Sociologists use a variety of theoretical perspectives to make sense of the world. These perspectives or theories provide a framework for understanding observations on topics such as deviance. The symbolic interactionist perspective of sociology views society as a product of everyday social interactions of individuals. Symbolic interactionists also study how people use symbols to create meaning. In studying deviance, these theorists look at how people in everyday situations define deviance, which differs between cultures and settings.
Theory of Differential Association
Sociologist Edwin Sutherland studied deviance from the symbolic interactionist perspective. The basic tenet of his theory of differential association is that deviance is a learned behavior—people learn it from the different groups with which they associate. His theory counters arguments that deviant behavior is biological or due to personality. According to Sutherland, people commit deviant acts because they associate with individuals who act in a deviant manner.
He further explained exactly what one learns from people who commit deviance. He said that the future deviant learns values different from those of the dominant culture, as well as techniques for committing deviance.
Example: In a gang environment, current gang members resocialize new members to norms that oppose those of the dominant culture. From the gang, these new members learn that stealing, carrying a gun, and using drugs are acceptable behaviors, whereas they were not before. In the meantime, the norms they learned at home are no longer acceptable within the gang environment, and they must reject those norms and values to accept the new ones. Current gang members also teach new members how to commit specific deviant acts, such as hotwiring a car or breaking into a home.
Part of Sutherland’s theory is that if people learn deviance from others, the people with whom we associate are of utmost importance. The closer the relationship, the more likely someone is to be influenced. Parents who worry that their children are socializing with an undesirable crowd have a justified concern.
Example: If an adolescent changes schools and his new peer group smokes marijuana, the new student is more likely to smoke marijuana. On the other hand, if a student moves to a new school where no one smokes marijuana, he is less likely to take up the habit.