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Continuing Education: Toward a Life-Course Perspective on Social Learning

NCJ Number
Criminology: An Interdisciplinary Journal Volume: 58 Issue: 2 Dated: 2020 Pages: 199-225
Date Published
27 pages

This paper argues that the dynamics behind criminal persistence and desistence, and intergenerational patterns, will be enhanced by an explicit integration of two theories of criminal behavior: Sutherland’s differential association theory and the life-course perspective.


Sutherland's differential association theory and the life-course perspective have at times been conceptualized as contrasting theories of criminal behavior. The author of this paper argues, instead, that our understanding of delinquency, the dynamics underlying criminal persistence and desistance, and intergenerational patterns will be enhanced by a more explicit integration of these two traditions. The author focuses on family processes as 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” takes place within the family as well as within the confines of the more heavily studied world of adolescent peer groups. The author 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 psychological and biological differences explanations. Publisher Abstract Provided

Date Published: January 1, 2020