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Sutherland, Edwin H.

In 1921, Edward C. Hayes, chair of the department of sociology at the University of Illinois and editor of sociology books for the publisher J. B. Lippincott, invited a professor he had recently hired to write a criminology textbook. At the time, the request may have seemed a bit odd to the prospective author: He had a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Chicago and had taught courses that dealt with criminology, but his specialization was in political economy, and he was little known, with no publications in criminology. Whatever Hayes' motivations, the invitation proved fortuitous: Edwin H. Sutherland's Criminology (1924), retitled Principles of Criminology in 1934, was to become the most influential textbook in the history of criminology.
The first edition of the text was a solid scholarly work but hardly original in its approach. While researching and writing the book, Sutherland quickly mastered the existing literature in criminology, which explained criminal behavior as a product of either "inherited feeble-mindedness" or "multiple-factors." Sutherland largely rejected the claim that criminals were simpleminded but did endorse the latter view, explaining different criminal behaviors through the relative influence of various geographic, economic, political, and sociological factors.

The 1934 edition still endorsed a multiple-factor explanation, although a number of developments in Sutherland's career and thinking were beginning to point him toward proposing a groundbreaking general sociological theory. In 1930, Sutherland accepted a position as a research professor at the University of Chicago. After Sutherland's arrival, Beardsley Ruml, dean of the university's Division of Social Sciences, called a meeting with several faculty members to discuss what researchers knew about the origins of criminal behavior. Sutherland was embarrassed to admit that to date, criminologists had made little progress toward answering this question.

Perhaps in response to Ruml's inquiry, Sutherland's colleague Louis Wirth published an article in 1931 that attributed criminal behavior to "culture conflict." Wirth argued that in complex, heterogeneous societies like that of the United States, the rules followed by some groups (especially immigrants) clash with the beliefs of the dominant culture. In this circumstance, behavior that is considered obedient in one group may be unorthodox and even criminal in the eyes of society. The important implication is that criminal behavior may actually conform to some subcultural standards.

In 1932, the Bureau of Social Hygiene in New York City published the Michael-Adler Report, a study commissioned to evaluate the desirability of establishing a national institute to train criminological researchers. Authors Jerome Michael and Mortimer Adler were highly critical of existing criminological research; they were especially skeptical of the multiple-factors approach, claiming that criminologists should strive to create abstract, general theories that explain all forms of criminal behavior. Sutherland was stung but still deeply impressed by these views.

Also in 1932, Sutherland had the good fortune to meet Broadway Jones, a fast-talking, boastful, and articulate Chicago-area grifter (confidence man). Jones regaled Sutherland with stories about his many impressive criminal exploits, which the two gradually compiled and published as The Professional Thief (1937) (in which Jones used the pseudonym "Chic Conwell"). These conversations convinced Sutherland that professional criminals learn the techniques and attitudes associated with their work from close relationships with other professional criminals.

The 1934 edition of Principles of Criminology featured a paragraph claiming that crime occurs when behaviors learned within different cultures and groups come into conflict. Sutherland apparently did not view this as a potential explanation for criminal behavior until Henry McKay, a fellow researcher at the University of Chicago, referred to the passage as "your theory." From that point onward, Sutherland spent much of the remainder of his career formulating, revising, and defending his renowned "differential association theory."

Sutherland came to believe that multiple factors like gender, race, and age cannot in themselves explain criminal behavior. Rather, he theorized that crime is caused by the different interactions and patterns of learning that occur in groups (e.g., juvenile gangs) that happen to be composed primarily of males, minority group members, or young people. By the time the fourth edition appeared (1947), Sutherland clearly stated differential association theory in a set of nine abstract principles listed near the beginning of the textbook. The principles claimed that behavior is learned through a process of communication in intimate personal groups. These groups teach "definitions" (including skills, motivations, attitudes, and rationalizations) either favorable or unfavorable to the violation of the law. Criminal behavior results when one is exposed to an excess of definitions favorable to the violation of the law over unfavorable definitions.

After Sutherland's death in 1950, first Donald R. Cressey and then David F. Luckenbill kept Principles of Criminology in print as Sutherland's coauthors (the 11th edition appeared in 1992). Generations of criminologists and their students learned differential association theory as an accepted wisdom through this extremely successful textbook. Numerous empirical studies also supported the key arguments in the theory. Other influential explanations for criminal behavior built upon Sutherland's insights, mostly by blending differential association with related theories. Albert K. Cohen, Richard A. Cloward, and Lloyd E. Ohlin created important theories of delinquent gang behavior by combining differential association with Robert K. Merton's strain theory. C. Ray Jeffery and Ronald L. Akers formulated modern social learning theories of criminal behavior by restating differential association in the language of behavioral psychology. Neutralization theory was inspired by Gresham M. Sykes and David Matza's attempt to clarify the difference between the learning of rationalizations (offered as justifications after criminal behavior occurs) and of "neutralizations," or excuses that offenders communicate and learn before they commit crimes.

Sutherland considered differential association to be a general sociological theory of criminal behavior. He was especially suspicious of theories that related poverty to crime, believing that police statistics were biased when they showed that most crimes occurred in lower-class neighborhoods. To bolster this view, in 1928 he began a study of law violations among the seventy largest corporations in the United States, eventually coining the term "white-collar crime" to refer to the occupational offenses committed by respectable persons. After 20 years of painstaking research, Sutherland finally completed a book reporting his findings. Fearing lawsuits, his publisher, Dryden Press, insisted that he delete the names of corporations accused but not convicted of crimes. The expurgated version of White Collar Crime appeared in 1949; a restored edition was not published until 1983.

Sutherland examined four types of crime committed by large corporations: false advertising, restraint of trade, unfair labor practices, and patent, copyright, and trademark infringement. He uncovered 980 violations of these laws among the 70 businesses that he studied (an average of 14 per company). Ninety percent of the corporations were habitual offenders, with four or more violations. Sutherland relied on differential association theory to explain these crimes, arguing that young executives learn definitions favorable to the violation of the law through the routines of business practice. He considered white-collar crime a greater threat to society than street crime because the former promotes cynicism and distrust of basic social institutions.

The concept of white-collar crime and this pioneering research were immensely important developments. The eminent British criminologist Hermann Mannheim observed that if there were a Nobel prize in criminology, Sutherland would have received it for these contributions. Sutherland's work quickly inspired such notable criminologists as Cressey, Marshall Clinard, and Frank E. Hartung to conduct studies of embezzlement and the violation of rationing laws through black-market profiteering by corporations during World War II. Some more recent influential examples of research on white-collar crime include studies of the collective embezzlement practiced by top executives during the savings and loan scandal of the 1980s, Medicaid fraud and the performance of unnecessary surgery by physicians, and the dumping of drugs banned in the United States into third world countries by the pharmaceutical industry.

Even if Sutherland never proposed differential association theory nor coined the term white-collar crime, he still would be recognized as a major 20th-century criminologist. When he abandoned the multiple-factors approach, Sutherland conducted a relentless academic turf war, tirelessly defending the idea that criminology was a specialty within sociology, and not a part of some other discipline. Two important publications, "Mental Deficiency and Crime" (1931) and "The Sexual Psychopath Laws" (1950), vigorously debated psychological explanations for criminal behavior. The former disputed the notion that "feeble-mindedness," as measured through performance on IQ tests, could be a general explanation for delinquency and crime, given the superior intelligence of some offenders. The latter criticized state laws that defined child molesters and rapists as mentally ill, rejecting the claim that these offenders were sexual psychopaths (or "fiends" with little control over their impulses).

In the 1940s, Sutherland successfully defended a behavioral definition of crime, as supported by social scientists, against a legalistic definition, preferred by some with training in the criminal law. Paul W. Tappan proposed the legalistic approach, arguing that criminologists should study only persons who actually had been convicted of crimes. This view threatened Sutherland's emerging research on white-collar criminals, because many corporations that violate the law are never prosecuted. Sutherland (1945) maintained that conviction is important in the study of public agency (or justice system) responses to crime, but it cannot be used in defining the subject matter of criminology, which must explain all forms of law-violating behavior. This behavioral definition of crime still prevails in modern criminology.

Sutherland's sharpest attacks, though, were directed toward biological explanations of criminal behavior. He saw these as a threat to the first principle of differential association theory ("criminal behavior is learned"). For Sutherland, learning was entirely a social product, disconnected from the functional operation of the body and the mind. In a number of book reviews published from 1934 to 1951, he harshly attacked scholars who attributed criminal behavior to the physical inferiority of offenders (E. A. Hooton), to "mesomorphy" (or a strong, muscular body type; William H. Sheldon), or to a multiple-factors approach that included "constitutional" (or biological) elements (Sheldon Glueck and Eleanor Glueck). These book reviews were a crucial part of Sutherland's campaign to define crime as social behavior.

Sutherland is better remembered for his conceptual and theoretical contributions to criminology than for any advances in research measures. This may be unfair, given his outstanding use of the "life histories" approach (a qualitative technique that offers biographical accounts of individuals or groups) in The Professional Thief Clifford R. Shaw is usually credited with introducing life histories research into criminology, but Sutherland mastered the technique in his depiction of the life of Broadway Jones. Apart from skillfully reporting the language, attitudes, and lifestyles of con artists in the early 20th century, The Professional Thief is highly entertaining. Hollywood filmmakers borrowed liberally from the book in writing the screenplay for The Sting (1973).

In criminology, Sutherland's legacy extends beyond scholarship to teaching and professional service. Several of his graduate students became influential criminologists, including Cressey, Ohlin, Mary Owen Cameron, Albert K. Cohen, and Karl Schuessler. Besides serving as chair of the department of sociology at Indiana University in Bloomington for 15 years, Sutherland was elected president of several national sociological societies. By the time of his death in 1950, it had become a colloquialism in sociology to refer to him as the "Dean of American Criminology."

Sutherland's stature has diminished little since his death. Studies evaluating the influence of scholars through citations to their work still rank him as one of the most important figures in contemporary criminology. Revisionist thinkers, however, have begun to question some aspects of his legacy. As modern criminology has evolved into an independent, interdisciplinary field rather than a specialty within sociology, Sutherland's pugnacious rejection of the contributions of biology and psychology to the study of criminal behavior seems misguided. In particular, his insistence that inheritance plays no role in learning is not supported by late-20th-century research in biology and psychology. Even worse, speculation has surfaced that Sutherland misrepresented certain details in The Professional Thief to suit his theoretical needs. Apparently, Broadway Jones was heavily addicted to narcotics; Sutherland downplayed this part of his biography, fearing that readers would interpret this drug use as an indication of mental illness rather than as a learned behavior. Sutherland insisted on the highest level of academic integrity among scholars towards whom he was critical (the Gluecks, Hooton, and Sheldon); the idea that he may have violated these same standards suggests a troubling hypocrisy.

Despite these observations, Sutherland's impact on criminology was truly revolutionary. In 1921, when Sutherland was asked to write his textbook, criminology was heading in multiple directions, with inherited "feeble-mindedness" as its only general theory. Thirty years later, sociologists firmly dominated criminology, largely because of Sutherland's efforts. Edwin H. Sutherland in criminology, like Albert Einstein in physics, turned accepted wisdom on its head and transformed a discipline.

Richard A. Wright


Born Gibbon, Nebraska, 13 August 1883; son of a Baptist minister. Educated at Grand Island College in Nebraska, A.B., 1903; University of Chicago, Ph.D. in Sociology and Political Economy, 1913. Professor, William Jewell College in Missouri, 1913-1919; professor, University of Illinois, 1919-1925; professor, University of Minnesota, 1925-1929; researcher, Bureau of Social Hygiene in New York City, 1929-1930; research professor, University of Chicago, 1930-1935; professor and chair of the department of sociology, Indiana University, 1935-1950. President of American Sociological Society, 1939; president of the Sociological Research Association, 1940; president of the Ohio Valley Sociological Society, 1941. Died Bloomington, Indiana, 11 October 1950.

Selected Works

Criminology, 1924; 11th edition, as Principles of Criminology (with Donald R. Cressey and David F. Luckenbill), 1992

"Mental Deficiency and Crime," in Social Attitudes, edited by Kimball Young (1931)

The Professional Thief, 1937

"Is 'White-Collar Crime' Crime?" American Sociological Review 10 (1945)
White Collar Crime, 1949

"The Sexual Psychopath Laws," Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology 40 (1950)
On Analyzing Crime, 1973

White Collar Crime: The Uncut Version, 1983

References and Further Reading

Cohen, Albert, Alfred Lindesmith, and Karl Schuessler, editors, The Sutherland Papers, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1956

Gaylord, Mark S., and John F. Galliher, The Criminology of Edwin Sutherland, New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction, 1988

Geis, Gilbert, and Colin Goff, "Introduction," in White Collar Crime: The Uncut Version, by Edwin H. Sutherland, New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1983

Goff, Colin, "Edwin H. Sutherland and White-Collar Crime," Ph.D. diss., University of California, Irvine, 1982

Laub, John H., and Robert J. Sampson, "The Sutherland-Glueck Debate: On the Sociology of Criminological Knowledge," The American Journal of Sociology 96, no. 6 (1991)

Schuessler, Karl, "Introduction," in On Analyzing Crime, by Edwin H. Sutherland, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973

Snodgrass, Jon, "The American Criminological Tradition: Portraits of the Men and Ideology in a Discipline," Ph.D. diss., University of Pennsylvania, 1972

Snodgrass, Jon, "The Criminologist and His Criminal: Edwin H. Sutherland and Broadway Jones," Issues in Criminology 8, no. 1 (1973)


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