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Sutherland, Edwin H.

Sutherland, Edwin H.



Edwin H . Sutherland (1883-1950), American sociologist, did more than any other individual to shape the substantive theory and methodological orientation of contemporary criminology. He started out as an adherent of the popular “multiple-factor theory,” which holds that the causes of crime lie in a set of concrete circumstances; when enough of these circumstances are added together, they produce criminal behavior. In the 1930s, however, Sutherland became committed to systematic theory, in the sense of a parsimonious set of general propositions, applicable to all instances of a class of phenomena and admitting of no exceptions. This commitment can be seen in the development of the theory of differential association (Sutherland Papers, pp. 13-29), in his explanation of rates of crime during wartime (ibid., pp. 120-127), and in the later work of his students—for example, Donald R. Cressey (1953), Albert K. Cohen (1955), and Lloyd E. Ohlin (Cloward & Ohlin 1960).

Sutherland was unreservedly a sociological criminologist. He took his doctorate at the University of Chicago in 1913 and taught at the University of Illinois, the University of Minnesota, and the University of Chicago before becoming head of the department of sociology at Indiana University. Consequently his work reflects the influences of the giants of American sociology: Cooley, Thomas, Park, Burgess, and Mead. A dominant theme of this sociology was that personality and conduct develop through the progressive incorporation, in the course of communicative interaction, of the definitions and perspectives current in the cultural milieu. Sutherland applied this point of view to problems of criminology with passionate consistency. As he understood it, this approach meant the repudiation of biologism, whether in the bald form of Lombrosian and neo-Lombrosian anatomical theories (Sutherland Papers, pp. 273-290) or in the attenuated form of theories emphasizing intelligence or other presumably hereditary qualities (ibid., pp. 308-326). He also repudiated all theories that explain crime as a function of distinct character types or psychodynamic mechanisms. Hence he was severely critical of the role of psychiatry in criminological theory and in correction —an attitude that came to characterize sociological criminology as a whole in the United States.

Sutherland’s own theory of differential association is a radical statement of the position that criminal behavior is learned in essentially the same way as any other part of the surrounding culture. According to this theory, a person becomes criminal or delinquent because, through association with others, primarily in intimate personal groups, he encounters “an excess of definitions favorable to violation of law over definitions unfavorable to violation of law” (ibid., p. 9). The theory, first published in the 1939 edition of his Principles of Criminology (see 1924), was repeatedly revised in its details, but not in its main features. Although Sutherland was never satisfied with the way in which the theory handled certain problems, such as that of differential susceptibility to the effects of criminal and anticriminal associations, he continued to be guided by the methodological conviction that the only successful solution would be to reformulate the theory so that it would continue to meet the tests of generality and internal consistency, rather than to tack on, in multiple-factor fashion, additional variables as discrete and unintegrated appendages. Subsequent to Sutherland, the outstanding work on differential association has been done by Cressey (1964). (For assessment and criticism of the theory of differential association, see Cressey 1964; Glaser I960; Short I960; McKay I960; and Glueck 1956.)

The theory of differential association describes, on the social psychological level, what happens when a person is exposed to conflicting criminal and anticriminal cultures. For Sutherland it implied that, on a societal level, the cause of crime is culture conflict (Sutherland Papers, pp. 20-21). Moreover, he related crime rates to the actual structure of social relationships in a society. At first he formulated this theory in terms of social disorganization but later recast it as “differential group organization”—that is, the interaction between organization for and organization against criminal behavior (ibid., pp. 11, 21, 125-127).

Sutherland’s annotated study The Professional Thief (1937) was an early classic in the sociology of occupations. It was not couched explicitly in terms of differential association, but his analysis of the process of becoming a professional criminal was entirely consistent with that theory. His monograph White Collar Crime, published in 1949, again illustrated his methodological orientation, but in a somewhat different way. Sutherland perceived the crimes of businessmen, performed in the course of their occupational activity, as problematic for criminological theory, in the sense that such theory had generally been based upon data derived from lower-class or blue-collar criminals; he saw the crimes of businessmen and corporations as a body of data against which any comprehensive theory of criminal behavior would have to be tested and which, he was persuaded, no extant theory could accommodate. Sutherland felt that the theory of differential association explained these data better than any other theory. Certainly this monograph and related papers have opened up for research a new field rich with implications for general criminological theory.

Albert K. Cohen

[See alsoCRIME;Criminology


(1924) 1960 Sutherland, Edwin H.; and Chessey, Donald R. Principles of Criminology. 6th ed. Philadelphia: Lippincott. → First published as Criminology, under the sole authorship of Sutherland.

1936 Sutherland, Edwin H.; and Locke, Harvey J. Twenty Thousand Homeless Men: A Study of Unemployed Men in the Chicago Shelters. Philadelphia: Lippincott.

(1937) 1960 Conwell, ChicThe Professional Thief: By a Professional Thief. Annotated and interpreted by Edwin H. Sutherland. Univ. of Chicago Press.

(1949) 1961 White Collar Crime. New York: Holt.

The Sutherland Papers. Edited by Albert K. Cohen et al. Indiana University Publications, Social Science Series, No. 15. Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1956. → Articles first published between 1925 and 1951.


Cloward, Richard A.; and Ohlin, Lloyd E. 1960 Delinquency and Opportunity: A Theory of Delinquent Gangs. Glencoe, 111.: Free Press.

Cohen, Albert K. (1955) 1963 Delinquent Boys: The Culture of the Gang. New York: Free Press.

Cressey, Donald R. 1953 Other People’s Money: A Study in the Social Psychology of Embezzlement. Glencoe, 111.: Free Press.

Cressey, Donald R. 1964 Delinquency, Crime and Differential Association. The Hague: Nijhoff.

Glaser, Daniel 1960 Differential Association and Criminological Prediction. Social Problems 8:6-14.

Glueck, Sheldon 1956 Theory and Fact in Criminology. British Journal of Delinquency 7:92—109.

McKay, Henry D. 1960 Differential Association and Crime Prevention: Problems of Utilization. Social Problems 8:25-37.

Short, James F. Jr. 1960 Differential Association as a Hypothesis: Problems of Empirical Testing. Social Problems 8:14-25.

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