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In criminology, Ronald Akers and Robert Burgess (1966) developed Social Learning Theory to explain deviancy by combining variables which encouraged delinquency (e.g. the social pressure from delinquent peers) with variables that discouraged delinquency (e.g. the parental response to discovering delinquency in their children).
Social Learning Theory was derived from the work of Gabriel Tarde (1912: 322) which proposed that social learning occurred through three stages of imitation:
- close contact,
- imitation of superiors,
The first two stages were used by Edwin Sutherland in his Differential Association Theory. Sutherland’s model for learning in a social environment depends on the cultural conflict between different factions in a society over who has the power to determine what is deviant. But his ideas were difficult to put into operation and measure quantitatively. Burgess, a behavioural sociologist, and Akers revised Sutherland’s theory and included the idea of reinforcement, which increases or decreases the strength of a behaviour, and applied the principles of Operant Psychology, which holds that behaviour is a function of its consequences (Pfohl, 1994).
Functionalism had been the dominant paradigm but, in the 1960s, there was a shift towards Social Control Theories, Conflict Criminology, and Labeling Theories that tried to explain the emerging and more radical social environment. Moreover, people believed that they could observe behaviour and see the process of social learning, e.g., parents watched their own children and saw the influence of other children on their own; they could also see what kind of affect they had on their own children, i.e. the processes of differential association and reinforcement. The conservative political parties were advocating an increase in punishment to deter crime. Unlike Labeling Theory, Social Learning Theory actually supports the use of punishment which translates into longer sentences for those convicted, and helps to explain the increase in the prison population that began in the early 1970s (Livingston, 1996).
Burgess and Aker (1966: 128-147) adapted Sutherland to describe a variety of deviant behaviours:
- "Criminal behaviour is learned according to the principles of operant conditioning” (Sutherland, 1947: 5-7). Operant behaviour is affected by ‘environmental consequences’, e.g. conditioning, shaping, stimulus control, and extinction. Conditioning aims to produce consistency of response to stimulus. Shaping gives differential reinforcement of behaviours; for example, parents will reinforce ‘baby talk’ and then as the child gets older, regular speech. Extinction occurs once the operant behaviour is no longer reinforced.
- “Criminal behaviour is learned both in non-social situations that are reinforcing or discriminative, and through social interaction in which the behavior of other persons is reinforcing or discriminative for criminal behavior” (Sutherland, 1947: 5-7). Sutherland viewed the process of learning criminal behaviour as symbolic interaction, but Burgess and Akers believed that this excluded other sources of reinforcement, e.g. stealing a loaf of bread may not receive social reinforcement, but it does receive reinforcement because eating the bread nourishes a hungry thief which is inherently reinforcing.
- “The principal part of the learning of criminal behaviour occurs in those groups which compromise the individual’s major source of reinforcements” (Sutherland, 1947: 5-7). The family is the primary example of an ‘intimate primary group’ but Burgess and Akers allowed any ‘groups’ the possibility of offering positive reinforcement.
- “The learning of criminal behaviour, including specific techniques, attitudes, and avoidance procedures, is a function of the effective and available reinforcers, and the existing reinforcement contingencies” (Sutherland, 1947: 5-7). Burgess and Akers agreed but felt that it was important to study motivation to see how reinforcement gained value.
- “The specific class of behaviours which are learned and their frequency of occurrence are functions of the reinforces which are effective and available, and the rules or norms by which these reinforcers are applied” (Sutherland, 1947: 5-7). Burgess and Akers broadened the idea from which reinforcements may be derived. Effective reinforcements must be analysed to understand the development of individual behaviour and behaviour within a group.
- “Criminal behavior is a function of norms which are discriminative for criminal behaviour, the learning of which takes place when such behaviour is more highly reinforced than non-criminal behavior” (Sutherland, 1947: 5-7). Burgess and Akers posited that there was a process in which norms discriminated in favour of delinquency and that behaviour was then reinforced.
- "The strength of criminal behaviour is a direct function of the amount, frequency, and probability of its reinforcement” (Sutherland, 1947: 5-7). They proposed that when there is an increase in the amount of reinforcement, there is also an increase in the response rate.
The theory can be applied to most criminals and crimes that produce a "gain", but is best applied to behaviour within groups which offer reinforcement, such as gangs, peer groups, or social groups (Akers, 1973). The "gain" can be psychological, e.g. positive attention from other group members, or material, e.g. what was stolen. The degree of positive reinforcement will determine whether the behaviour is continued. In their study of alcohol behaviour, Akers et al. (1989) found that elderly drinking and youthful drinking follow the same lines of norms and group behavior. The theory was focused on the interaction between the individual and the social group, and did not address individual differences or social context (Jeffery, 1990:252; Akers, 1998). Individual differences may be biological, psychological, or the result of other factors; and these differences may affect the interaction between the individual and the social group (Jeffery, 1990: 252). Akers (1998) therefore expanded the theory by explaining crime rates as a function social learning in a social structure. While, the original theory focused on individual criminal behaviour, Social Structure Learning focuses on macro-level causes of crime positing that environments impact the individual through learning (Akers 1998: 302).
Unlike situational crime prevention, the theory ignores the opportunistic nature of crime (Jeffery, 1990: 261-2). To learn one must first observe criminal behaviour, but the theory does not explain how a person first meets people exhibiting criminal behaviour (Jeffery, 1990: 261-2). Further, the theory does not explain how people who have not been associating with criminals still become criminals, e.g. if a solitary child in a rural area steals from his mother’s purse; where was this behaviour learned? The theory does explain how criminal behaviour is ‘transmitted’ from one person to another, which can explain increases in types of crimes, but it does not consider how crime can be prevented (Jeffery, 1990: 252) although it may be fairly assumed that the processes of learning behaviours can be changed.
There is also a definitional problem. What may be reinforcement for one person may not be for another. Also, reinforcements can be both social involving attention and behaviour between more than one person, and non-social reinforcement would not involve this interaction (Burgess & Akers: 1966) Social Learning Theory has been used in mentoring programs that should, in theory, prevent some future criminal behaviour. The idea behind mentoring programs is that an adult is paired with a child, who supposedly learns from the behaviour of the adult and is positively reinforced for good behaviour (Jones-Brown, 1997). In the classroom, a teacher may use the theory by changing the seating arrangements to pair a behaving child and a misbehaving child, but the outcome may be that the behaving child begins to misbehave.
- Akers, Ronald L. (1973). Deviant Behavior: A Social Learning Approach. CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company, Inc.
- Akers, Ronald L. (1985). “Social Learning Theory and Adolescent Cigarette Smoking”. Social Problems, 32:455-73.
- Akers, Ronald L. (1989). “Social Learning and Alcohol Behavior Among the Elderly.” Sociological Quarterly, 30: 625-63.
- Akers, Ronald L. (1994). “A Social Learning Theory of Crime” in Criminological Theory: Past to Present. Cullen, Francis T. & Robert Agnew (eds.). (1999). Los Angeles: Roxbury Publishing Company.
- Akers, Ronald L. (1998). Social Learning and Social Structure: A General Theory of Crime and Deviance. Boston: Northeastern University Press.
- Jones-Brown, Delores D. and Zelma Weston Henriques. (1997). “Promises and Pitfalls of Mentoring as a Juvenile Justice Strategy. (Losing a Generation: Probing the Myths & Reality of Youth and Violence).” Social Justice, 24(4): 212(22).
- Burgess, Robert & Akers, Ronald L. (1966). “A Differential Association-Reinforcement Theory of Criminal Behavior.” Social Problems, 14: 363-383.
- Haj-Yahia, Muhammand M. & Samia Dawud-Noursi. (1998). “Predicting the Use of Different Conflict Tactics among Arab Siblings in Israel: A Study based on Social Learning Theory.” Journal of Family Violence, 13(1).
- Hirshi, Travis. (1969). “Social Bond Theory” in Criminological Theory: Past to Present. Cullen, Francis T. & Agnew, Robert (eds.). (1999). Los Angeles: Roxbury Publishing Company.
- Hogben, Matthew &Dyrne, Donn. (1998). “Using Social Learning Theory to Explain Individual Differences in Human Sexuality.” The Journal of Sex Research, 35(1).
- Houts, Sandra & Kassab, Cathy. (1997). “Rotter’s Social Learning Theory and Fear of Crime: Differences by Race and Ethnicity.” Social Science Quarterly, 78(1).
- Jeffery, C. Ray. (1990). ""Criminology. New Jersey: Prentice Hall.
- Krohn, Marvin D., Lonn Lanza-Kaduce, & Akers, Ronald L. (1985). “Social Learning Theory and Adolescent Cigarette Smoking.” Social Problems, 32:455-73.
- Lanza-Kaduce, Lonn; Akers, Ronald L; Krohn, Marvin D. & Radosevich, Marcia. (1984).“Cessation of Alcohol and Drug Use Among Adolescents: A Social Learning Model.” Deviant Behavior, 5:79-96.
- Livingston, Jay. (1996). Crime and Criminology, 2nd ed. NJ: Prentice Hall.
- Matsueda, Ross L. (1988). “The Current State of Differential Association Theory.” Crime and Delinquency, 34(3), 277-306.
- Mihalic, Sharon Wofford & Elliot, Delbert. (1997). “A Social Learning Theory Model of Marital Violence.” Journal of Family Violence, 12(1).
- Pfohl, Stephen. (1994). Images of Deviance and Social Control: A Sociological Historical Approach, 2nd edition. New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc.
- Skinner, William F. & Fream, Anne M. (1997). “A Social Learning Theory Analysis of Computer Crime among College Students.” Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 34(4).
- Sellin, Thorsten. (1938). Culture Conflict and Crime, Bulletin No. 41. New York: Social Science Research Council, 63-70.
- Sutherland, Edwin. (1947). Principles of Criminology, 4th edition. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.
- Sykes, Gresham M. & Matza, David. (1957). “Techniques of Neutralization.” American Sociological Review, 22: 664-670.
- Tarde, Gabriel. (1912). Penal Philosophy. Boston: Little Brown.
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