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Social Learning Theory and juvenile delinquency Research Paper

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Updated: Feb 26th, 2019


The purpose of this essay is to examine the empirical studies of the Social Learning Theory on juvenile delinquency. Juvenile delinquency entails the term that is used to explain to young people who have not attained majority age and are involved in committing crimes. Delinquency refers to the failure to follow laws that are set by the state.

According to the sociological aspect of criminology, social interactions and individualism are the factors behind the juvenile delinquency. Usually, society does not exist as an island but rather different person interacts and this ensures that the society continues to exist. The social interaction theory and juvenile delinquency have been written extensively over the years and the studies have proved to be logically consistent and also useful in providing the empirical support.

Thus, the studies play an important role of explaining all the social behaviors without which it is impossible to explain the causes of juvenile delinquency. The empirical studies of the Social Learning Theory on juvenile delinquency helps to provide an insight on the past, present as well as the future of criminology i.e. the study sheds light on the future directions of social interaction theory.

The main aim of social interaction theories on juvenile delinquency is to explain how such social influences as religion, family and politics shapes a person over time. The social interaction theories on juvenile delinquency assume that interplay exists between an individual, the environment and delinquent acts.

Explanatory concepts of social interaction theories on juvenile delinquency

The social interaction theory on juvenile delinquency is comprised of four main explanatory concepts i.e. the differential association theory, definitions theory, imitation theory and differential reinforcement theory. Differentiation association theory is a social interaction theory that was formulated by Edwin Sutherland.

According to this theory, people develops deviant behaviors by interacting and associating themselves with those who engages themselves in deviant behavior i.e. one can learn positive or negative behavior through interaction. Sutherland in his Differentiation Association Theory argued that juvenile delinquency is caused by observation and social interaction.

According to this theory one is deemed to act in a deviant manner as a result of association with group members who favor juvenile delinquency than those members who value the societal norms. This theory, also argues that the familiy unit is the major source of learning behaviors.Thus,if ones’ familiy unit is made up of people who are engaged in deviant behaviors, then one is bound to develop the same kind of behaviors.

Also,the theory argues that one learns certain norms and behaviors through the internet, mass media e.t.c. formulating the differential association theory, Sutherland used three concepts i.e. the culture conflict, cultural transmission theory and the ecological transmission theory. The culture conflict concept explains the presence of many crimes in the society and also the progress towards becoming a criminal. Sutherland’s theory is thus important as it helps to explain the juvenile delinquency in the society (Morrison, 1995, P.51).

Definitions theory was developed by Aker and it refers to a person’s orientations, explanations, justifications e.t.c. that explains as to whether morally right or incorrect. Definitions theory of juvenile delinquency is thus the process whereby one evaluates the rightfulness or wrongness of a particular action.

According to this theory. The law definitions may be specific or general i.e. a person may obey law generally and in turn violate specific provisions of the law. Definitions are comprised of behaviors that are learned as a result of interactions and other societal norms that conforms the delinquent acts. Specific definitions render one to act in a certain manner and the more one learns specific or general attitudes, the higher the chances of engaging in delinquency acts (Krohn et.al. 2009, P.104).

Imitations theory of juvenile delinquency refers to the process whereby one imitates behavioral characteristics of others by observing them.

The imitation theory of social delinquency was modeled by Gabriel Tarde who a French criminologist.Tarde was held the view that the regional differences that exists in crime rates are as a result of local variations i.e. alcoholism and poverty and not as a result of biological factors.

Tarde also argued that juvenile delinquency is a lifestyle that is learned through social interaction.Tarde in his imitation laws argued that juvenile delinquency is a function of interacting with people who have deviant behaviors. With this regards, a criminal undergoes through phases of apprenticeship which is similar to that of a lawyer or a doctor.

Tarde came up with three laws that provided an account for the imitations and juvenile delinquency. The first imitations’ law holds that people tends to imitate others when they are near one another. Thus, imitation is eminent in most cities and towns that are densely populated. The second imitation law holds that those people who are inferiors tend to imitate their superiors. With this regards, juvenile delinquency originates from the superiors and later on, descends to lower ranks.

The third imitation law by Tarde holds that, it is possible to substitute fashions particularly when the two arises at the same time. The imitation theory of juvenile delinquency also held the view that crimes originates in the capital cities. For instance, carjacking, terrorist activities and other major crimes are prevalent in metropolitan cities as opposed to rural areas.

Differential reinforcement theory of juvenile delinquency is concerned with the balance that exists between the punishments and rewards that occurs following a particular behavior. This balance plays a vital role in enabling individuals to behave in a particular manner.Thus,the more the rewards for juvenile delinquency, the higher the tendency to commit a crime and vice versa. Reinforcements and punishments can be nonsocial e.g. the direct consequences of alcoholism and drugs abuse.

Causal factors of juvenile delinquency

The youths use the social interactions among themselves as a means to commit crimes. The social interactions are a concern among many parents as they fear that their children may associate themselves in bad company and in turn commit delinquent acts. The social interaction among the deviant youths acts as a means through which the youths influence each other. The social learning theories that are presented by Akers, Sutherland and Marza explain that juvenile delinquencies occur in causal terms.

The causal aspects of juvenile delinquency include the individual differences, social structures, cultural factors and social psychological (Burfeind, & Bartusch, 2006, P.66).The individual differences includes the psychological and biological factors. Various studies of the social interaction theory on juvenile delinquency reveal that the familiy interaction plays an important role of promoting behaviors among young children.

High strictness and low support contributes to juvenile delinquencies i.e. they causes an increase in post-punishment of the acts that were previously forbidden. Personality is interrelated with one’s susceptibility to reward or punishment and therefore, the extraverts are usually less likely to acquire deviant behaviors.

On the other hand, strong conditioning has the effect of causing inhibition of criminal behaviors particularly in environments that encourage juvenile delinquency.Thus,the success of social responsibility and socialized depends is largely dependent on ones’ conditionality. The studies have also considered IQ among offenders be the main reason behind juvenile delinquency (Kim, 2008, P.23).

The social factors of juvenile delinquency include the inequalities and opportunities. Poverty and inequality has the effect of frustrating young people and in-turn causing them to engage in criminal activities. This is due to the fact that, they usually feel that inequality exist between what other people have and what the youth believe they ought to have. According to social control theory, delinquency arises when the social bonds are broken.

Travis Hirsch in his analysis came up with four elements of social bonds of an individual i.e. attachment, commitment, involvement and belief. Attachment is made of such aspects as sensitivity and affection for others. According to Travis, commitment included such acts as investing in conventional societies. Involvement entails spending a considerable amount of time on conventional duties whereas the belief is the extent upon which the youths feel they should abide by the laws.

According to Hirsch’s ,one is less likely to engage in criminal activities if he or she is strongly attached to the teachers or parents.Also,a child who has dedicated his or her effort and time in schools’ conventional activity is likely to conform and rarely engages in delinquent acts.

However,Hirschi used empirical data that was obtained from the adolescents self reports in testing his analysis of juvenile delinquency and this made his work to be considered as unique.Aker also noted that Hirsch’s’ work was unusual as far as juvenile delinquency is concerned (Sutherland et.al.1992,P.71).

The cultural factors that have been considered as risk factors with regards to juvenile delinquency include such aspects as societal norms that promote violence in resolving disputes.

Studies that demonstrated the risky factors that cause juvenile delinquency were first conducted in the early 20th century. The research was first done in the analysis by Breckinridge and Abbott in 1922 and later in the analysis by Healy in 1915.However, the research findings by Breckinridge, Abbott and Healy are newly repeated in the analysis by Loeber and Farrington in 1998.Healy in his study argued that juvenile delinquencies begins at childhood i.e. all confirmed delinquents starts their careers in their early years.

Healy also noted that the repeated offenders have the greatest impact in the society as a result of their offending frequencies. Healy emphasized on the importance of beginning the treatment at an early period.Afterwards, Loeber and Farrington in their studies argued that juvenile delinquency arises through the interaction of the following factors i.e. individual, contextual, and situational as well as the community factor.

They also pointed out that serious juvenile offenders starts to display their juvenile delinquency at childhood and thus there is need for early intervention.However, Loeber and Farrington in their studies contended that the juvenile offenders poses a greater challenge with regards to the juvenile justice policies due to the fact that they are responsible for virtually all the criminal activities in the society (Rosenheim, 2002, P.201-203).

Juvenile delinquency and time

With regards to the studies of social learning theory on juvenile delinquency history, there is a pattern that is revealed.Thus, the old studies of social learning theory on juvenile delinquency are usually discarded and they are deemed to be inadequate and outdated.

Much emphasis is given to new studies due to the reason that crime as well as juvenile delinquency are keep on changing with time.However, this concept is rarely studied systematically and the empirical studies of the social learning theory on juvenile delinquency have suggested that juvenile delinquency does not change with time.

Primarily, juvenile delinquency involves property crimes rather than violence and its exhibited by males. Such activities usually start at a very early age and fully peaks at teenage. The delinquent acts are more common in children from poor background and in major cities and towns. As far as many young people engage in juvenile delinquency, only a few of them commits serious offenses regularly. This implies that juvenile delinquency have remained the same over the years (Bruce et.al. 2000, P.422).

However, the conceptions regarding juvenile delinquency have greatly changes over the years even though the extent and nature of delinquent behaviors have remained them same. The reasons behind juvenile delinquency have largely been attributed the broken social bonds. However, the manner in which the theorists and researchers interpret data concerning the social learning theory on juvenile delinquency has changed (Bruce, et.al. 2000, P.33).


An empirical study of the social learning theory on juvenile delinquency reveals that several patterns have emerged over the past few years. The conceptions concerning juvenile delinquency have changed in that the past decade has seen criminals using guns in carrying out their criminal activities.

There have been changes too regarding the reasons behind juvenile delinquency. The biological aspects such as IQ have however been considered as the main reason behind juvenile delinquency. The empirical study of the social learning theory on juvenile delinquency has found out that delinquent behaviors are strongly linked with family variables. The empirical studies revealed that delinquent behaviors begin at childhood but they have failed to explain the adult outcomes among the offenders.

Reference List

Bruce, D et.al. (2000). Juvenile delinquency: historical, cultural, and legal Perspectives. Amststerdam: Elsevier.

Burfeind, J. & Bartusch, J. (2006). Juvenile delinquency: an integrated Approach. London: Jones & Bartlett Learning.

Kim, H. (2008). Juvenile delinquency and youth crime.Hauppauge: Nova Publishers.

Krohn, M. et al. (2009). Handbook on Crime and Deviance. Berlin: Springer.

Morrison, W. (1995).Theoretical Criminology.London: Routledge.

Rosenheim, M. (2002). A century of juvenile justice. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Sutherland, E.et.al. (1992). Principles of Criminology. Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield.

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