Differential Association Theory and Differential Reinforcement Theory
How do people learn deviant behavior through their interactions with others? According to the sociologist Edwin Sutherland (1939). people learn the necessary techniques and the motives. drives, rationalizations, and attitudes of deviant behavior from people with whom they associate. Differelltial association theory states that people have a greater tendency to deviate from societal norms when they frequently associate with individuals who are more favorable toward deviance than confonnity. From this approach, criminal behavior is learned within intimate personal groups such as one's family and peer groups. Learning criminal behavior also includes learning the techniques of
committing crimes, as former gang member Nathan McCall explains:
Sometimes I picked up hustling ideas at the 7- Eleven, which was like a criminal union hall: Crapshooters, shoplifters, stickup men, burglars, everybody stopped off at the store from time to time. While hanging up there one day, I ran into Holt. He had a pocketful of cash, even though he had quit school and was unemployed. I asked him, "Yo,man, what you been into?" A Mead my partner kick in cribs and make a Yououghta come go with us sometimes:' ... I hooked school one day,went with them, and pulled 'my first B&E [breaking and entering]. Before we went to the house, [Holt) ... explained his system: "Look, man, we gonna split up and go to each house on the street. Knock on the door. If somebody answers, make up a name and act like you at the wrong crib. If nobody answers, we mark it for a hit."after I learned the ropes, Shell Shock [another gang member] and I branched out, doing B&Eson our own. Welearned to get in and out of houses in
no time tlat. (McCall, 1994: 93-94) As McCall's orientation to breaking and entering shows, learning deviance may involve the acquisition of certain attitudes and the mastery of specialized techniques.
Differential association theory contributes to our knowledge of how deviant behavior reflects the individual's learned techniques, values, attitudes, motives, and rationalizations. It calls attention to the fact that criminal activity is more likely to occur when a person has frequent, intense, and long-lasting interactions with others who violate the law. However, it does not explain why many individuals who have been heavily exposed to people who violate the law still engage in conventional behavior most of the time.Criminologist Ronald Akers (1998) has combined differential association theory with elements of psychological learning theory to create differential reinforcement theory. which suggests that both deviant behavior and conventional behavior are learned through the same social processes. Akers starts with the fact that people learn to evaluate their own behav ior through interactions with Significant others. If the persons and groups that a particular individual considers most Significant in his or her life define deviant behavior as being "right," that individual is more likely to engage in deviant behavior; likewise, if the person's most significant friends and groups define deviant behavior s "wrong," the person is less likely to engage in that behavior. This approach helps explain not only juvenile gang behavior but also how peer cliques on high school campuses have such a powerful influence on people's behavior. Returning to our example of how clique members at Glenbrook High School turfed out territory at the school, notice how one student responded to powerful pressures to conform: As an experiment ... Lauren Barry, a pink-haired trophy-case kid at Glenbrook, switched identities with a well-dressed girl from "the wall" Barry walked around all day in the girl's expensive jeans and Doc Martens, carrying a shopping bag from Abercrombie & Fitch. "People kept saying, 'Oh, you look so pretty:" she recalls. AIfelt really uncomfortable." It was interesting. but the next day, and ever since, she's been back in her regular clothes. (qtd. in Adler, 1999: 58)
Another approach to studying deviance is rational choice theory, which suggests that people weigh the rewards and risks involved in certain types of behavior and then decide which course of action to follow.