StudyCorgi Law

Differential Association and Strain Theories


There are several models that are supposed to describe and explain deviance or crime. Among them one can distinguish Differential Association Theory introduced by Edwin Sutherland and Robert Merton’s Strain Theory. This paper is aimed at discussing these frameworks. In particular, it is important to examine the main concepts that play an important role in these theories. Moreover, one should explain the differences between these models. On the whole, one can say that Edwin Sutherland’s ideas can throw light on how a person’s perceptions of deviancy and crimes are formed. In turn, Robert Merton’s approach is helpful for showing why a person decides to violate the legal and ethical norms established in a community. These are the main differences that should be taken into account.

We will write a
custom essay
specifically for you

for only $16.05 $11/page
308 certified writers online
Learn More

Differential Association Theory

The goal of Edwin Sutherland’s model is to describe how a person becomes a criminal. Yet, this theoretical framework cannot explain the reasons why an individual decides to act in a deviant way. First of all, this theory implies that criminal behavior can be learned by a person when he/she interacts with people for whom the deviance from social norms is acceptable both ethically and rationally (Akers 233). The influence of these people can be more significant, if they are viewed as role models that should be emulated. Moreover, according to this theory, a person’s attitude toward crime and deviance depends upon the dominant definitions of legal or social norms (Akers 233). In other words, if an individual believes that these norms are not beneficial, he/she will be more likely to commit a crime (Akers 233). According to this model, criminal behavior should not be explained only by some external factors such as poverty or inequality because people with same income level may have different perceptions of crime as well as social norms. This is one of the points that can be made.

There are several components that are important for this model. In particular, one can mention such a concept as deviant subcultures. This term can be described as a set of beliefs and values that promote a favorable attitude toward crime. The exposure to these subcultures can prompt a person to justify various forms of deviance such as theft or violence (Akers 233). For instance, adolescents often become offenders due to the influence of peer pressure. These teenagers interact with people who deny the validity of accepted rules of behavior. In the long term, they may be engaged in criminal activities such as vandalism, drug dealing, theft, and so forth. This case is importing for illustrating the use of Differential Association Theory. It can be of great use to criminologists.

Strain Theory

Secondly, it is important to speak about Strain Theory developed by Robert Merton. This model is based on the assumption that criminal behavior takes its origins in the values that are postulated by the society. One should focus on the standards according to which success is assessed (Aaltonen, Kivivuori, and Martikainen 162). In many contemporary societies, wealth is one of the goals that should be attained by a person in order to become successful. In many cases, people try to reach this objective almost at all costs. Moreover, crime becomes more widespread if people think that the legitimate methods of achieving success are not available to them (Aaltonen, Kivivuori, and Martikainen 162). In this case, much attention should be paid to educational inequalities because they prevent people from attaining material prosperity (Baumer 67). Additionally, this theory implies that individuals are more likely to commit crimes if they believe that the society attaches more importance to success, rather than the ethical virtues of an individual. This is one of the details that can be identified.

The concept of anomie is a critical element of this theoretical framework. This term can be described as the failure of social norms to retain their validity for people (Baumer 69). The state of anomie is experienced by a person when he/she cannot find legitimate ways of coping with various problems. Under such circumstances, people are more likely to commit crimes. This is one of the aspects that can be distinguished. For example, one can look at people who are engaged in drug dealing. These people decide to commit this crime, because they believe that it is the easiest and quickest way to reach the standards of material prosperity and success. Moreover, they do not believe that legitimate ways of achieving prosperity can be of any use to them. This attitude can partly be attributed to the lack of employment opportunities and low accessibility of education. So, this scenario is helpful for explaining the main postulates of Strain Theory. It indicates that policy-makers should focus on the relations between inequalities and crime.

Differences between the models

There are several differences between these models. Edwin Sutherland explains the mechanisms through which a person learns to tolerate crime. This sociologist shows how an individual finds rationalizations that can justify deviant behavior. However, this model does not throw light on the external factors that provide an incentive for people to commit crimes. For instance, Edwin Sutherland does not speak about economic motives, emotional stress, or the desire to conform the group. In contrast, Robert Merton attaches more attention to the motives which prompt people to commit crimes. In this case, much attention should be paid to the desire to achieve material wealth that is perceived as the main criterion according to which a person’s success is evaluated.

Furthermore, Robert Merton concentrates on the social inequalities that contribute to crime. To some degree, these theories can complement one another. For instance, Edwin Sutherland’s model can explain why a person, who lives in a poor neighborhood, can become exposed to deviant behavior and why he/she can perceive it as something acceptable. In contrast, Strain Theory may be useful for showing why this person may choose to become a criminal. These are the main distinctions that can be identified. Nevertheless, both Edwin Sutherland and Robert Merton pay attention to the way in which people perceive social norms and their validity. This is one of the similarities that should not be overlooked.

Get your
100% original paper
on any topic

done in as little as
3 hours
Learn More


This discussion suggests that there are various models that are supposed to explain the origins of deviancy and crime. Differential Association and Strain Theories are related to various aspects of crime. Edwin Sutherland’s model is particularly relevant if it is necessary to show how the attitudes toward crime are formed. In contrast, Robert Merton’s approach is useful when one should depict external causes of such behavior. Still, people’s attitudes toward social norms play an important role in these models. This is the main point that can be made.

Aaltonen, Mikko, Janne Kivivuori and Pekka Martikainen. “Social determinants of crime in a welfare state: Do they still matter?” Acta Sociologica 54.2 (2011): 161-181. Print.

Akers, Ronald L. “Is Differential association/social Learning Cultural Deviance Theory?” Criminology 34.2 (1996): 229-247. Print.

Baumer, Eric. “Untangling research puzzles in Merton’s multilevel anomie theory”. Theoretical Criminology 11.1 (2007): 63-93. Print.

Print Сite this

Cite this paper

Select style


StudyCorgi. (2020, December 20). Differential Association and Strain Theories. Retrieved from

Work Cited

"Differential Association and Strain Theories." StudyCorgi, 20 Dec. 2020,

1. StudyCorgi. "Differential Association and Strain Theories." December 20, 2020.


StudyCorgi. "Differential Association and Strain Theories." December 20, 2020.


StudyCorgi. 2020. "Differential Association and Strain Theories." December 20, 2020.


StudyCorgi. (2020) 'Differential Association and Strain Theories'. 20 December.

Copy to clipboard

This paper was written and submitted to our database by a student to assist your with your own studies. You are free to use it to write your own assignment, however you must reference it properly.

If you are the original creator of this paper and no longer wish to have it published on StudyCorgi, request the removal.

Psst... Stuck with your
assignment? 😱
Psst... Stuck with your assignment? 😱
Do you need an essay to be done?
What type of assignment 📝 do you need?
How many pages (words) do you need? Let's see if we can help you!