By Asher Lubotzky, Bicentennial Intern, Class of 2022, Doctoral Student, History, Bloomington
Edwin Hardin Sutherland was born in 1883 in Gibbon, Nebraska, to a deeply Protestant family of seven children. He graduated in 1904 from the Grand Island College in Nebraska and received his PhD in 1913 from the University of Chicago. Witnessing poverty, criminality and other urban plights of Chicago motivated him to study methods of improving social conditions.
Professor Sutherland came to IU in 1935, as the head of the newly independent department of sociology. Before arriving in Bloomington, he served as a professor of sociology at Chicago University, the University of Illinois and the University of Minnesota. While at Illinois he decided to specialize in criminology, which was not considered as an inherent part of sociology at the time.
Then in 1924, he published a well-received criminology textbook, (Principles of) Criminology, the first comprehensive textbook in the field. This textbook was revised numerous times by Sutherland before his death and then by others, and dominated the field for decades.
Most of Sutherland’s innovative scholarly contribution to the field of criminology was produced during his time at Indiana University. In 1939, in the third edition of Principles of Criminology, he formulated the “differential association” theory which was a ground-breaking explanation of crime causation.
Influenced by the consequences of the Great Depression, this theory aimed to replace biological, economic or psychological-genetic explanations of criminality known generally as “born criminal,” all of which emphasized the individual’s abnormal personality and inheritance as precipitating factors for crime. Sutherland’s differential association theory, on the other hand, “conceive[d] of criminality as participation in a cultural tradition and as the result of association with representatives of that culture.” In other words, Sutherland contended that criminality was a learned behavior, thus shifting the scholarly focus into social and cultural realms.
This had significant implications for prevention and penalization of crime, for example by stressing the need for the humane treatment of identified criminals, and the uselessness of racial or biological profiling. In relation to this theory, scholars Gaylord and Gallier stated in 1988 that “among sociological students of criminal behavior, there is considerable agreement that this is the single most important innovation during the past fifty years.” These scholars also noted that this was the first major original American theory in criminology. Previous theories had mainly been borrowed from Europe.
Sutherland’s work at Indiana University continued to be pathbreaking. In the last decade of his life, his scholarship focused on what he termed “white-collar crime,” a term that since has been integrated into our daily lexicon. In 1949, Sutherland completed his monograph on this subject. Sutherland’s theory was revolutionary and widely discussed. One survey even selected his 1949 work as “the most important study of the decade (1940-1950).”
Sutherland once again criticized existing beliefs in criminology. Building upon his new social theory of criminality, Sutherland now argued that contemporary criminology is too absorbed with lower class criminality, neglecting other kinds of crimes. Existing theories emphasize personal pathologies (abnormality) or social pathologies (poverty) as the cause of delinquency. Sutherland claimed that social or personal pathologies are not “an adequate explanation of criminal behavior,” because in fact crime is not more prevalent among the lower classes compared to the middle and upper classes.
Sutherland proved that there is no direct line between poverty by itself and delinquency. Instead, the casual factor was “the social and interpersonal relations which are associated sometimes with poverty and sometimes with wealth.” Wealthy people are less likely to get caught or convicted, since they are “more powerful politically and financially.” The system does not treat upper class crimes as criminal acts, but as civil ones, and therefore statistics disregard them. He noticed how “the legal process operates to the distinct advantage of the privileged and influential social classes,” while “the emphasis on poverty and other conditions concentrated in the lower socioeconomic classes…obstructed the development of a theory sufficiently general to cover the whole range of crime.”
Sutherland’s contributions to sociology have changed more than just the course of sociology and criminology. His emphasis on criminality as a social phenomenon rebuked the then popular notions of eugenics and other race-based theories.
The state of Indiana, specifically, led the way in implementing eugenics and genetics-based policies, as it was among the first states to introduce a legislation of coercive sterilization in 1907, commanding the involuntarily sterilization of “confirmed criminals, idiots, imbeciles and rapists.” Sutherland’s ideas, on the other hand, turned Indiana into the birth place of one of the most important criticisms of eugenics.
Additionally, Sutherland’s innovations came in at a crucial time for fighting racism. His work in the 1940s was useful in the fight against Nazism (perhaps the most notorious proponent of eugenics) abroad, and at the dawn of the Civil Rights Movement at home. Sutherland’s theories gave an important ideological tool against both international and domestic racism.
The 15 years Sutherland spent at Indiana University were during the prime of his career and scholarship. During this time, he published three new books and two revised editions of his textbook and earned national acclaim. He worked relentlessly to empower the newly independent department of sociology, and encouraged IU to hire such innovative scholars as Alfred Lindesmith, Harvey Locke, and John Mueller. In 1939, Sutherland was elected to serve as the president of the American Sociological Society (known today as the American Sociological Association), a position that reflected the recognition and respect for his achievements.
Aside from his world-renowned scholarly contributions, Sutherland was remembered by students and colleagues as an influential teacher, community leader, and a humble, self-critical and respectful interlocutor. Professor Alfred Lindesmith, a student (at Chicago) and later a colleague of Sutherland, had favorable memories of Sutherland as an inspirational figure:
Sometime after taking this first criminology course, I took another from Sutherland in which I had a very important and interesting experience. I was sitting in the classroom waiting for things to get started when Sutherland arose and said that a guest lecturer would take over the class and then introduced a professional thief names Broadway Jones. I was at first shocked by this until Broadway arose and remarked that ‘there are people who, when they have stealing to do, are damn fools enough to do it themselves. There are others who get hold of someone who knows how to do it. That’s where I come in.’…This was the first professional thief I had ever met. Also, he was the first opiate addict I had met and became an important, if not crucial, figure in determining what my dissertation topic and research would be…I chose…to do a study of opiate addiction and matters connected with the narcotics traffic.
Lindesmith also remembers how Sutherland was open to different opinions and criticism and took feedback from everyone including students and not just from respected scholars like himself. Lindesmith favorably recalled how when he had been just a graduate student, he “felt pleased and flattered when Sutherland…accepted my view…as the growing point of science,” especially compared with the skeptical and critical reviews he had received frequently from faculty at the University of Chicago University.
Sutherland’s warm, caring personality was evident not only with scholars and students, but also in regards to the criminals he studied during the years. According to Lindesmith, Sutherland cared deeply for the former and current criminals and delinquents whom he studied, at some cases keeping in touch and consulting them for years. John Mueller noted in 1950 that Sutherland was “as proud of [getting recognition and gratitude from “his criminal friends”] as he was of [his] presidency of the American Sociological Society.”
Sutherland’s self-criticism was a prevalent theme in his lectures and seminars. He worked constantly to improve and develop his theories:
His students were encouraged to tear into the theory, to criticize it mercilessly. This they did, and without any fear that their distinguished teacher would punish them for their boldness. Indeed, the most able and telling critics among Sutherland’s students became his favorites…Sutherland acted on his belief in democratic relations among fellow scholars, be they distinguished veterans like himself or first year graduate students.
Similarly, Professor John Mueller praised Sutherland’s talent of teaching and the admiration his students felt for him. Soon after Sutherland’s death in 1950, Mueller wrote:
It is as a teacher that Professor Sutherland was least known to his national associates; but to his students this aspect of his career, of course, loomed potently large. In this function he was immeasurably aided by his personality and temperament. The graduate students who were attracted to Indiana were imbued with the sincerity and objectivity with which he cultivated his research. Sutherland was amazingly open-minded, and his seminar constituted a collaborative inquiry rather than a transmission of information. He would spend hours with a student in office or home, discussing the problems which he was revolving in his own mind. With his soft-spoken demeanor, his readiness to listen to critical rebuttal, he impressed the student as a man of parental wisdom. He never taught in terms of sarcasm, ridicule or abuse. In fact, he never “taught” at all, but presided over a Socratic inquiry into human relations.
Sutherland engaged with community and national service. During World War II, Sutherland was a member of the American Sociological Society’s subcommittee on the Participation of Sociologists in the National Emergency Program. This subcommittee examined the ways in which sociologists can contribute to the war effort through cooperation and participation in the federal administration. During this time, he was also a member of Indiana University’s War Council.
Sutherland was deeply involved with local issues which contributed his expertise to community issues. In 1937, for instance, Sutherland completed a special study about youth delinquency in Bloomington, Indiana that aimed to be “a basis for a program for the reduction of delinquency” in the city. Leading a team of 64 staff members, Sutherland’s group mapped Bloomington’s core areas of delinquency.
Both Bloomington and the surrounding areas were hit hard during the Great Depression, with more than 30% of the population of Monroe County relying on relief in 1935, the year when Sutherland arrived at IU. Sutherland’s community work came at a critical moment in the history of Bloomington.
In accordance with his cultural and social theories, Sutherland noticed that youth crime soared in areas where organized recreational facilities were absent, suggesting that solving social and cultural issues would reduce crime (instead of focusing on specific types of populations). The city was advised to tackle the neighborhood holistically, and focus not just on individuals. Changing cultural attitudes toward law breaking and crime was the real challenge.
Sadly, soon after his retirement, on October 11, 1950, on the way to teach a class, Sutherland stumbled and fell, dying on the IU Bloomington campus.
 Biographical material about Sutherland can be found in: Gaylord, Mark S., and John F Galliher. The Criminology of Edwin Sutherland. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, 1988. Pgs. 6-13.
 Sutherland was the first chair of the independent department of sociology. Until 1935, sociology was part of the department of economics and sociology. IU Archives, Collection 141, Box 2
 The Criminology of Edwin Sutherland, p. xi.
 The Sutherland Papers, 1956, p. 5
 The Criminology of Edwin Sutherland, p. 1.
 Ibid, p. 4.
 The Criminology of Edwin Sutherland, p. xii.
 White Collar Crime, p. 6.
 Ibid, 8.
 The Sutherland Papers, 1956, p. 45
 Sutherland was well aware of eugenics practices, as he worked for one year at the Bureau of Social Hygiene in New York City in in 1929-1930. See: The Criminology of Edwin Sutherland, p. 13.
 Lawrence L. Rhoades, A History of The American Sociological Association, 1981, p. 79. The Criminology of Edwin Sutherland, p. 3.
 The Criminology of Edwin Sutherland, p. ix-x.
 The Criminology of Edwin Sutherland, p. xiii.
 IU Archives, Collection 141, Box 2.
 The Criminology of Edwin Sutherland, p. 163.
 IU Archives, Collection 141, Box 2.
 Rhoades, 33.
 Report on Ecological Survey of Crime and Delinquency in Bloomington Indiana, IU Archives, Collection 141, Box 2.