U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government, Department of Justice.

Continuing education: Toward a life-course perspective on social learning

NCJ Number
Date Published
April 2020
26 pages

Since Sutherland's differential association theory and the life-course perspective have at times been conceptualized as contrasting theories of criminal behavior, the current article argues instead that the understanding of delinquency, the dynamics underlying criminal persistence and desistance, and intergenerational patterns will be improved with a more explicit integration of these two traditions.


This article focuses on family processes, since these are foundational intimate relationships that remain underappreciated as a source of lifelong learning and influence. Although family support and variations in parental supervision have been amply investigated, “direct transmission” occurs within the family and within the confines of the more heavily studied world of adolescent peer groups. This article identifies five dimensions of direct transmission and illustrates these dynamic processes with qualitative data from two longitudinal studies and results of recent quantitative analyses. The analysis is generally in line with Sutherland's original formulation but includes several extensions and modifications. It is important to include a role for human agency, and for “noncriminal” definitions and lifestyle factors, in addition to the directly criminogenic definitions Sutherland and subsequent researchers have emphasized. The focus on social processes is, however, consistent with Sutherland's goal of highlighting limitations of the explanations of psychological and biological differences. (publisher abstracts modified)

Date Published: April 1, 2020