The purpose of this research paper was to provide a historical overview of the theoretical development of Akers’s social learning theory, review the seminal research testing the general theory, and discuss the recently proposed macrolevel version of social learning theory (i.e., social structure and social learning), as well as offer suggestions of where future research may wish to proceed in order to further advance the status of the theory. What is clear from the research evidence presented in this research paper, along with a number of studies that have not been specifically mentioned or discussed in this research paper (for a review, see Akers & Jensen, 2006), is that social learning has rightfully earned its place as a general theory of crime and deviance. One theorist has referred to it (along with control and strain theories) as constituting the “core” of contemporary criminological theory (Cullen, Wright, & Blevins, 2006). The theory has been rigorously tested a number of times, not only by the theorist himself but also by other influential criminologists and sociologists; it has been widely cited in the scholarly literature and in textbooks; it is a common topic covered in a variety of undergraduate and graduate courses; and it provides a basis for sound policy and practice.
Ultimately, the task levied at any general theory of crime and deviance is that it should be able to explain crime/deviance across crime/deviance type, time, place, culture, and context. Therefore, if past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior, then the expectation is that social learning theory will continue to demonstrate its generalizability across these various dimensions and that future tests of Akers’s SSSL theory will also garner support as a macrolevel explanation of crime. Yet these outcomes are indeed open to debate. No theory can account for all variations in criminal behavior. Only through the process of continuing to subject the theory and its macrolevel version to rigorous and sound empirical tests in sociology and criminology can it be determined how much the theory can account for on its own and in comparison to other theories.
Read more about Criminology Theories.
- In their reformulation of the theory, Burgess and Akers chose to omit Sutherland’s ninth principle.
- Akers, R. L. (1968). Problems in the sociology of deviance: Social definitions and behavior. Social Forces, 46, 455–465.
- Akers, R. L. (1973). Deviant behavior: A social learning approach. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
- Akers, R. L. (1977). Deviant behavior: A social learning approach (2nd ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
- Akers, R. L. (1985). Deviant behavior: A social learning approach (3rd ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
- Akers, R. L. (1998). Social learning and social structure: A general theory of crime and deviance. Boston: Northeastern University Press.
- Akers, R. L., & Jensen, G. F. (2006). The empirical status of social learning theory of crime and deviance: The past, present, and future. In. F. T. Cullen, J. P. Wright, & K. R. Blevins (Eds.), Taking stock: The status of criminological theory (pp. 37–76). New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.
- Akers, R. L., Krohn, M. D., Lanza-Kaduce, L., & Radosevich, M. (1979). Social learning and deviant behavior: A specific test of a general theory. American Sociological Review, 44, 636–655.
- Akers, R. L., & Lee, G. (1996). A longitudinal test of social learning theory: Adolescent smoking. Journal of Drug Issues, 26, 317–343.
- Akers, R. L., & Sellers, C. S. (2004). Criminological theories: Introduction, evaluation, and application (4th ed.) Los Angeles: Roxbury.
- Akers, R. L., & Silverman, A. (2004).Toward a social learning model of violence and terrorism. In M. A. Zahn, H. H. Brownstein, & S. L. Jackson (Eds.), Violence: From theory to research (pp. 19–35). Cincinnati, OH: LexisNexis–Anderson.
- Anderson, E. (1999). Code of the street: Decency, violence, and the moral life of the inner city. New York: W. W. Norton. Baldwin, J. D., & Baldwin, J. I. (1981). Beyond sociobiology. New York: Elsevier.
- Bandura, A. (1977). Social learning theory. New York: General Learning Press.
- Bandura, A. (1990). Mechanisms of moral disengagement. In W. Reich (Ed.), Origins of terrorism: Psychologies, ideologies, theologies, and states of mind (pp. 161–191). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
- Boeringer, S., Shehan, C. L., & Akers, R. L. (1991). Social contexts and social learning in sexual coercion and aggression: Assessing the contribution of fraternity membership. Family Relations, 40, 558–564.
- Burgess, R. L., & Akers, R. L. (1966). A differential association-reinforcement theory of criminal behavior. Social Problems, 14, 128–147.
- Cressey,D.R. (1953).Other people’s money. Glencoe, IL: Free Press. Cressey, D. R. (1960). Epidemiology and individual conduct: A case from criminology. Pacific Sociological Review, 3, 47–58.
- Cullen, F. T., Wright, J. P., & Blevins, K. R. (Eds.). (2006). Taking stock: The status of criminological theory. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.
- Cullen, F. T., Wright, J. P., Gendreau, P., &Andrews, D. A. (2003). What correctional treatment can tell us about criminological theory: Implications for social learning theory. In R. L. Akers & G. F. Jensen (Eds.), Advances in criminological theory: Vol. 11. Social learning theory and the explanation of crime: A guide for the new century (pp. 339–362). New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.
- Hwang, S., &Akers, R. L. (2003). Substance use by Korean adolescents: A cross-cultural test of social learning, social bonding, and self-control theories. In R. L. Akers & G. F. Jensen (Eds.), Advances in criminological theory: Vol. 11. Social learning theory and the explanation of crime: A guide for the new century (pp. 39–64). New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.
- Jensen, G. F. (2003). Gender variation in delinquency: Self-images, beliefs, and peers as mediating mechanisms. In R. L. Akers & G. F. Jensen (Eds.), Advances in criminological theory: Vol. 11. Social learning theory and the explanation of crime (pp. 151–178). New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.
- Krohn, M. D., Skinner, W. F., Massey, J. L., & Akers, R. L. (1985). Social learning theory and adolescent cigarette smoking. Social Problems, 32, 455–473.
- Lanza-Kaduce, L., Akers, R. L., Krohn, M. D., & Radosevich, M. (1984). Cessation of alcohol and drug use among adolescents: A social learning model. Deviant Behavior, 5, 79–96.
- Miller, H.V., Jennings, W. G., Alvarez-Rivera, L. L., &Miller, J.M. (2008). Explaining substance use among Puerto Rican adolescents: A partial test of social learning theory. Journal of Drug Issues, 38, 261–284.
- Spear, S., & Akers, R. L. (1988). Social learning variables and the risk of habitual smoking among adolescents: The Muscatine study. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 4, 336–348.
- Sutherland, E. H. (1937). The professional thief. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Sutherland, E. H. (1947). Principles of criminology (4th ed.). Philadelphia: Lippincott.
- Sykes, G., & Matza, D. (1957). Techniques of neutralization: A theory of delinquency. American Journal of Sociology, 22, 664–670.
- Warr, M. (2002). Companions in crime: The social aspects of criminal conduct. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.