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Social Learning Theory

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Social learning theory

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,

• insertion

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:

1. "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.

2. “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).

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