By David Mayeda

Edwin Sutherland is probably America’s most well known criminologist. His theory of differential association has been incredibly influential in criminology. It posits that crime – like any other type of behaviour – is learned. And there are some specific components to Sutherland’s theory of differential association, seen below:

  • criminal behaviours are learned
  • learning of criminal behaviours takes place through criminal teachers
  • learning of criminal behaviours is more effective when the teachers have close, intimate ties with the learners
  • crime techniques become more intricate and refined over time
  • criminal behaviours are defined and valued in a favourable light
  • motives for crime are different from motives behind non-criminal behaviours

It should be noted that Sutherland actually focused his theoretical positions on white collar crime – arguing that all types of crime, irrespective of their class parameters, were learned. Still, the theory can be applied in a variety of class contexts.

Now let’s look at another clip from The Wire that freaked me out … until we saw its ending. And as the ending of this short scene is revealed, pay attention to how the different components of Sutherland’s theory can be applied.

Real quick, a little background on what’s happening here. In this snippet, young Mike is being chased by mentors Chris and “Snoops” – two hardened, ruthless gang members. But eventually we learn that the chase is an exercise for Mike, in which he demonstrates the knowledge required to effectively engage in a gun fight:

http://youtu.be/kIUlhWWIcNc

Clearly at 2:45 of the video, we see that criminal behaviours are being taught and learned. There are older teachers/mentors (Chris and Snoops), and they have very close ties to Mike. In fact, Mike turned to Chris during a time of need to take care of a family problem Mike couldn’t cope with himself. In this scene, we also see Mike demonstrate that he is learning the more detailed dimensions of shooting targets (where to aim, from what distance). And Snoops’s smile at the end as she says, “Aiight, boy’s learnin”, illustrates the criminogenic behaviours – and Mike’s progress in mastering them – are being assigned with positive values.

Stay tuned, more sociology and The Wire coming up…