In criminology, differential association is a theory developed by Edwin Sutherland proposing that through interaction with others, individuals learn the values, attitudes, techniques, and motives for criminal behavior.

The differential association theory is the most talked about of the learning theories of deviance. This theory focuses on how individuals learn to become criminals, but does not concern itself with why they become criminals. Learning Theory is closely related to the Interactionist perspective; however, it is not considered so because Interactionism focuses on the construction of boundaries in society and persons’ perceptions of them.

Learning Theory is considered a positivist approach because it focuses on specific acts, opposed to the more subjective position of social impressions on one’s identity, and how those may compel to act. They learn how to commit criminal acts; they learn motives, drives, rationalizations, and attitudes. It grows socially easier for the individuals to commit a crime. Their inspiration is the processes of cultural transmission and construction. Sutherland had developed the idea of the “self” as a social construct, as when a person’s self-image is continuously being reconstructed especially when interacting with other people.

Phenomenology and ethnomethodology also encouraged people to debate the certainty of knowledge and to make sense of their everyday experiences using indexicality methods.

People define their lives by reference to their experiences, and then generalise those definitions to provide a framework of reference for deciding on future action. From a researcher’s perspective, a subject will view the world very differently if employed as opposed to unemployed, if in a supportive family or abused by parents or those close to the individual. However, individuals might respond to the same situation differently depending on how their experience predisposes them to define their current surroundings.

Differential association predicts that an individual will choose the criminal path when the balance of definitions for law-breaking exceeds those for law-abiding. This tendency will be reinforced if social association provides active people in the person’s life. Earlier in life the individual comes under the influence of those of high status within that group, the more likely the individual to follow in their footsteps. This does not deny that there may be practical motives for crime. If a person is hungry but has no money, there is a temptation to steal. But, the use of “needs” and “values” is equivocal. To a greater or lesser extent, both non-criminal and criminal individuals are motivated by the need for money and social gain.