In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Edwin H. Sutherland

  • Introduction
  • Brief Biography
  • Intellectual Background
  • Sutherland’s Textbooks
  • The Theory of Differential Association
  • Research on the Theory of Differential Association
  • Criticisms of the Theory of Differential Association
  • Sutherland’s Work in the Sociology of Law
  • The Professional Thief

Criminology Edwin H. Sutherland
Marvin Krohn
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 November 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 November 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0148


About the contributions that Edwin Hardin Sutherland made to our understanding of crime and the criminal law, Donald C. Gibbons, writing in Gibbons 1979 (cited under The Professional Thief), says: “The evidence is incontrovertible that Edwin Sutherland was the most important contributor to American criminology to have appeared to date. Indeed, there has been no other criminologist who even begins to approach his stature and importance. Moreover, it is extremely unlikely that anyone will emerge in future decades to challenge Sutherland’s position in the annals of the field” (p. 65). There are a number of reasons for Gibbons’s high praise of Sutherland. In 1924 Sutherland authored one of the first American textbooks in criminology. In that text Sutherland called for a reorientation away from the emphasis on biological and individualist approaches that were popular in European studies of crime. Instead, Sutherland emphasized a more sociological framework. In doing so he defined the primary agenda for criminological work that has been dominant into the early 21st century. Sutherland is best known as the author of the Theory of Differential Association. In keeping with his overall agenda for criminological work, Sutherland created a theory that did not rely on the personal characteristics or deficiencies of offenders but instead focused on the socialization or learning process. It is a theory that, in spite of its critics, has withstood the test of time and is still influential in criminological work. It spawned a number of theoretical modifications, and its core concepts have been incorporated in many theoretical integrations and elaborations. Sutherland’s work on white-collar crime also reoriented the field in important ways. Up until the publication of his articles on white-collar crime in the early 1940s (Sutherland 1940, Sutherland 1941, Sutherland 1945, all cited under White-Collar Crime), followed by his classic book on the topic (Sutherland 1949, cited under White-Collar Crime), much of the work in criminology focused on street crimes among the disadvantaged classes. Sutherland called on the field to recognize that crime was not exclusively a lower-class phenomenon but was prospering among the middle and upper classes as well. This recognition not only led to a concentrated focus on white-collar and work-related crime but also called into question the process of passing and implementing criminal laws. This work, along with Sutherland’s exploration of the passage and enactment of sexual psychopath laws (Sutherland 1950a, Sutherland 1950b, both cited under Sutherland’s Work in the Sociology of Law), influenced the development of the sociology of law. The recognition that crime is a more widely dispersed phenomenon also indirectly led to the many attempts to determine the distribution of crime and delinquency with the use of self-report methodology. The importance of the many contributions Sutherland made to the field of criminology cannot be overstated. He reoriented the way we look at crime and criminals, developed one of the most influential theories of criminal behavior, broadened our focus to include more than just those crimes committed by the disadvantaged, and urged us to focus on the process by which we criminalize some but not other problematic behaviors.

Brief Biography

Like many of the early sociologists, Sutherland was raised in a religious Midwestern family. His father, George Sutherland, was an academic, heading the history department at Ottawa College (Kansas) when Edwin was very young. Later George Sutherland became the president of the Nebraska Baptist Seminary. In 1904 Edwin earned a degree from that seminary, which by then had been renamed Grand Island College. In 1906 Sutherland went to the University of Chicago, initially taking courses at the Divinity School. He soon changed his area of study to sociology and political economy and then earned his PhD in 1913. For six years he taught at William Jewell College, and in 1919 he joined the faculty at the University of Illinois. Over the course of the next several years Sutherland had positions at the University of Minnesota, the University of Chicago, the Bureau of Social Hygiene in New York City, and Indiana University, where he taught from 1935 until his death on 11 October 1950 (Mutchnick, et al. 2009).

  • Gaylord, Mark S., and John F. Galliher. 1988. The criminology of Edwin Sutherland. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.

    A thorough treatment of both the life of Edwin Sutherland and his intellectual contributions. The first four chapters provide a chronology of Sutherland’s life; the remainder of the book addresses his work. This is a must-read for scholars interested in Sutherland.

  • Geis, Gilbert, and Colin Goff. 1983. “Introduction.” In White collar crime: The uncut version. By Edwin H. Sutherland, ix–xxxiii. New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press.

    The introduction to the reissue of White Collar Crime provides a brief biography of Sutherland and includes some of the aspects of his life that influenced his work. Originally published in 1949.

  • Mutchnick, Robert J., Randy Martin, and W. Timothy Austin. 2009. Criminological thought: Pioneers past and present. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

    This book features seventeen of the most important contributors to criminological thought. Each chapter is devoted to one individual and begins with a summary of that scholar’s life. The contributions of Sutherland are discussed in chapter 7, which provides an excellent, brief overview of Sutherland’s early background, education, and career.

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