A theory of crime and delinquency pioneered by Edwin Sutherland in the 1930s, as a response to the dominant multi-factorial approaches to crime causation, associated particularly with the work of Eleanor and Sheldon Glueck. In contrast to their account, which identified long lists of factors which might contribute to crime causation, Sutherland aimed to build an integrated and sociological theory which stressed that crime was basically a learned phenomenon. The theory was elaborated and refined in various editions of Sutherland's highly influential textbook Principles of Criminology (later co-authored with Donald Cressey), and came to be presented in nine propositions, the most central of which argued that ‘a person becomes delinquent because of an excess of definitions favourable to violation of law over definitions unfavourable to violation of law’. People learn criminal behaviour through contact with others who define criminality in favourable ways. Arguably, therefore, the theory is as much one of differential definitions as differential association.
The theory was highly influential in deviance and delinquency research, making the explanation of crime largely a matter of ordinary learning processes, rather than biological predisposition. Although it was frequently attacked for being too general and failing to deal adequately with individualistic crimes like embezzlement, the proponents of the theory responded by making it ever more refined and testable, as well as applying it to a wider range of individual deviant phenomena, often using the vocabulary of motives argument to clarify the social nature of even solitary crimes.