Edwin Sutherland

From New World Encyclopedia

Edwin H. Sutherland (August 13, 1883 – October 11, 1950) was an American sociologist and criminologist, often called the “Dean of Criminology” for his pioneering work in this area. He is considered one of the most influential criminologists of the twentieth century, probably best known for defining “differential association”—a general theory of crime that explains how deviants come to learn the motivations and the technical knowledge for criminal activity—and his definition of the “white-collar crime.”

Edwin H. Sutherland’s pioneering work in criminology greatly expanded our understanding of crime. His theory of "differential association," although severely criticized, was foundational in the development of other social learning theories that followed. It is still popular among modern criminologists for its simplicity and coherence. His recognition that our interactions with others inform our knowledge of, and affect our adherence to, social norms and laws, was a valuable contribution to our understanding of human nature.


Edwin H. Sutherland was born in Gibbon, Nebraska on August 123, 1883, the son of a college professor. He grew up in Ottawa, Kansas, and Grand Island, Nebraska. In school, he originally wanted to study history, and had taken some courses in sociology to meet the requirements. After earning his B.A. from Grand Island College in 1904, he taught Latin, Greek and history at Sioux Falls College in South Dakota. In 1906, he decided to go back to college, entering graduate school at the University of Chicago. There he changed his major from history to sociology. Sutherland completed his Ph.D. degree work in 1913, when he was 30 years old.

Sutherland became professor of sociology at William Jewell College in 1913, staying on that position until 1919. At the same time he was a visiting professor of sociology at University of Kansas in 1918. From 1919 to 1925 he served as assistant professor of sociology, University of Illinois and an associate professor from 1925 to 1926. He was also a visiting professor of sociology at the Northwestern University in 1922.

During his time at the University of Illinois, Sutherland received a proposal to write a textbook on criminology, the experience of writing that changed his life. He has just occasionally taught on the subject, and writing a book was quite a challenge. He however succeeded, after which he was appointed full professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota, staying there from 1926 to 1929. The first edition of his Criminology was published in 1924.

Sutherland became professor of sociology at the University of Chicago, teaching from 1930 to 1935. After that he moved to Indiana University, where he served as the head of the Department of Sociology from 1935 to 1949. He founded the Bloomington Institute of Criminal Law and Criminology. During his tenure at Indiana University, he published three books, including Twenty Thousand Homeless Men (1936), The Professional Thief (1937), and the third edition of Criminology (1939).

In 1939, Sutherland was elected president of the American Sociological Society, and in 1940 president of the Sociological Research Association. He was also president of Indiana University Institute of Criminal Law and Criminology; of the American Prison Association and of the Chicago Academy of Criminology. He served as visiting professor of sociology at the University of Washington in 1942.

Sutherland died on October 11, 1950, in Bloomington, Indiana.


Sutherland was the author of the leading textbook Criminology, published in 1924. In it he rejected the early twentieth century theories about criminal behavior that held that criminals were products of feeble-mindedness. In his third edition of the book (1939) he proposed the theory of "differential association," which explained how criminals come to learn the motivations and the technical knowledge for criminal activity.

Sutherland believed that criminal behavior was learned through social interaction with others. He rejected the notions of criminal behavior being caused by psychopathological or economic factors. He developed his own view of it, which he expressed in his "differential association" theory. In short, it says that a person becomes delinquent when in his surrounding the “definitions” that favor violation of law exceed the “definitions” that favor law. In other words, when a person is exposed to criminal behavior in his near environment more than he is exposed to prosocial behavior, he is likely to engage in criminal behavior himself.

Sutherland’s theory had nine postulates:

  1. Criminal behavior is learned;
  2. Criminal behavior is learned from other people in the process of communication;
  3. Learning criminal behavior means learning motivation, rationalization, attitudes and techniques to commit the crime;
  4. Particular motives and drives for criminal act is learned from definitions of the legal codes;
  5. One engages in criminal behavior because of an excess of definitions favorable to violation of law over definitions unfavorable to violation of law;
  6. Differential association differ in intensity, frequency, duration, and priority;
  7. The process of learning criminal behavior is the same as learning any other type of behavior;
  8. Criminal behavior is an expression of general needs and values, but it cannot be explained by those needs and values alone.

Sutherland believed that direct communication was essential in learning the criminal behavior. Impersonal communication, such as movies or newspapers, had little influence in committing criminal behavior.

Sutherland often collaborated in his research with criminals, studying their lives and observing their behavior. Such, discussions with the con man, Broadway Jones, led to publishing of The Professional Thief in 1937. The professional thief is a person who steals professionally. In the book, he claimed that not everyone can become a professional thief. Rather one must be accepted into a group of professional thieves where he would further learn about the profession.

Sutherland coined the phrase white-collar criminal in a speech to the American Sociological Association on December 27, 1939. He claimed that “conventional generalizations about crime and criminality are invalid because they explain only the crime of the lower classes" (White-Collar Crime, 1949), and that official statistics should include white-collar crimes. Sutherland defined a white-collar crime as "a crime committed by a person of respectability and high social status in the course of his occupation" (White-Collar Crime, 1949). He believed that white-collar crime was among the most dangerous types of crime in the modern world.


Edwin H. Sutherland’s pioneering work in criminology greatly expanded our understanding of crime. His theory of "differential association," although being severely criticized, has seeded the ground for other social-learning theories that followed. It is still popular among modern criminologists for its simplicity and coherence.

In recognition of his life and work, in 1960 the American Society of Criminology established the annual award that carries Sutherland’s name. It is given to scholars for their contributions to theory or research in criminology.


  • Sutherland, Edwin H. 1929. Crime and the conflict process. Whittier, Calif: California Bureau of Juvenile Research.
  • Sutherland, Edwin H. 1950. The Diffusion of Sexual Psychopath Laws. American Journal of Sociology, 56, 142-8.
  • Sutherland, Edwin H. 1973. On Analyzing Crime. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0226780554
  • Sutherland, Edwin H. 1985 (original published 1949). White Collar Crime. Yale University Press. ISBN 0300033184
  • Sutherland, Edwin H. 1988 (original published 1937). The Professional Thief. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0226780511
  • Sutherland, Edwin H. D.R. Cressey, and D. Luckenbill. 1992 (original published 1924). Principles of Criminology, 11th edition. Dix Hills, NY: General Hall. ISBN 0930390709
  • Sutherland, Edwin H, and Harvey J. Locke. 1971 (original published 1936). Twenty thousand homeless men: A study of unemployed men in the Chicago shelters. New York: Arno Press. ISBN 0405031270
  • Sutherland, Edwin H, and Johan T. Sellin. 1974 (original published 1931). Prisons of tomorrow. Criminal justice in America. New York: Arno Press. ISBN 0405061706

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Beirne, Piers. 1994. The Origins and Growth of Criminology: Essays on Intellectual History, 1760-1945 (The International Library of Criminology, Criminal Justice and Penology). Aldershot, Hants, England: Dartmouth. ISBN 1855214180
  • Carrabine, Eamonn. 2004. Criminology: A Sociological Introduction. London: Routledge. ISBN 978-0415281676
  • Gaylord, Mark S. 1986. Edwin Sutherland and the Origins of Differential Association Theory. Ann Arbor, MI: University Microfilms International.
  • Odum, Howard W. 1969. American Sociology: The Story of Sociology in the United States through 1950. New York, NY: Greenwood Press. ISBN 978-0837105970
  • Sylvester, Sawyer F. 1972. The Heritage of Modern Criminology. Cambridge, MA: Schenkman Pub. Co. ISBN 978-0870736957


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