Use of Differential Association Theory to Analyze the Delinquent Behavior in Derry Girls Episode 2

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In Derry Girls Season 1, Episode 2, the group of five teens in 1990s Northern Ireland engage in delinquent activity, including theft and vandalism. The characters in this episode display behavior that can be explained as learned delinquency, but there are also socioeconomic factors to consider that may explain their actions as well. Edwin Sutherland’s Theory of Differential Association, a sociological learning theory of crime, discusses the influence of peers on criminal activity, and helps to explain the actions of the characters as learned behvaiors. Marxist Theory, a critical criminology theory, describes crime in the context of economic status and class, can be used to explain the economic aspects of the delinquency seen in the episode as well.

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The Theory of Differential Association theorizes that criminal behavior is learned. As discussed in class, the motives, attitudes, techniques, and rationalizations are learned through interactions with others, and through close interpersonal relationships and social groups. This theory highlights the role and influence of peers on delinquent behavior, introducing nine principles that seek to explain how criminal behavior occurs. These principles explain that interactions influencing criminal behavior vary in “frequency, intensity, priority, and duration”, as well as asserting that the majority of this type of learning is in the context of very close relationships. (Vinney, 2019). In the episode of Derry Girls, the teens are a close-knit group who cannot afford to go on the school trip to Paris and learn criminal behavior when Michelle steals a job notice board from the local chip shop. Michelle rationalizes the act, referencing their lack of financial resources as an insufficient reason not to “have things”, as well as reminding each person of why they want to go to Paris. She also mentions that they could be implicated if she is caught, so they should help her. These things give the circumstances a risk and a priority. Additionally, Michelle is clearly imparting motives, rationalizations, and even techniques and attitudes about crime. For example, Michelle justifying stealing the notice board by saying they deserve things just as much as Jenny Joyce (their classmate with a trust fund, who has things handed to her), she is providing a rationalization for crime.

Differential association also suggests that the definitions of crime play a role in justifying and deciding whether to participate. More specifically, “criminal behavior is determined by the ratio of definitions favorable to crime versus unfavorable to crime”, meaning that people participate in crime when the perceived benefits and justifications for crime outweigh the negative views and results of crime (Matsueda, 2010). This is seen later on in the Derry Girls episode when the teens are involved in further delinquency. The teens clean the owner’s shop as a form of alternative justice but end up setting the owner’s apartment on fire when Michelle drops flaming shots she had irresponsibly poured. Erin’s mom, Ma Mary, finds them, and they decide to stage a robbery, tie up the girls up, and act as if an offender set the fire himself. Both Michelle choosing to take the owners alcohol and light it on fire, and Ma Mary deciding to stage a robbery are examples of favorable definitions of crime leading to unlawful behavior. Michelle and Ma Mary both justified crime, and found it to be the more favorable option. This led to the participation of the rest of the teens, which is indicative of the idea in Differential Association that family and friends are the most influential to us (Vinney, 2019).

Marxist Theory of crime is based on the idea of class conflict between two societal groups: the bourgeoise, those who own, and proletariats, those who work. Under this theory, the bourgeoise are in control and benefit from capitalist society, while the rest often live with a “false consciousness” ( 'Marxist Theory of Crime: An Overview and Analysis', 2018). As discussed in class, false consciousness describes the state of proletariats living with the notion that the system they work under is valid, and if they work hard enough, they can be successful. In reality, the bourgeoise control the system and production, and perpetuate the cycle of the richer getting richer while the poor get poorer. Marxist criminology asserts that crime occurs as a result of this gap between the bourgeoise and proletariats ('Marxist Theory of Crime: An Overview and Analysis', 2018). False consciousness and the gap between the “bourgeoise” and “proletariats” are seen in Derry Girls when Michelle, Erin, Clare, Orla, and James seek to sign up for the trip to Paris. After informing them of the price, Jenny Joyce, their classmate, casually tells them to just “dip in” to their trust funds. The teens, under the illusion that everyone has trust funds, ask their parents about them. Their illusion and false consciousness start to fall away and transform into a sense of relative deprivation.

Relative deprivation, when people lack resources compared with the society around them, helps describe why poverty itself isn’t viewed as the cause of crime, although it’s linked. When the gap between the rich and poor is significant, this leads to a sense of relative deprivation. This is seen in the teens feeling disadvantaged compared to Jenny Joyce and her trust fund wealth. This relative deprivation is linked with the justifications and motives that Michelle gives for stealing the notice board, and also serves to convince the other teens to go along with it. The whole reason Michelle stole the notice board was to get first dibs on the best jobs, so that they could work and earn money to go on the trip, citing that they deserved to have things as well. This displays the relevance of Marxism and way that the gap and relative deprivation contribute to criminal behavior. Put another way, capitalism “creates a desire to consume”, but for those who people who can’t make enough money to buy what society says is important, they turn to delinquency and crime to solve this problem ('Marxist Theory of Crime: An Overview and Analysis', 2018). This is exactly what is seen with the teens and their delinquency; they find another way to get what they have been told to want, through illegal means.

The Theory of Differential Association and Marxist Theory of Criminology different aspects and factors regarding crime, and from different angles. Differential Association is a sociological theory, and claims that all criminal behavior is learned, whereas Marxist Theory is a critical criminology theory, and focuses on socioeconomic inequality as the central factor in crime. The differences in these theories actually help to explain different aspects of the delinquency seen in Derry Girls, and the differences highlight the importance of integrating multiple theories and perspectives to have a more complete understanding of crime and delinquency. In short, the delinquency displayed by the characters can be explained both as learned in a social setting, as well as influenced by the gap in classes.


  1. Matsueda, R. L. (2010). Sutherland, Edwin H.: Differential Association Theory and Differential Social Organization. Encyclopedia of Criminological Theory. doi: 10.4135/9781412959193.n250
  2. Vinney, C. (2019, June 6). Sutherland's Differential Association Theory Explained. Retrieved from
  3. Marxist Theory of Crime: An Overview and Analysis. (2018, March 7). Retrieved October 31, 2019, from

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