Differential Association, Strain and Control Theories


Social Learning Theory: people learn the techniques and attitudes of crime from close and intimate relationships with criminal peers. Crime is a learned behavior. People are born good and learn to be bad.

Social learning can involve the actual techniques of crime as well as the psychological aspects of crime.


Differential Association Theory (Sutherland, 1939)

Differential association theory was Sutherlandís major sociological contribution to criminology; similar in importance to strain theory and social control theory. These theories all explain deviance in terms of the individualís social relationships.

Sutherland asserts that the excess of definitions favorable to deviance over definitions unfavorable to violation of law makes a person become a deviant while associating with other persons.


Criminal behavior is learnable and learned in interaction with other deviant persons. Through this association, they learn not only techniques of certain crimes, but also specific rationale, motives and so on. These associations vary in frequency, duration, etc. Differential association theory explains why any individual forwards toward deviant behavior. His assertion is most useful when explaining peer influences among deviant youths or special mechanism of becoming certain criminal.


The major tenet of differential association asserts that a person becomes delinquent because of an excess of definitions favorable to violation of law over definitions unfavorable to violation of law. In other words, criminal behavior emerges when one is exposed to more social messages favoring criminal conduct than pro-social messages.

9 Basic Principles:

1. Criminal behavior is learned.

This means that criminal behavior is not inherited, as such; also the person who is not already trained in crime does not invent criminal behavior.

2. Criminal behavior is learned in interaction with other persons in a process of communication.

3. The principal part of the learning of criminal behavior occurs within intimate personal groups. Negatively, this means that impersonal communication, such as movies or newspapers, plays a relatively unimportant part in committing criminal behavior.

4. When criminal behavior is learned, the learning includes (a) techniques of committing the crime, which are sometimes very simple; (b) the specific direction of motives, drives, rationalizations, and attitudes.

5. The specific direction of the motives and drives is learned from definitions of the legal codes as favorable or unfavorable.

6. A person becomes delinquent because of an excess of definitions favorable to violation of law over definitions unfavorable to violation of law.

This is the principle of differential association. When people become criminal, they do so not only because of contacts with criminal patterns but also because of isolation from anti-criminal patterns. Negatively, this means that association which is neutral so far as crime is concerned has little or no effect on the genesis of criminal behavior.

7. Differential association may vary in frequency, duration, priority, and intensity.

Priority seems to be important principally through its selective influence and intensity has to do with such things as the prestige of the source of a criminal or anti-criminal pattern and with emotional reactions related to the association.

8. The process of learning criminal behavior by association with criminal and anti-criminal patterns involves all of the mechanisms that are involved in any other learning. Negatively, this means that the learning of criminal behavior is not restricted to the process of imitation. A person who is seduced, for instance, learns criminal behavior by association, but this would not be ordinarily described as imitation.

9. While criminal behavior is an expression of general needs and values, it is not explained by those general needs and values since non-criminal behavior is an expression of the same needs and values. Thieves generally steal in order to secure money, but likewise honest laborers work in order to make money.


Control Theory (Hirschi, 1969)


Everyone has the potential to become a criminal but most people are controlled by their bond to society. Crime occurs when the forces that bind people to society are weakened or broken.


             People are born bad and must be controlled in order to be good.

             People obey the law because behavior and passions are being controlled by external forces. Without controls one is free to commit criminal acts.

             A personís behavior is controlled by his or her attachment and commitment to conventional institutions, individuals and processes. If that commitment is absent, people are free to violate the law and engage in deviant behavior; the uncommitted are not deterred by the threat of legal punishments.

             Hirschi linked the onset of criminality to the weakening of the ties that bind people to society. All individuals are potential law violators but are kept under control because they fear that illegal behavior will damage their relationships with friends, parents, neighbors, teachers and employers. Without these social bonds, a person is free to commit criminal acts.

             Elements of the social bond: (i) attachment, (ii) commitment, (iii) involvement, and (iv) belief.

             Attachment is a moral link to other people, and encompasses such concepts as conscience, superego and internalization of norms. It reflects oneís interest in others. Oneís acceptance of social norms and the development of social conscious depend on attachment for other human beings. Hirschi views parents, schools, and peers as important social institutions for a person. Attachment takes three forms: attachment to parents, to school, and to peers. While examining attachment to parents, Hirschi found that juveniles refrain from delinquency due to the consequences that the act would most likely produce, therefore putting such a relationship between parent and child in jeopardy. In some respect, this acts as a primary deterrent to engaging in delinquency. Strength, however, in such a deterrent would largely depend on the depth and quality of the parent-child interaction. The amount of time child and parent spend together are equally important, including intimacy in conversation and identification that may exist between parent and child. While examining the bond with school, Hirschi found that an inability to do well in school is linked with delinquency, through a series of chain events. He argued that academic incompetence leads to poor school performance, which leads to a dislike of school, which leads to rejection of teachers and authority, which results in acts of delinquency. He argued that oneís attachment to school depends on how one appreciates the institution and how he/she is received by fellow peers and teachers. Hirschi also noted that he found that oneís attachment to parents and school overshadows the bond formed with oneís peers.

             Commitment refers to an individualís investment in conventional lines of action, i.e., support of and participation in social activities that tie the individual to societyís moral or ethical code. Hirschiís control theory holds that people who build an investment in life, property, and reputation are less likely to engage in criminal acts which will jeopardize their social position. A lack of commitment to such conventional values will cause an individual to partake in delinquent or criminal acts.

             Involvement addresses a preoccupation in activities which stress the conventional interests of society. Hirschi argues that an individualís heavy involvement in conventional activities doesnít leave time to engage in delinquent or criminal acts. He believes that involvement in school, family, recreation, etc., insulates a juvenile from potential delinquent behavior that may be a result of idleness. These would include, for example, homework as opposed to smoking and drinking.

             Belief deals with assents to societyís value system Ėwhich entails respect for laws, and the people and institutions which enforce such laws. Hirschi argued that people who live in common social settings share similar human values. If such beliefs are weakened, or absent, one is more likely to engage in antisocial acts. Also, if people believe that laws are unfair, this bond to society weakens and the likelihood of committing delinquent acts rises.


Strain theory: Merton


Crime is a function of the conflict between the goals people have and the means they can use to legally obtain them. While goals are the same for all the ability to obtain these goals is class dependant. Consequently, lower classes feel anger, frustration and resentment which is referred to as strain. These people can either accept their condition and live out their days as socially responsible but un-rewarded citizens, or they can choose an alternative means of achieving success, such as theft, violence or drug trafficking.


Inhabitants of a disorganized inner city area feel isolated, frustrated, left out of the economic mainstream, hopeless and eventually angry and enraged, i.e., strain.


Strain is limited in affluent classes because educational and vocational opportunities are available. In social disorganized areas, strain occurs because legitimate avenues for success are closed. To relieve strain, poor people may be forced to either use deviant methods to achieve their goals, such as theft or drug trafficking, or reject socially accepted goals and adopt deviant goals, such as being tough and aggressive.


Mertonís strain theory begins with the observation that while wealth is a widespread American goal, society does not provide everyone sufficient opportunity to achieve that goal.While success, ideally, is gained through education and hard work, success gained through illegitimate means would violate the social norms.


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I.Conformity††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† +†††††††††††††† +

II.Innovation††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† +†††††††††††††† -

III. Ritualism††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† -††††††††††††††† +

IV. Retreatism†††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† -††††††††††††††† -

V. Rebellion††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† +/-†††††††††† +/-


††††††††††††††††† Merton discusses that conformity is the most widely diffused and most common adaptation, this is obvious since the society is stable.When individuals are socialized to the goals of society, and play by the rules it results in conformity to the societal goals and means.The conformist is the one whose experience in society leads to the acceptance of culturally prescribed goals and socially legitimate means for reaching those goals.

††††††††††††††††† The least common adaptation to society is retreatism, in which an individual rejects both the goals and means of society.Merton places in this category, psychoneurotic, psychotics, chronic autists, pariahs, outcast, vagrants, vagabonds, tramps, chronic drunkards, and drug addicts.The deviance of retreatists is their unconventional way of life, and their assumed lack of desire.

††††††††††††††††† Adaptation II of Mertonís theory, innovation, involves the attempt to achieve culturally approved goals, however, using unconventional means.Corporate crimes, falsifying IRS forms, or drug dealers would be examples of innovators.This category of individuals accepts the cultural goals of their society, and yet reject the cultural means of achieving those goals.Such innovation results from the strain experienced when the significance placed on success exceeds the means to achieve success.Deviance then occurs when innovators choose illegitimate means to achieve the culturally approved goals.

††††††††††††††††† Adaptation III, ritualism, involves people resolving the strain they experience by abandoning cultural goals, while conforming to cultural norms and means.Merton suggests ritualism is common among people of modest social standing, who have little opportunity to gain socially constructed goals, yet fear risking what they have through innovation.These people are considered deviant in giving up their goal of success, yet still being viewed as good citizens because of their adherence to rules.

††††††††††††††††† Adaptation V, rebellion, like retreatism, rejects both the cultural goals and cultural means.Rebels, however, advocate radical alternatives to the existing social order, proposing new, disapproved values, and norms.Some seek to do this through political revolution, or promoting unconventional religious groups.This approach is seen as deviant because of its favor of counterculture and withdrawal from the established society.


Durkheimís influence: Anomie theory

The roots of strain theory can be traced to Durkheimís notion of anomie Ėwithout norms-. An anomie society is one whose rules of behavior, called norms, have broken down or become inoperative during periods of rapid social change. A shift in traditions and values creates social turmoil. Established norms begin to erode and lose meaning. If a division occurs between what the population expects and what the economic and productive forces of society can realistically deliver, a crisis situation develops that can manifest itself in normlessness.

Anomie undermines and weakens societyís social control function. If a society becomes anomic, it can no longer establish and maintain control over its populationís wants and desires. Two elements of culture interact to produce potentially anomic conditions: (i) culturally defined goals and (ii) socially defined means for obtaining them. Social adaptation: (i) conformity, (ii) innovation, (iii) ritualism, (iv) retreatism, and (v) rebellion.

Social inequality leads to perceptions of anomie. To resolve the goals-means conflict and relieve their sense of strain, some people innovate by stealing or extorting money, others retreat into drugs and alcohol, others rebel by joining revolutionary groups, while still others get involved in ritualistic behavior by joining a religious cult.

By suggesting that social conditions, not individual personalities, produce crime, Merton greatly influenced the directions take to reduce crime.

In the 1990ís there has been a resurgence of interest in strain and anomie.