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Social Learning Theory in Criminology Research Paper

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Updated: May 26th, 2021


Criminology as a distinct science evolves and acquires new approaches, research data, and theories. The numerous methods applicable to criminology clarify a lot of questions concerning the behavior of a criminal or the influence of diverse psychological and sociological factors on the crime rates. During the past several decades, there has been a significant advancement in the research of the field of criminology and its theoretical background.

Social learning theory is one of the most influential psychological theories; it is widely used for the identification of behavioral patterns of criminals. A correct substantial approach applied to a crime analysis might be a crucial tool for the detection of the roots of the problem and possible ways of preventing criminal behavior in others. The paper concentrates on the history of the introduction of the social learning theory to science, its evolution over the years, and its possible application to the analysis of a recent criminal event.

Introducing the Theory

A social learning theory was introduced to criminology by Robert L. Burgess and Ronald L. Akers from the University of Washington in 1966. Their study entitled A differential association-reinforcement theory of criminal behavior was based on the previous advancement in the field, which Sutherland contributed to in 1947 (Burgess & Akers, 1966). Sutherland’s idea of a differential association theory was developed and supported by several scholars. However, Burges and Akers were the first who empirically studied the theory and connected the differential association theory with a sociological pattern.

Sutherland’s idea that “criminal behavior is learned as any behavior is learned” was elaborated on and applied to the analysis of the crime rates and their roots (Burgess & Akers, 1966, p. 128). Thus, the social learning theory grounds on the idea of differential association-reinforcement and attempts to explain criminal behavior not individually but in the connection to environmental influences.

The authors of the theory provide a broader view on the issue of behavioral association and ask specific questions to be answered by their contemporary criminology. Those questions concern the reasons why particular individuals being in the same environment as many others acquire delinquent behavior. To provide answers, the criminologists reformulated the primary points of Sutherland’s theory through the processes of conditioned reinforcement and stimulus discrimination (Burgess & Akers, 1966).

The main components of the approach constitute the following ideas: criminal behavior is learned, it is absorbed in nonsocial and social situations of reinforcement, criminal behavior patterns are acquired within the influential groups. Also, the frequency of the specific behaviors learned depends on the “reinforcers,” criminal behavior is learned when “such behavior is more highly reinforced” than a noncriminal one (Burgess & Akers, 1966, p. 134). Finally, deviant behavior learning relates to the frequency and amount of reinforcing influences.

Evolution of the Theory

The theory was developed and tested during the following years by other criminologists, as well as by the authors. Akers and colleagues later applied it to study the behavioral patterns among drug and alcohol users, the results of which proved the validity of the theory. This study provided prospects for further studies and the use of the social learning theory for other abnormal behaviors (Akers, Krohn, Lanza-Kaduce, & Radosevich, 1979).

It remains relevant in the present and is widely used in criminology as one of the ideas most capable of identifying the connections between criminal inclinations and the environment in which a criminal exists. One of the latest studies applies social structure to the social learning theory and provides a broad overview of the preventive interventions (Nicholson & Higgins, 2017). Due to the contribution of many scholars investigating the issue since the 1960s, the theory evolved into a powerful tool enabling the productive work of criminologists.

Application of the Theory

The social learning theory may be applied to the criminal events in the USA. The massive shootings that shook several US cities have a wave character. A mass shooting incident that took place in Chicago on October 29 took the lives of five people and left a dozen hurt, according to CNN (Baldacci, 2018). The actions of a criminal might be analyzed according to the social learning theory based on the preceding events of the same character.

The occasions mass shooting periodically occur in Chicago during the past several years, increasing the crime rates in the city (Baldacci, 2018). The modern world of globalization, where an environment influencing an individual reaches far beyond his or her spatial location and embraces informational impacts, presents a broader perspective on the application of the theory. That is why the theory is incapable of introducing an effective preventive technique in such circumstances. A person aware of a crime incident might be influenced by it and learn the same behavior. However, the discussed theory does not give precise answers to the questions of why these crimes happen in particular time periods and what their frequency depends on.


Summarizing the discussion, it is essential to underline that appropriate application of a particular theory to a crime might provide numerous opportunities, as well as limitations, to understanding the driving forces of deviant behavior.

Such understanding allows retrieving the core relation between people’s behavioral patterns and their crime inclination. When applied to criminology, social learning theory determines basic components of deviant behavior, which is learned (as any other behavior is learned) through environmental influences and reinforcements. Although the method does not provide answers to all the questions concerning a crime, thus justifying the importance of other theories, it contributes to the development of preventive interventions capable of decreasing crime rates.


Akers, R. L., Krohn, M. D., Lanza-Kaduce, L., & Radosevich, M. (1979). Social learning and deviant behavior: A specific test of a general theory. American Sociological Review, 44(4), 636-655. Web.

Baldacci, M. (2018). . CNN. Web.

Burgess, R. L., & Akers, R. L. (1966). A differential association-reinforcement theory of criminal behavior. Social Problems, 14(2), 128-147. Web.

Nicholson, J., & Higgins, G. E. (2017). Social structure social learning theory: Preventing crime and violence. In B. Teasdale & M. S. Bradley (Eds.), Preventing crime and violence (pp. 11-20). New York, NY: Springer. Web.

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