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The Importance of the Social Process Theories of Criminology

Updated on August 22, 2014
"Police Officers On Duty" by Serge Bertasius
"Police Officers On Duty" by Serge Bertasius | Source

Within the social process theories are three major classes: social learning theory, social control theory, and social reaction theory. Each of these theories seek to explain criminality and the perpetration of criminal acts through the viewpoint of criminality as a social process.

Social Learning Theory

The differential reinforcement theory is one of the various theories classified under the social learning theory, and was created by Ronald Akers and Robert Burgess in 1966 (Siegel, 2006). The differential reinforcement theory states that the process of learning deviant behavior and the process of learning conventional behavior is the exact same process. Neither criminals nor typical members of society are raised to be completely good or completely bad, neither completely deviant, or completely conforming (Siegel, 2006). Instead, there is a balance between these that is revised and reevaluated as time goes on, and as a social group is adopted.

Essentially, a person's behavior is conditioned through reinforcement , either positive or negative. Negative reinforcement discourages the behavior while positive reinforcement encourages the behavior's continuation. These reinforcements come from rewards offered by the act, and by those around them. If peers and/or family shun the behavior, it often dies off; however, if peers or family encourage the behavior, the behavior continues and may even become stronger.

Behavior is also learned through modeling. Thus, a child who grows up with an older brother who steals, often hears about it, and sees all the great things that the older brother gets because of it, is more likely to feel encouraged to steal. The younger boy is encouraged by the association with his brother. According to Akers (2006), "Deviant behavior can be expected to the extent that it has been differentially reinforced over alternative behavior...and is defined as desirable or justified."

"Corporate Guys Shaking Hands" by StockImages
"Corporate Guys Shaking Hands" by StockImages | Source

Social Control

Hirschi's social bond theory is a member of the social control theory, and asserts that criminality is a result of weakened ties to society. Essentially, all individuals are have the ability and mentality to commit a crime. However, they are attached to society through friends, family, and peers, and the fear of what these people will think of them should they commit a crime is used as an internal deterrent (Siegel, 2006). This theory refutes the idea that there are competing subcultures in the community, but instead there are four elements that govern their choice of behavior: attachment, commitment, involvement, and belief.

Attachment is the connection that people have with their family, friends, and community. From these attachments come a respect for authority and an acceptance of social norms. This also leads to the development of a social conscious, which otherwise develops independent of society and the community, resulting in antisocial traits and behaviors (Siegel, 2006). "Commitment" describes the effort a person puts forth, and the time and energy that it takes to fulfill future needs and desires. A lack of commitment to conventional society creates a situation in which criminality and criminal behavior may take place. Similarly, a strong commitment to conventional society encourages people to seek out legitimate means of meeting their future desires. "Involvement" describes activities that encourage community ties and discourage illegal and unconventional behaviors. Lastly, "Belief" states that people hold common social beliefs, and that these particular beliefs are shared among those of their community.

Evaluating this theory from an empirical standpoint, Hirsch himself conducted a self-report survey that came up with considerably encouraging results. Among other things, he found that deviant individuals and non-deviant individuals share similar beliefs, that youths that held strong attachments to their parents were less likely to commit crimes, and that youths that held distant relationships to parents and peers were those that were more inclined, and tended toward, delinquency (Siegel, 2006).

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Social Reaction

The social reaction theory, otherwise known as the labeling theory, suggests that criminal behavior and attitudes are created by negative social interactions. Through the symbols used in interaction, and people's interpretation of them, individuals' behaviors are shaped. The social reaction theory uses this belief in explaining that the labels society gives to individuals stigmatize the individuals who receive them, and serve to reduce their self-image. The theory stresses that when people accept the labels that society gives them, they become more prone to deviant behavior than their peers who have not been negatively labeled (Siegel, 2006).

The labeling process is said to begin with a criminal act. When a person is caught they are put in the public light, and then labeled. From this label, identity is created. At some point, the individual accepts the label society has given them, and this acceptance leads to amplification of deviant behavior. Essentially labeling leads to damage, even in the psychological community there is a great deal of criticism attached to labeling a patient. More often than not, a patient is not told their exact diagnosis as a means of deterring them, and those around them, from stigmatizing them based on a label. For example, we may perceive a schizophrenic individual as being a risk to society, when in reality they are harmless. While some individuals may be a risk to society, this label should not be put on all individuals with the disorder.

References and Further Reading

Siegel, L., J. (2006). Criminology, 10th Edition. University Of Massachusetts, Lowell. Thomson.

Becker, Howard S. (1963). Outsiders: Studies in the sociology of deviance. New York: Free Press.

Braithwaite, John. (1989). Crime, shame and reintegration. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.


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