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AQA Psychology – Forensic Psychology – Paper 3

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Edwin Sutherland (1939) created differential association theory which proposes that through an interaction with other people, individuals learn the values, attitudes and techniques as well as the motives for criminal behaviour through a process of social learning. Differential association theory is a sociological theory as it proposes people learn to be a criminal from their environment based on the frequency in which they associate with others who have pro-criminal attitudes towards crime. If pro-criminal attitudes they are exposed to outweigh pro-social attitudes then Sutherland proposed they were at greater risk of offending. Differential association suggests it may be possible to mathematically predict the likelihood someone would commit a crime if we knew the frequency, intensity and duration of which a person is exposed to criminal and noncriminal norms and values.

Such attitudes and values may be learned from family or peer groups as well as specific criminal acts and techniques. This explains how crime breeds amongst specific social groups and communities as well as explain why released prisoners have high reoffending rates. Whilst in prison they may learn specific techniques of offending from one another either through observational learning, imitation or direct tuition that they put into practice on release. They may also learn through direct and indirect operant conditioning if they are reinforced for deviant behaviours through praise or punished for such by family or peers. Role models that model criminal behaviours would also provide opportunities for vicarious reinforcement if they are seen as successful in their crimes.

Evaluation – Strengths and Weaknesses

A major strength of differential association theory is the contribution it made towards changing people’s views about the origins of criminal behaviour. The theory contributed heavily to shifting the blaming of individual factors from biology to social factors and experiences. This presents real world implications as the learning environments could be changed to address this (through social policies) where as previously the acceptance of genetics being the key influencer in offending left little alternatives as genes can’t be altered. Sutherland’s work also contributed to highlighting the transgressions of middle class people rather than those of only lower social standing highlighting that different forms of crime are committed by people of all backgrounds.

Supporting evidence for differential association as an explanation comes from research studies which show crime tends to run in families. Osborne and West (1979) found that when the father had a criminal conviction, there was a 40% chance the son had also committed a crime by the time they were 18 years old in comparison to 13% of sons who had non-criminal fathers. This highlights how social learning of behaviours, crime and attitudes and values may be shared within a family however it could also be argued that such a link may be through shared genetics which undermines this explanation. This is one of the key problems for psychological theories such as differential association as it is difficult to untangle the role of the environment and learning from genetics for definitive results.

A major weakness and criticism of differential association theory is this difficulty in testing it. Sutherland was unable to provide a scientific and mathematical framework to predict future offending and it is hard to see how pro-criminal attitudes a person has could be measured and compared to pro-social attitudes to see where the tipping point would be. It is also not clear what ratio favourable to unfavourable influences would be required to tip the balance for a person to become a criminal. Another methodological issue is disentangling learned and inherited influences to say for certain how behaviour is being influenced. The theory is unable to provide a satisfactory solution to these issues which undermines its scientific credibility and validity as a psychological explanation for offending.

This social approach on its own may be insufficient as an explanation as it ignores the role of biological factors (nature) which is a weakness of this theory. Other explanations such as the diathesis-stress model could be seen to provide a better holistic account as it can account for social and biological factors and how genetic vulnerability can be caused by environmental stressors such as maltreatment.

Differential association as an explanation is unable to account for people’s individuals differences as not everyone who is exposed to criminal influences goes on to commit crime. The theory also raises ethical issues particularly when you consider that people from impoverished backgrounds can be stereotyped as unavoidably criminal. This explanation also ignores the role of free will that people have in choosing not to offend suggesting pro-criminal exposure in sufficient levels is enough to create criminal behaviour.

Saj Devshi
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