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Differential Association Theory Case Study

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Psychology
Wordcount: 1511 words Published: 18th May 2020

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From the time we are first born out of the womb, until the time we lay down to rest, we continuously learn. Whether it be “good, bad or indifferent behaviour, all behaviour is learned”  (Lyon & Welsh, 2017, p.165), and can be acquired through observation. Throughout consistent times in our life, we are expected to meet the age-appropriate norms for how we are supposed to behave which is derived from what we learn. Unfortunately, it is quite rare to hear of a child being born out of the womb with the expectation and knowledge that he or she will grow up to be an offender, or commit a crime. If that were the case, much crime present today would be heavily prevented and possibly non-existent. With this being said, criminal behaviour can assumed to be learned like anything else we learn in life (Lyon & Welsh, 2017, p.165). The ideology of criminally learned behaviour can be applied to a man named John by using the Differential Association Theory created by Edwin Sutherland (Akers, 2009, as cited in Lyon & Welsh, 2017, p.165), who argued that, “Criminal behaviour is the result of learning, and set out nine principles that he thought governed this process” (Lyon & Welsh, 2017, p.165).   

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 As a child John experienced a dysfunctional upbringing, his behaviour can first be explained by principle number two which entails that criminal behaviour is “learned in interaction with other people as a process of communications” (Lyon & Welsh, 2017, p.165). To add onto this, an individual has the ability of becoming a criminal (Lyon & Welsh, 2017, p.165). However, it depends on the “people in their lives” (Lyon & Welsh, 2017, p.165), and that human behaviour does vary as a result of differences amongst our social interactions or differential association  (Lyon & Welsh, 2017, p.165). This would best explain how John acquired similar learned traits of social interactions with people closest to him, his father, and his peers. Intensity can be referred to as “a modality of association that reflects how personally meaningful and respected an individual is to a specific person” (Lyon & Welsh, 2017, p.165). John’s peers were of certain “intensity” (Lyon & Welsh, 2017, p.165) to him. It’s important to keep in mind that John’s peer group would additionally be considered the outgroup of the school, as it was relatively small therefore demonstrating as an “intimate group” (Lyon & Welsh, 2017, p.165). Although John had to repeat the fourth grade and had dropped out of school at 16, John’s academic difficulties had excluded him from hanging out with academically inclined students, and included him to hang out with academically declined students such as those who used drugs, skipped school, and thought school was irrelevant towards their lives, and futures. Moreover, John too ended up abusing alcohol and drugs, with a preference for cocaine. Along with this, and John’s addiction to cocaine, many of his male friends within his peer group would attend parties while sexually taking advantage of young women. Moreover, while John was attending a party high one night, he followed in his friend’s footsteps and took advantage of a young woman by putting GHB in her drink and sexually abusing her. To continue, as the young woman was fearful, and distressed she was too fearful of John to ever bring the situation to the authorities attention, allowing John to get away without anyone obtaining the knowledge that he did so. As an unfortunate lack of the young woman’s actions, John failed to obtain a juvenile record. Nonetheless, principle number three of the differential association theory implies that, “The principal part of learning criminal behaviour occurs within intimate personal groups” (Lyon & Welsh, 2017, p.165). Additionally, while John’s peers had a certain “intensity” (Lyon & Welsh, 2017, p.165)over John, so did Johns father.

 John’s father was also of certain “intensity” (Lyon & Welsh, 2017, p.165) to him as John’s father had raised John for most of his life as a single parent who suffered alcoholism and had a history of physically and verbally abusing John. On top of John’s father’s alcoholism, his father leads a very rich and extravagant lifestyle, filled with people at their home constantly. The further John aged, John became curious as to how his father obtained such wealth, and continuous people at their home, however, he was never sober. Having that said, John became more and more familiar with the operations his father was utilizing.

 Eventually, John’s curious learning observations concluded with a result in which John’s father was convicted and charged for running a massive drug corporation and procuring many prostitutes. John’s observation’s of his father’s criminal activity, and actions of taking over his fathers drug and prostitute corporation exhibited principle number four of the differential association model that implies that when criminal behaviour is learned, the learning includes learning techniques of acting on a crime, learning motives, and learning attitudes about the crime (Lyon & Welsh, 2017, p.165). Even though John knew this caused unfavourable and unacceptable legal codes amongst society (Lyon & Welsh, 2017, p.165) within the law, he decided to take over his father’s business while his father was serving his sentence. Moreover, principle number six of the differential association theory implies that, an individual may break the law because of an excess of approved contraventions of law over definitions unapproved to the contravention of law (Lyon & Welsh, 2017, p.165), or in other words, John associated himself with people who acted in criminal behaviour and deemed it as acceptable (Lyon & Welsh, 2017, p.165). It was additionally quite clear that with John’s father’s arrest, John was fully aware of the acceptable or non-acceptable legal codes (Lyon & Welsh, 2017, p.165) within social norms, but still chose to be motivated by his father’s unacceptable operations which explain principle number five of the differential association theory  (Lyon & Welsh, 2017, p.165). In view of this, as our “intensity” (Lyon & Welsh, 2017, p.165), and preference of certain people may or may not shift over the course of our lives (Lyon & Welsh, 2017, p.165), it is important to keep in mind that John’s “differential associations may vary in frequency, duration, priority, and intensity” (Lyon & Welsh, 2017, p.165) resulting in principle number seven of the differential association theory. In other words, principle number seven can be summarized as our preference to who influences us the most, for how long or who is more important to us can vary throughout our lifetimes (Lyon & Welsh, 2017, p.165). In this regard, as we progress into the criminal behaviour of John, a call to mind will be reimposed in which John had never had a history of juvenile arrests or convictions. However, John was later arrested for the possession of cocaine, driving under the influence and assault. As of current, John’s charges include forcible confinement and sexual assault upon his ex-wife, and girlfriend.

 Nonetheless, John also meets the Modalities of Association within the originating place of “relative influence of our social interactions” (Akers, 2009, as cited in Lyon & Welsh, 2017, p.165), as John was heavily influenced by his father, and peers. John also had the ability to know what was societally acceptable, and what was societally wrong, but still chose to act on his learned criminal behaviour (Lyon & Welsh, 2017, p.165). While this is true, John still had a shot at learning anti-criminal behaviour (Lyon & Welsh, 2017, p.165) as principle number eight implicitly informs us that criminal and anti-criminal behaviour patterns follow the same apparatus that can be engaged in all other learning behaviours (Lyon & Welsh, 2017, p.165). Unfortunately, as John did obtain learned knowledge of criminal behaviour, principle number nine implies that while John’s needs and values of what can be assumed as fitting in were criminally conducted, it does not explain his criminal behaviour as anti-criminal behaviour would have the same values, and needs without reaching their needs and values throughout the act of committing a crime.  (Lyon & Welsh, 2017, p.165). As John was charged with forcible confinement and sexual assault upon his ex-wife, and girlfriend, John was arrested after a search warrant was issued for his arrest. At the moment, John awaits his trial date with a lack of interest that he will most likely spend a substantial amount of time in jail.

(Word Count: 1367)


  • Lyon, D.R., & Welsh, A. (2017) The psychology of criminal and violent behaviour. Don Mills, Ontario: Oxford University Press


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