VIII. Social Structure and Social Learning: Theoretical Assumptions and Preliminary Evidence
Akers’s social learning theory has explained a considerable amount of the variation in criminal and deviant behavior at the individual level (see Akers & Jensen, 2006), and Akers (1998) recently extended it to posit an explanation for the variation in crime at the macrolevel. Akers’s social structure and social learning (SSSL) theory hypothesizes that there are social structural factors that have an indirect effect on individuals’ behavior. The indirect effect hypothesis is guided by the assumption that the effect of these social structural factors is operating through the social learning variables (i.e., differential association, definitions, differential reinforcement, and imitation) that have a direct effect on individuals’ decisions to engage in crime or deviance. Akers (1998; Akers & Sellers, 2004, p. 91) identified four specific domains of social structure wherein the social learning process can operate:
- Differential social organization refers to the structural correlates of crime in the community or society that affect the rates of crime and delinquency, including age composition, population density, and other attributes that lean societies, communities, and other social systems “toward relatively high or relatively low crime rates” (Akers, 1998, p. 332).
- Differential location in the social structure refers to sociodemographic characteristics of individuals and social groups that indicate their niches within the larger social structure. Class, gender, race and ethnicity, marital status, and age locate the positions and standing of persons and their roles, groups, or social categories in the overall social structure.
- Theoretically defined structural variables refer to anomie, class oppression, social disorganization, group conflict, patriarchy, and other concepts that have been used in one or more theories to identify criminogenic conditions of societies, communities, or groups.
- Differential social location refers to individuals’ membership in and relationship to primary, secondary, and reference groups such as the family, friendship/peer groups, leisure groups, colleagues, and work groups.
With attention to these social structural domains, Akers contended that the differential social organization of society and community and the differential locations of individuals within the social structure (i.e., individuals’ gender, race, class, religious affiliation, etc.) provide the context in which learning occurs (Akers & Sellers, 2004, p. 91). Individuals’ decisions to engage in crime/deviance are thus a function of the environment wherein the learning takes place and the individuals’ exposure to deviant peers and attitudes, possession of definitions favorable to the commission of criminal or deviant acts, and interactions with deviant models. Stated in terms of a causal process, if the social learning variables mediate social structural effects on crime as hypothesized, then (a) the social structural variables should exhibit direct effects on the social learning variables; (b) the social structural variables should exert direct effects on the dependent variable; and (c) once the social learning variables are included in the model, these variables should demonstrate strong independent effects on the dependent variable, and the social structural variables should no longer exhibit direct effects on the dependent variable, or at least their direct effects should be substantially reduced.
Considering the relative novelty of Akers’s proposed social structure and social learning theory, only a handful of studies thus far have attempted to examine its theoretical assumptions and/or its mediation hypothesis. However, the few preliminary studies to date have demonstrated positive findings in support of social structure and social learning for delinquency and substance use, elderly alcohol abuse, rape, violence, binge drinking by college students, and variation in cross-national homicide rates (Akers & Jensen, 2006). Yet, despite the consistency of positive preliminary findings in support of Akers’s social structure and social learning theory, there are some non-supportive findings, and it is still too soon to make a definitive statement that social learning is the primary mediating force in the association between social structure and crime/deviance. Nevertheless, these few studies provide a suitable benchmark against which future studies testing the theory can build upon and improve.