribute to early-onset child delinquency include the following:

  1. Substance-abusing parents
  2. Poor parenting practices, such as lack of monitoring and/or a lack of positive reinforcement.
  3. The prevalence of physical abuse.
  4. A history of family violence.

Many of the family risk factors interact with other social systems, such as the peers of the child and the community environment that the child is in every day, if there is rampant crime, then the potential for exposure is increased. Also according to, as children get older, attend school, and become integrated into their community, the array of risk factors for child delinquency expands. Many studies show a relation between deviant peer associations and juvenile offending. Most studies have shown that a delinquent youth can lead some other youth, who have no past delinquent behavior, to initiate in delinquent acts and also, may influence already delinquent youth to increase their delinquency. In addition to this, studies have shown that if a youth has a delinquent sibling, that sibling can influence the youth to become delinquent, especially when the siblings are close in age and have a close relationship. All of these different topics show how differential association can and does explain it pretty well, but these are only just some of the many topics that can help explain the bigger picture, juvenile delinquency.

A major weakness of differential association is that it is difficult to test. According to , Sutherland was unable to provide a scientific and mathematical framework to predict future offending and it is hard to see how pro-criminal attitudes a person has could be measured and compared to pro-social attitudes to see where the tipping point would be. It is also not very clear that the ratio to tell whether someone will become favorable or unfavorable to be a criminal. Another way to say this is that there is no definite way in telling who will 100% become a criminal, it is only at best, a probable guess. Also according to the same article, The theory is unable to provide a satisfactory solution to these issues which undermines its scientific credibility and validity as a psychological explanation for offending. Like for example it only tells us that youth in dysfunctional families have a higher chance in becoming criminals, but it doesn't specifically give us any solutions. We have to look else where to find the answers. Critics maintain that the theory also does not explain both the development of the first criminal and why some people with excessive exposure to criminal behavioral patterns do not commit criminal acts. Other than these issues, I think overall that differential association theory, still best explains juvenile delinquency.

This theory can explain a lot more things that juveniles do, like for example, social media can serve as the place juveniles learn to do these deviant things. One of which is a socially deviant act called the tide pod challenge. It hurts just saying this actually happened. According to the Seattle Times, over a one year period, nearly 220 teens were reportedly exposed, and about 25 percent of those cases were intentional, according to data from the American Association of Poison Control Centers. Also according to the Daily mail, they interviewed Chief Inspector of Probation Dame Glenys Stacey, who stated, In one in four cases, young people's use of social media sites, such as YouTube, Twitter and Facebook, was directly related to the crime they had committed. He has also been credited with saying the following, 'Social media is a large part of young people's lives, and we found it featured often enough in the build up to a serious offence. 'Many of these young people shun Facebook and other common applications, in favour of lesser known and, therefore, more private media. 'We found offence scenarios inconceivable just a few years ago, with social media used to both incite and plan crime.'

Although all the information is good, it is not as good as solutions. Like for example, it has been shown that is there is a dysfunctional family, if there is still role models for that child to look up to then that child might turn up alright. Also that child is involved with church groups, sports teams, and even just getting a job, can help prevent a child from becoming deviant. Also According to, there are government programs that can help prevent delinquency like, the HYTA Law, which At age 17, a person is considered to be an adult for purpose of being charged with a crime, not a juvenile. MCLA 762.11, also known as the HYTA statute, is applicable for youthful offenders, age 17 but before age 24, to have designated misdemeanors or felonies dismissed after a period of probation with complete compliance.

Overall my research has concluded saying that the differential association theory has many strong points, but has some weak points. I can confidently say though, that the theory has enough strong points to outweigh the weak points. Also one of the weak points that say that Sutherland didn't have a scientific or mathematical formula to predict delinquency, well to that I say that is impossible, to reach 100% reliability in the prediction of criminality is not likely. Like that in today's social media climate, juveniles have many outlets to be influenced on, I mean heck, look at youtube, you can just look up how to _____ and there will be hundreds of videos out there. Also you most certainly can't ignore the family and peer issues that I explained above. Over all this theory best explains juvenile delinquency.


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Siegel, L. J., & Welsh, B. (2018). Juvenile delinquency: Theory, practice, and law. Boston, MA:

Cengage Learning.

(2017, January 31). Differential Association Theory - Forensic Psychology - Paper 3. Retrieved from

US Legal, Inc. (n.d.). Differential Association Law and Legal Definition. Retrieved from

Bever, L. (2018, January 13). What is the Tide pod challenge and how did it start? Retrieved from

Ian Drury Home Affairs Editor For The Daily Mail. (2017, October 25). Social media 'fuels crimes by children'. Retrieved from

First Time Offenders, Dismissals and Avoidance of Convictions. (n.d.). Retrieved from

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How Differential Association Theory Explains Juvenile Delinquency. (2020, Mar 18). Retrieved May 24, 2024 , from

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