Social learning theories hold that criminal behaviors are learned in interaction with others, particularly (but not exclusively) those within close personal circles such as family, friends, and neighbors. According to this perspective, criminality is not inborn, biological, or genetic, nor is it limited to people of specific backgrounds, resources, or opportunities. Rather, all people are seen as having the potential to engage in criminal or deviant acts, and criminality is a function of the socialization process. Thus social learning theories focus on interactions or socializing processes between individuals, often in a close face-to-face context. Unlike social structural theories, which as macro-structural theories emphasize large-scale, often abstract, social structures and institutions (such as the economy, labor market, education, government, or culture), social learning theories tend to be micro-structural, focusing on relationships within specific settings or environments. Where structural theories speak of labor markets and unemployment, social learning theories examine relationships within specific workplaces or between individuals and the unemployment office.
Social learning theories of crime and deviance found their most influential early expression in the work of University of Chicago sociologist Edwin Sutherland, who developed his differential association theory in the 1930s. For Sutherland, crime was a function of learning that can influence anyone in any culture. Notably, Sutherland avoided the tendency of most of his peers to focus on working-class subcultures or crimes of the poor. Sutherland’s work was groundbreaking in focusing attention on professional and corporate crimes, at a time when few researchers considered such offenses worthy of investigation; in fact, Sutherland coined the term “white-collar crime.” To understand the learning of crime, Sutherland examined the recruitment and socialization behaviors of elites within their excusive institutions, including corporate offices, private clubs, and professional schools.
Differential association theory suggests that close and trusted relatives and companions teach criminal behavior and attitudes, creating and sustaining a context in which the emphasis on supporting crime outweighs the emphasis on opposing it. Significantly, differential association theory examines not only the learning of deviant acts, specific techniques, or skills from influential peers, but also the ways in which peer networks teach people to deal with criminality psychologically. Thus peers teach people to rationalize or legitimize their activities, thereby helping people to shift from rule-abiding to rule-breaking identities in a way that supports their deviant or criminal choices. Corporate criminals rationalize their activities as “only doing business” or “helping the economy,” for example. Youthful deviants justify their acts as “being cool” or “not being square” or “flipping off authority.”
The most significant social learning theories of crime are labeling theories, which follow from the work of Howard Becker. These perspectives examine the development of criminal careers from a first act of (possibly harmless) deviance, rather than the causes of crime itself. Labeling theories are influenced by sociological and psychological theories of symbolic interactionism, as expressed in the work of Charles Cooley, George Herbert Mead, and Herbert Blumer. According to symbolic interactionism, people interpret symbolic gestures from others and incorporate them into their own self-image. Thus negative reactions, whether verbal or expressed in body language, could cause individuals to view themselves in a negative light. This insight would prove to be a central tenet of labeling theory, which examined the effect of social signals–including those given by teachers, police, and other justice officials and media–upon adoption of criminal identities.
The formal beginnings of labeling theory date to the early works of Franklin Tannenbaum in the 1930s, particularly Crime and Community (1938). Tannenbaum pointed out that many forms of juvenile delinquency are simply normal parts of adolescent street life. They are part of the play, experiment, adventure, and excitement that represent crucial parts of individual and social development. To others, particularly outsiders of different age cohorts, such activities may be seen as threatening or a nuisance. Those individuals may demand the intervention of some form of social control or punishment of the juvenile offender, whether through police or school officials. Such intervention begins a process of change in the manner in which the targeted individuals and their activities are perceived and treated. There is a gradual shift from the definition of specific acts as evil to the redefining of the individual himself or herself as evil. Everything about the individual, his or her friends, clothing, speech, music, and so on is turned into an object of scrutiny and cast as evidence for a delinquent nature. According to Tannenbaum, individuals targeted in this way may eventually learn to view themselves as delinquents. This process, which Tannenbaum refers to as the “dramatization of evil,” leads to the child or youth being separated out of the surrounding group and subjected to negative treatment. Not only criminals are made deviant in this manner; rather, individuals who simply violate norms or conventions rather than laws, particularly members of youth subcultures, may be subjected to such treatment. Tannenbaum noted that the poor are more likely than the wealthy to get caught up in this process. This point has been developed by critical criminologists and conflict theorists.
Building on these insights, labeling theory attempts to examine the social and interpersonal processes through which acts, attributes, and beliefs come to be constructed as deviant. It attempts to explain how cultural and individual perceptions create and sustain deviant identities. For labeling theories, deviance results from the enforcement of rules rather than specific acts. The deviant person is simply someone to whom the label “deviant” has been successfully applied, not someone who is fundamentally different. Even more, the deviant person is someone who has come to believe the label as it applies to him or her.
Labeling theorists note that most people have engaged in deviant, even criminal, acts but do not consider themselves to be criminals because those events pass without notice or regard. If someone is caught in such an act, however, a process is engaged that shifts the person’s self-perception. Being arrested, identified, brought to trial, and perhaps jailed is what labeling theorists call a “degradation ceremony,” in which the person subjected to this treatment is initiated into a deviant role and assigned a deviant label. This process often alters a person’s self-concept, disrupts personal relationships, and changes life chances and opportunities, including negatively impacting employment, housing, and education. To be publicly defined as deviant is to carry an expectation that you will behave in certain ways. By assigning negative identities, conforming members of society–and those with the power to assign labels–strongly influence offenders’ future behavior. People learn to take on behaviors and attitudes consistent with the label. “Stigma” is the term used by Erving Goffman to refer to the mark of disgrace that is associated with deviant or criminal labels.
People are turned into deviants through official procedures that are about the exercise of power and authority within stratified societies rather than strictly expressions of justice. Labeling theories challenge notions of social consensus that propose social order results from broadly agreed-upon goals and values. For social learning theorists, reality is socially constructed or produced through the activities of disparate and varying groups both internally and through their interactions with other, more or less powerful, groups. They stress the importance of power relations within a given society and suggest that it is essential to know who assumes the authority to do the labeling in society. This information helps explain why less harmful acts, such as shoplifting or squeegeeing, which are often carried out by less powerful members of society, are targeted for criminalization and the deployment of criminal justice system resources, whereas more harmful acts such as pollution, product safety, or unfair labor practices, which are typically undertaken by corporate elites, are less likely to leave the perpetrator with a deviant or criminal label. Similarly, labeling theorists might suggest that schoolyard bullying receives proportionally more public attention than a variety of corporate crimes.
Labeling theorists emphasize that some people have the power to make their labels stick, while others cannot. The definition of deviance or crime is a form of social control exerted by more powerful actors over less powerful actors. Labeling is part of a process that excludes subordinate actors from social participation or from power.
Social psychologist Albert Bandura’s social learning theory emphasizes modeling and the processes by which people learn not only through direct experience but also by observing others whom they respect or admire. Role models in the media, arts, sports, or music, for example, can influence people to act in desirable or undesirable ways. As Bandura also noted, observation of violent acts, as on television, could be reflected in violent acts by child observers.
Social learning theories are significant in showing that societies’ definitions determine whether certain behavior is considered deviant or criminal, and in pointing out that these definitions change over time and place. Often these definitions are the outcome of social struggle, inequality, and exploitation. Furthermore, labeling theory shows that the act of labeling–especially as associated with the activities of schools, police, criminal justice systems, media, and prisons–may actually perpetuate crime rather than reducing it.
- Bandura, A. (1977). Social learning theory. Morristown, NJ: General Learning Press.
- Becker, H. (1963). Outsiders. New York: Free Press.
- Sutherland, E. (1949). White collar crime. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.