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Differential Association Theory

Sutherland’s (1939) differential association theory is an influential explanation of how individuals learn to become offenders. According to Sutherland, if individual experiences repeated attitudes that are positively associated with crime, rather than negatively (in terms of punishment), then they are more likely to engage in criminal behaviour. The way in which a person becomes an offender is through learned attitudes and imitation of criminal acts. The theory is described as ‘differential association’ as criminal behaviour can be learned from many different avenues of interactions and experiences, which might be family, peers or the media.

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