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We combed through a lot of theories in criminology class, two of them being Differential Association theory by Edwin Sutherland and Social Control theory by Travis Hirschi. The first one talks about how criminal behavior is learned and the second one attempts answering the question, “Why are some people law-abiding, and why do others break the law?” It focuses solely on young people and talks about causes for delinquency based on self-reported data.

Edwin_Sutherland Let’s begin with Sutherland’s theory on Differential Association.*

* Criminal behavior is learned: Negatively, 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, just as a person does not make mechanical inventions unless he has had training in mechanics.

* Criminal behavior is learned in interaction with other people in a process of communication: This communication is verbal in many respects but included also the “communication of gestures.” In a nutshell, this means that someone shows a young person how to commit a certain act, for example, how to break into a car or snatch a woman’s purse.

* The principal part of the learning of criminal behavior occurs within intimate personal groups. A small (the primary group) consists of family, close friends, guardians, relatives and so forth. Sociologists have labeled some of these primary groups as “nuclear family,” gangs, peers, roommates and colleagues. This means that the impersonal agencies of communication, such as movies and newspapers play a relatively unimportant part in the genesis of criminal behavior.

* When criminal behavior is learned, the learning includes (a) techniques of committing the crime, which are sometimes very complicated, sometimes very simple; and (b) the specific direction of motives, drives, rationalizations and attitudes: Our professor said nearly everyone has a conscience so when a person does something they know is forbidden or frowned upon, they have to justify it somehow. The sociologist Gresham Sykes coined the term techniques of neutralizations, which is when a criminal creates justifications and rationalizations for his or her actions, and/or make up excuses to lessen the severity of their actions. The more someone justifies criminal behavior, the more it becomes a habit and the easier it gets to feel less or no remorse from it.

* The specific direction of motives and drives is learned from definitions of the legal codes as favorable and unfavorable: In some societies, an individual is surrounded by persons who invariably define the legal codes as rules to be observed, while in others he is surrounded by those whose definitions are favorable to the violation of the legal codes. In our American society, these definitions are almost always mixed, with the consequence that we have culture conflict in relations to the legal codes.

"Daredevil" (1.11) - 'The Path of the Rightous.'

“Daredevil” (1.11) – ‘The Path of the Rightous.’

* 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 a persons become criminal, they do so because of contacts with criminal patterns and also because of isolation from anti-criminal patterns. (IMPORTANT TO REMEMBER.)

* Differential associations may vary in frequency, duration, priority and intensity. “Frequency” and “duration” as modalities of association are obvious and need no explanation. “Priority” is assumed to be important in the sense that lawful behavior developed in early childhood may persist throughout life. “Intensity” has to do with such things as the prestige of the source of a criminal or anti-criminal pattern. (The latter refers to idolizing/adoring a role-model who participates in criminal behavior.)

* 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. Thus, the learning of criminal behavior is not restricted to the process of imitation.

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

**The explanation for Sutherland’s theory was largely copied from a worksheet and at some places paraphrased as well as expanded with my notes. Presumably Professor Adinkrah wrote the worksheet himself.

Travis_Hirschi_General_Theory_of_Crime_+_Social_Bond_TheoryInteresting, right? Let’s continue with Hirschi’s Social Bond Theory that talks about “conquering delinquency.” (This information comes from my notes taken during class.)

In 1969, this sociologist gathered data from various young men and women, and came up with this conceptual idea called BOND. He stated in his theory that children without strong social, positive ties have the tendency to grow up to become sociopaths, psychopaths and/or criminals. For a person to have a greater opportunity to become a law-abiding citizen, they need the following four things (most of them, I believe):

* Attachment, commitment, involvement and belief.

Attachment refers to having strong social ties to a “conventional other,” which can be parents, teachers, peer, et cetera. If these bonds influence the person in a positive manner – and that encourages lawful behavior (remember Sutherland) – then the possibility for criminal behavior diminishes.

Commitment to conventionally pursued goals, which can be for school, jobs, some passion, anything that will keep their mind off juvenile and/or criminal activities.

Involvement in conventional activities: recreational activities, hobbies, sports, academic/cultural/community centered clubs, and volunteering will keep young people occupied. These activities may also entice better behavior. Professor Adinkrah told us the expression, “Idle hands are the Devil’s workshop.”

Beliefs: According to Hirschi’s research, young people with a set of high moral principles and/or who were religious were less likely to become delinquents. They were taught honesty, kindness, fairness and other attributes that contradicted a criminal lifestyle. Even those who were patriotic – who wanted to serve the military/government – would not participate in criminal behavior. This also ties in with committing to long-term goals.


I hope you find this helpful if you’re writing about a young character (or several) that doesn’t like to follow the rules, or something along those lines. Happy writing!