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The social learning theory of crime basically argues that some people learn to commit crimes through the same process through which others learn to conform. The theory assumes that people are ”blank slates” at birth, having neither a motivation to commit crime nor to conform. The theory then asks two questions. First, at the micro-level, it asks why an individual commits crimes. The answer to this question stresses the process of learning which involves the interaction between thought or cognition, behavior and environment. Second, at the macro-level, social learning theory asks why some groups have higher crime rates than others. The answer to this question involves the concepts of culture conflict, differential social organization and social structure.
Social learning theory is rooted in the work of the Chicago School theorists of the early twentieth century. Along with social control theory, social learning theory is now considered one of, if not the, dominant theory of crime and deviance today. Its dominance is largely due to the work of two theorists, Edwin Sutherland and Ronald Akers. In 1939, Sutherland published the first version of his theory of social learning in his textbook Principles of Criminology with the final version published first in 1947. With this theory, he presented criminology with a purely sociological theory of crime that addressed his concerns about the biological and psychological theories of crime that were dominant at the time. Akers later revised Differential Association, rewriting it in the language of modern learning theory and expanding on it to make it more comprehensive. Besides his theoretical contributions, Akers has also been a leader in empirically testing social learning theory across a variety of groups and crimes.
- Akers, R. (1998) Social Learning and Social Structure: A General Theory of Crime and Deviance. Northeastern University Press, Boston, MA.
- Sutherland, E. (1947) Principles of Criminology, 4th edn. J. B. Lippincott, Philadelphia.