Applying Sutherland’s Differential Association Theory To Juvenile Crime


Can juveniles learn to commit crimes, specifically shoplifting or theft? Edwin Sutherland’s differential association theory explains crime is learned through social processing. Sutherland’s nine propositions disassemble the process of learning crime through social interactions, and to understand that crime is learned how we, as humans, learn other behaviors. Understanding the differential association theory in depth will explain the rationalization for young females to shoplift and commit other crimes.

Summary of Juvenile Shoplifting

There are many components to juvenile shoplifting such as peer influence and groups of juveniles partaking in shoplifting. Explained in an article, “Peer influence can play a major role within shoplifting as an offense,” and later explained; “Juvenile shoplifting often occurs in groups; ample evidence indicates that children and adolescents more often than not are in the company of friends when stealing from stores”. These components lend to the crime of shoplifting being committed amongst juveniles. Peer pressure can cause an individual to feel as if they have to commit such crime even if they do not want to. Many juveniles report they shoplift within a group of friends, “In the present sample, nearly three quarters (72%) of the respondents with shoplifting experience report having committed their last act of shoplifting together with friends”. Shoplifting is not a technical legal term, however, theft is a legal term and shoplifting would be classified under such term. In a Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) report in 2016, the FBI defines larceny-theft as, “theft as the unlawful taking, carrying, leading, or riding away of property from the possession or constructive possession of another. Examples are thefts of bicycles, motor vehicle parts, and accessories, shoplifting, pocket-picking, or the stealing of any property”.

Sutherland’s Differential Association Theory

Edwin Sutherland theorized crime as a social process by learning criminal behaviors just as we learn other behaviors, “his perspective explained crime by learning in a social context through interaction and communication”. Sutherland created nine propositions to support his differential association theory. The nine propositions stated by Lanier and Henry, 2010, pg. 168, states:

“criminal behavior is learned, criminal behavior is learned in interaction with other persons in a process of communication, and the principal part of the learning of criminal behavior occurs within intimate, when criminal behavior is learned, the learning includes (a) techniques of committing the crime… and (b) the specific direction of motives, drives, rationalizations, and attitudes, the specific direction of motives and drives is learned from definitions of legal codes as favorable and unfavorable, a person becomes delinquent because of an excess of definitions favorable to violation of law over definitions unfavorable to violation of law, differential associations may vary in frequency, duration, priority, and intensity, the process of learning criminal behavior by association with criminal and anti-criminal patterns involves all of the mechanisms that are involved any other learning, though criminal behavior is an expression of general needs and values, it is not explained by those general needs and values since non-criminal behavior is an expression of the same needs and values”.

Though the nine propositions are hard to digest, Sutherland simply states criminal behavior is learned through intimate interactions with peers such as friends or siblings and maybe even authority figures such as parents. Lanier and Henry, 2010, pg. 168, states “the core of differential association is found in proposition 6”. Proposition six supports someone may choose criminal behavior because it is more favorable to them than not violating the law such as stealing clothing because you may not be able to afford it. He believed in criminal and anti-criminal behavior patterns and associations; these associations are affect by how early criminal behavior is taught in someone’s life, the amount someone is exposed to the group or individual having such behaviors, how long someone is exposed to the behavior, and how intense someone is manifesting such behavior.

Applying Juvenile Shoplifting to Differential Association

Juvenile females committing shoplifting may not be as simple as they wanted to commit such crime. Maybe the young females were pressured by their peers or the young females were taught it is the only way to afford such clothing. Sutherland’s Differential Association theory supports that juvenile females committing shoplifting or theft have more than likely been taught such criminal behavior. Sutherland would also support the criminal behavior was more than likely taught amongst the group or pressured within the group. The juvenile females were caught in groups while shoplifting which could support being taught by intimate interactions with peers. According to the authors of Explaining the Gender Gap in Juvenile Shoplifting: A Power-Control Theoretical Analysis, “bonds to shoplifting peers are assumed to influence attitudes toward risks”. Each female may be more culpable in the shoplifting by what affects their criminal behavior, such as; how early each female was taught criminal behavior, how often each female was taught such behavior, how long each one of them were exposed to criminal behavior, and their desire to indulge in criminal behavior.


Sutherland’s differential association can support the reasoning behind the juvenile females committing such crimes and why they are being committing in group settings. Sutherland’s nine propositions explain that criminal behavior is taught, the behavior is taught by social interactions with someone’s peers, and that the associations are affected by how early someone is taught criminal behavior, how frequent the behavior is taught, how long someone has been exposed to such behavior, and someone’s drive to commit crime. While the juvenile girls were caught in a group, each one is affected differently by the criminal behavior they were exposed to. The juvenile females simply did not commit shoplifting; they were taught such behavior either directly or indirectly.

14 May 2021
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