Almost every action committed by an offender is supported by a criminological theory. Many of those theories have the idea that criminal behavior is induced by relationships in our lives. Significant others are a major factor that is used to attempt to explain how individuals become criminals. Differential Association Theory (DAT) comes from the sociological positivist theories that assume criminal behavior is learned. Differential Association Theory focuses on how relationships from peers, family members, etc., is accompanying a link to learning criminal behavior.
The movie American History X is a great explain of how individuals learn their behavior by socializing with peers that are delinquent. American History X touches on the lives of two white supremacist that have each learned behavior from one another or a superior. DAT can be used to explain the actions of not only the two main characters in the movie, but the followers of the white power group as well. Differential Association Theory was introduced by Edwin Sutherland.
All theories have an underlying assumption. DAT comes from the Positivistic paradigm, more specifically the sociological positivist theory. Those theories have the underlying assumption that behavior is learned. The values, norms, and motives involved in development come from social interaction. These specific social interactions can teach bad criminal behavior, however that depends on the type of interactions. Types of socialization actions can vary from individuals such as family members or co-workers, to peer in schools. DAT is a micro-level theory that chooses to explain the individualized behavior that is learned. Meaning that not everyone learns the behaviors the same way, but rather learned behaviors differ from each person. Sutherland’s theory views the law in a conflicting way, where the laws are chosen by those who are most powerful. Since DAT is part of the Positivist paradigm, the theory assumes that people are born good. The cultural values in which we are surrounded by influence the type of behavior developed, whether it be criminal or not. Therefore, people who are born good are considered a blank slate and the interactions they have will create the learned criminal behavior. For Differential Association Theory to be applied to explain crime there are nine principles that make up the criteria that should be considered. The first principle is that criminal behavior is learned. People are born a blank slate therefore, as we grow the behavior is learned from interactions. That leads into the next principle, criminal behavior is learned through socialization. Multiple types of interactions like with family member, support groups, and even schools are considered in what shapes the behavior. Principle three is where the key part of learning takes place, in close groups. Close social relations include family and friends, those who people interact with the most. Criminal behavior’s learning content would include attitudes, motives, and rationalizations that come from others. The fourth proposition also includes techniques for committing a crime. For example, an individual may learn how to use a gun for protection by watching their father go to the shooting range. If a person comes from a family that believes smoking marijuana occasionally, is normal, that person might make smoking a rationalization. Following, the content of differential association comes from the learning of the direction to view a law as favorable or unfavorable. Before people can drive, there needs to be practice. In driving school, the law is that you obey the speed limit signs. However, when driving with parents they go over the speed limit and justify that the speed limit is to slow for the open road. Now as adults, we have learned that speed limits are an unfavorable law that those who we associate with have never followed, so neither should we. Sutherland claims people only become delinquent when the violations of the law are favorable over unfavorable. An individual might interact with peers that use cellphones when driving. Although it is against the law, friends view that law as unfair or show the chances of getting caught and getting a ticket are low. Therefore, that individual would be more inclined to use a cellphone while driving since being around more definitions that encourage the violation of that law. In the next principle differential associations differ in duration, frequency, priority, and intensity. An individual’s behavior would be affected depending on who, like a sexually abusive father, for many years of their life while the abuse began as child. The child was exposed frequently to the sexual abuse, hence the excessive definitions of criminal behavior. Learning a behavior has the same process for criminals and non-criminals. It can start as early as taking money from mothers purse every other week. In the beginning there are no skills on how to take money. However, as it happens repeatedly, the person may develop skills to become faster or quieter about doing the criminal act. Those skills can then develop into more serious criminal behaviors such as robbing banks. Lastly, Sutherland proposed that while criminal behavior can be an act or desire, it does not support the motivations for general needs or values. A student may someone to do the paper for them, that need to do well in school is not a justifiable motivation for criminal behavior. The cause of crime according to DAT is the criminal behavior being learned through interactions or associations in which law violation definitions are culturally channeled on through socializations between many different type groups like individuals or even institutions. American History X focuses on the lives of two brothers. One, Derek Vinyard who is in prisons, and Danny who is imitating Derek’s every move. Derek is the leader of a white power group called the skinheads. Cameron Alexander is the found that took Derek in to have him promote white power to find frustrated kids. Derek is sent to prison for three years, after killing two black men who were stealing his truck. While in prison, Danny took over for Derek and went to Cameron for guidance. In prison Derek works with a black man that makes him think that the whole white power stuff is not worth it anymore. After getting out, Derek helps Danny get out the group as well, by showing that all ethnicities are the same. Derek stops at nothing to save his little brother from the same path, only for Danny to get shot in the end. Sutherland’s Differential Association Theory revolves around the idea that criminal behavior is learned. For both Danny and Derrick the attitude of white power was installed in them before their father had passed away. In the movie the father has the attitude of not believing any other ethnicities were equal. According to DAT’s principles, both the boys have learned the attitude about the disapproving opinions of other races from a significant person in their lives. It was not until the triggering of a black man murdering his father that provoked the path criminal deviance. DAT explains that motives and criminal behaviors are influenced by interactions. Once Derek’s father had passed away, he went to Cameron a white supremacist who spoke only of white power. Being around Cameron, Derek developed at hate for any other ethnicity and began to fight back. The motive to fight back started with the death of the father. Sutherland proposed that learning criminal behavior involved motives, which in the movie Derek committed crimes against different races do the motives installed by the deceased father and Cameron. Derek became the leader of the skinheads, which meant others had looked up to him, especially his brother Danny. Those other youths learned the behavior to fight back from Derek. Those criminal behaviors turned to being racist which made them commit crimes like destroying a store that was full of different ethnicities. Skinheads was a group that promoted white power domination. Therefore, those who were involved where learning crime by being in an interpersonal group, which is DAT’s third principle. Danny looked up to Derek throughout his whole life. He had learned that the criminal behavior such as killing blacks for what they deserve was learned by Derek when he made it justifiable. Derek turned to an open-minded person and left the racist past behind him. However, Danny differential associations, like learning to be racist, were exposed to him at a young age while being around nothing but white supremacists almost every day. That only intensified the criminal behavior for Danny. Not only were the two brothers exposed to excess of definitions that were favorable to law violation, but the frustrated children in the group were as well. According to DAT, a person becomes delinquent while they are around others that favor in breaking the law. In the movie, people who hung out with the white supremacist were taught that the law of property crime was something justifiable if the individuals in the store were a different ethnicity. White domination was the goal for the skinheads, therefore Danny was more inclined to commit property crimes due to the excess of definitions for his peers that the law violation came with little to no consequences. Sutherland’s Differential Association Theory was a good explanation for the criminal behaviors in the film. Learning behavior can sometimes be through imitation, Danny followed his big brother in every way. DAT explains that interpersonal groups puts a big emphasis on learning criminal behavior. The skinheads were the interpersonal group that gave those frustrated kids a justification to commit crime. Those in the group had the same drives that newcomers associated with quickly. Sutherland focuses primarily on the idea that criminal behavior is learned through interactions. In the movie Derek was in jail and associated only white supremacist at first. Although, as the movie went on Derek learned that some of the white supremacist associated with other ethnicities. Therefore, his attitude had changed about other races. DAT does not explain the new behavior of being open-minded, due to the loss of interest in crime. Criminological theories are focused on crime, thus the lack of temptation to commit crime is not explained by Differential Association Theory. Wolfgang and Ferracuti’s theory attempt to explain crimes of passion. This theory could explain Derek’s whole motivation of committing crimes against difference races. The murder of his father committed by a black man triggered emotion in Derek. Killing two black men was an act of violence that was carried out by passion as a tribute to his father. Hence the idea that his crimes were only aimed towards black men. Differential association is a learning theory that attempt to explain all crimes on an individual level. Criminal behavior is learned through interactions that can range from groups, to individuals, to even online influences. American History X follows two boys that have learned the criminal behavior from their recently deceased father and a white supremacist. DAT is the theory that explains that through criminal others, such as the skinheads, the excess of justifications for committing crimes against other races were defensible. Learning a criminal behavior is just as easily imitated as learning to be caring. The movie was the ultimate demonstration on how DAT can explain why crimes are occurring due to individual associations. Criminal behavior is a learned process that can be passed down to generations, just like in American History X.