Differential association theory was Developed by Edwin Sutherland in the 1930s. This particular theory is a part of the social learning school in which youth learn criminal behavior through interacting with others. A youth’s behavior is based on what they see as right and wrong as determined by the actions of others. In his context the focus was delinquency but some of these ideas apply in the classroom as well.
Sutherland explains his theory through several principles. We will look at each of these core principles and connect them to the classroom when appropriate
Principles of Differential Association Theory
Behavior is Learned
Negative behavior such as behaviors associated with criminal activities are learned just as any other behavior is learned. What this implies is that nobody is naturally a criminal but instead is a victim primarily of what they learn. In terms of nature vs nurture, this principle falls squarely in the camp of nurture.
Sutherland’s principle is not without merit. In most classrooms, students are often imitating the behavior of each other and even the teacher. When this happens it can be beneficial when the example provided is positive but can be detrimental when the example is negative.
Learning Happens through Interaction
People learn through interacting with others. What this means is that behavior, such as delinquency, cannot be learned in isolation it takes the support of others. Of course, this denies a person the ability to learn on their own in a self-directed manner. As individuals are socialized they acquire the ability to obey or break rules and laws.
In the classroom, it is common for students to teach each other things that may not be positive in nature. Youths can acquire questionable abilities through poor peer interactions. Therefore, teachers have to remain aware of the students who provide a poor example to others.
Learning is Personal
The closer a youth is to an individual the stronger the influence that person has on a youth’s delinquent behavior. In other words, a corrupt best friend will have more of an influence on a youth’s behavior for worse than a stranger who is an upstanding citizen. The level of intimacy in a relationship is a predictor of delinquent behavior.
In the classroom, children learn from children but they learn best from friends. What this means for the teacher is that they want students to have strong relationships with kids who act appropriately rather than with kids who are having behavioral issues.
Criminal Techniques Require Development
Delinquents are often mentored by a more experienced offender. For example, a youth would need someone to show them how to steal a car or how to sell drugs profitably. In addition, youths need to be socialized into how to deal with the police when interactions occur.
Bad students must also develop skills through mentoring or acceptance. Mentoring can involve how to steal or bully other students without getting caught. Acceptance can involve performing various disruptive behaviors to solicit laughs from other students while in the classroom. For students who need feedback isolation can stifle this process.
Rule Perception and a Child’s Perception
Rule perception is how others view rules. Some people are conscious of rules while others have no respect for rules and have an open disdain for them. For youth, seeing contrasting views on rules can be confusing and lead to internal conflict. The reason for this conflict is that young people haven’t formed their own posirion on following rules and are trying to decide whether or not to follow and take rules seriously.
Children in the classroom face a similar dilemma. They see the teacher stressing obedience, that some of the good kids obey, but that the other kids do not. The final decision a child makes during this conflict can be based on family values and or which peer group the child values more than the other.
Differential Association Varies
Submitting to authority can also depend on the dosage of the relationships a youth has. The dosage of a relationship can be measured in terms of duration, frequency, and intensity. Duration is the length of a relationship. In other words, a long-term friend has more influence on youth than a new friend. Frequency is a measure of how often the youths interact. Someone who sees the youth every day has more influence than someone who sees the youth once a year. Intensity is a measure of the amount of respect the youth has toward the influence. An example would be that a parent has more influence than a friend in most situations.
The same concept mentioned in the previous paragraph applies in the classroom. Long-term friends, who see each other frequently, and with the most respect will shape the behavior of a student the most. Relationships are critical to the formation of positive or negative behaviors.
Lastly, Sutherland claims that good and poor behavior does not have the same source. The only reason for delinquent behavior is what the youth has learned. Being rich or poor doesn’t matter. What really matters is what the youth has learned over time.
Sutherland’s work is highly influential in explaining delinquent behavior. His work provides one viewpoint on the way youth’s go down the wrong path. For teachers, watching the relationships students develop may be key to addressing challenges in the classroom.