Chapter 10: Social Process and Control Theories of Crime

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Schram, Introduction to Criminology 2e

SAGE Publishing, 2018

Chapter Outlines

Chapter 10: Social Process and Control Theories of Crime

Learning Objectives

  • Articulate what distinguishes learning theories of crime from other perspectives

  • Distinguish differential association theory from differential reinforcement theory

  • Evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of differential association and differential reinforcement theory

  • Define the five original techniques of neutralization and explain them

  • Discuss early forms of social control theory, such as Hobbes and Freud

  • Explain Reckless’s containment theory

  • Hirschi’s social bonding theory, particularly the four elements of the bond

  • Describe the key tenets of Integrated Social Control Theories

  • Discuss low self-control theory, such as what personality traits are involved

This chapter focuses on social process and control theories of crime. Social process theories examine how individuals interact with other individuals and groups. The chapter begins with social process theories known as learning theories. Learning theories attempt to explain how and why individuals learn criminal, rather than conforming behavior. Virtually, all learning theories assume that our attitudes and behavioral decisions are acquired via communication after we are born, so individuals enter the world with a blank slate (often referred to as tabula rasa). Next, control theories are discussed. Control theories focus on social or personal factors that prevent individuals from engaging in selfish, antisocial behaviors. Control theories assume that all people would naturally commit crimes if it was not for restraints on the selfish tendencies that exist in every individual.
Three learning theories are discussed: Differential Association Theory, Differential Reinforcement Theory, and Neutralization Theory. In his 1939, Principles of Criminology, Sutherland fully introduced his differential association theory. Sutherland presented his theory of differential association with nine specific statements. The primary concepts of differential association state that criminal behavior is learned in interaction with other persons, learning occurs within intimate personal groups, individuals learn definitions favorable or unfavorable to the legal code, and associations vary in frequency, duration, priority, and intensity. He proposed that criminality is learned just like any other conventional activity. In addition, he argued that any normal individual, when exposed to definitions and attitudes favorable toward crime, will learn both the motivations and techniques for engaging in illegal behaviors. The discussion of learning theories continues with differential reinforcement theory. Burgess and Akers criticized Sutherland’s work and the product of this criticism became known as differential reinforcement theory. They argued that by integrating Sutherland’s contributions with the learning models of operant conditioning and modeling/imitation—decisions to commit criminal behavior could be more clearly understood. In their 1966 article, Burgess and Akers presented seven propositions to summarize differential reinforcement theory. According to Burgess and Akers, criminal behavior is learned according to the principles of operant conditioning and modeling/imitation. Additionally, criminal behavior is learned both in nonsocial and social interactions. Learning also occurs in groups which comprise the individual’s major source of reinforcements. Differential reinforcement theory assumes that individuals are born with a blank slate; socialized and taught how to behave through classical and operant conditioning as well as modeling; and behavior occurs and continues depending on past and present rewards and punishments. The section on learning theories concludes with the discussion of Neutralization Theory. Neutralization theory is associated with Sykes and Matza’s Techniques of Neutralization and Matza’s Drift Theory. Like Sutherland, both Sykes and Matza claimed that social learning influences delinquent behavior, but they also claimed that most criminals hold conventional beliefs and values. According to Sykes and Matza, youths are not immersed in a subculture that is committed to either extremes of complete conformity or complete nonconformity. Rather, these individuals drift between the two. While still partially committed to conventional social order, youths can drift into criminal activity and avoid feelings of guilt for these actions by justifying or rationalizing their behavior. Sykes and Matza proposed five techniques of neutralization: denial of responsibility, denial of injury, denial of victim, condemnation of the condemners, and appeal to higher loyalties.
The chapter concludes with the discussion of control theories. This section begins with the brief discussion of early control theories of human behavior: Hobbes, Durkheim’s idea of collective conscience, and Freud’s concept of the id and superego. The discussion continues with the early control theories of crime: Reiss’ control theory, Toby’s concept of stake in conformity, Nye’s control theory, and Reckless’ containment theory. These early control theories of crime assumed that individuals are naturally born selfish and greedy, and they must be socialized by others in order to control their inherent desires and drives. Most of the early theorists emphasized the need for external societal controls to counter the inner drives of people. Next, two modern control theories are discussed: Matza’s drift theory and Hirschi’s social bonding theory. Matza argued that offending behavior is the result of both free will/decision-making and deterministic factors outside of our control. According to the drift theory, offending typically peaks in the teenage years because that is the time when social controls over us are the weakest (i.e. we are no longer being monitored constantly by caretakers and the adulthood control factors have not yet kicked in). Perhaps the most influential social control theory was presented by Hirschi in 1969. Hirschi argued that the stronger the social bond, the less likely it is that an individual will commit criminal offenses. Social bond is made up of four elements: attachment, commitment, involvement, and belief. The most important of these is attachment. The chapter concludes with the discussion of the integrated control theories of Tittle and Hagan, as well as Gottfredson and Hirschi’s general theory of crime. In 1995, Tittle proposed his control-balance theory. Control-balance theory proposes that (1) the amount of control to which one is subjected and (2) the amount of control one can exercise determine the probability of deviance occurring. Individuals who are either too controlled by others or have too much control over others are more likely to commit crimes, as compared to people who have a healthy balance between the two. Power-control theory proposed by Hagan and his colleagues focuses on the level of patriarchal attitudes and structure in the household, which are influence by parental positions in the workforce. Households in which the parents have similar types of jobs are more balanced and tend to control their sons and daughters more equally, than in unbalanced households when the parents have very different jobs. In unbalanced households, more controls are placed on daughters than sons. In 1990, Gottfredson and Hirschi proposed a general theory of low self-control, which is often referred to as the general theory of crime. Like the previous control theories of crime, this theory assumes that individuals are born predisposed toward selfish, self-centered activities, and that only effective child-rearing and socialization can create self-control among persons. Furthermore, the general theory of crime assumes that self-control must be established by age 10. Without self-control established, individuals are more likely to engage in criminal and risky behaviors. The general theory of crime is accepted as one of the most valid theories of crime. This is probably because it identifies only one primary factor that causes criminality—low self-control. But low self-control may actually consist of a series of personality traits, including risk-taking, impulsiveness, self-centeredness, short-term orientation, and quick temper.
Chapter Outline

  • Learning Theories

    • Explain the social process of how and why people engage in criminal behavior through learning.

    • Virtually all learning theories assume that our attitudes and behavioral decisions are acquired via communication after we are born, so individuals enter the world with a blank slate (often referred to as tabula rasa).

    • A key feature of learning theories of peers and significant others on an individual’s behavior.

    • Differential Association Theory

      • Edwin H. Sutherland is considered one of the most influential criminologists of the twentieth century.

      • In his 1939, Principles of Criminology (3rd edition), Sutherland fully introduced his differential association theory.

      • He was especially interested in explaining how criminal values and attitudes could be culturally transmitted from one generation to the next generation.

      • Influences

        • Shaw and McKay’s concept of social disorganization.

        • Tarde’s imitation theory.

          • Three Laws of Imitation Theory

            • People imitate one another in proportion as they are in close contact;

            • Often the superior is imitated by the inferior; and

            • When two mutually exclusive methods or approaches come together, one method can be substituted for another.

      • Elements of Differential Association Theory

        • Sutherland presented his theory of differential association with nine specific statements.

          • Criminal behavior is learned. Criminal behavior is not inherited; rather, a person needs to be trained, or educated in crime.

          • Criminal behavior is learned in interaction with other persons in a process of communication. In most instances, this communication is verbal. However, communication can also be nonverbal in nature.

          • The principal part of the learning of criminal behavior occurs within intimate personal groups. Sutherland distinguished personal and impersonal groups. Personal communications between family and friends, he theorized, will have more of an influence than impersonal communications, such as that which occurs with simple acquaintances, as well as through the movies and other entertainment media.

          • When criminal behavior is learned, the learning includes (a) techniques of committing the crime, which are sometimes very complicated, sometimes very simple; (b) the specific direction of motives, drives, rationalizations, and attitudes. Criminals learn from others the techniques, methods, and motives necessary to sustain their behavior.

          • The specific direction of motives and drives is learned from definitions of the legal codes as favorable and unfavorable. Individuals may associate with others who define the legal codes as rules that should be observed; these individuals, however, may also associate with others whose definitions favor violating these legal codes.

          • A person becomes delinquent because of an excess of definitions favorable to violation of law over definitions unfavorable to violation of law. Sutherland noted that this is the essence of differential association. Individuals can have associations that favor both criminal and noncriminal behavior patterns. A person will engage in criminal behavior when there is an excess of definitions that favor violating the law.

          • Differential associations may vary in frequency, duration, priority, and intensity. Frequency and duration refer to how often and how long associations occur. Priority refers to whether an individual has developed a strong sense of lawful behavior during early childhood. Intensity is not precisely defined.

          • The process of learning criminal behavior by association with criminal and anti-criminal patterns involves all of the mechanisms that are involved in any other learning. This statement asserts that the process of learning criminal behavior is similar to the process of learning other types of behavior.

          • While criminal behavior is an expression of general needs and values, it is not explained by those general needs and values, since noncriminal behavior is an expression of the same needs and values. Sutherland argued that motives, needs, and values as explanations for criminal behavior are inadequate because they are also explanations for noncriminal behavior. For instance, needing money is a motivation for a thief to steal as well as for a student to get a part-time job. This final proposition was largely an argument against the other dominant social theories of crime at the time that Sutherland wrote, namely strain theory, which emphasized economic goals and means in predicting criminal activity.

      • Differential association theory is just as deterministic as were the earlier theories that emphasized biological factors or psychological factors.

        • In other words, Sutherland strongly felt that if a person was receiving and internalizing a higher ratio of definitions from those close to them that breaking the law was beneficial, then it is assumed that they certainly will engage in such illegal behavior.

        • There is virtually no room for any possible free choice or decision-making going on in this model of criminal activity.

      • Individuals do not actually make decisions to commit (or not commit) criminal acts; rather, we are predetermined to do so, which makes differential association theory as highly positivistic as any of the pre-existing positive theories.

      • The primary distinction of differential association theory from the earlier positivistic theories is that instead of biological or psychological traits being emphasized as primary factors in causing criminality, it is social interaction and learning.

        • In fact, Sutherland was quite clear in asserting that individual differences in terms of physiological functioning have nothing to do with the development of criminality.

          • It should be noted at this point that this hard stance against biological and psychological factors being relevant as risk-factors in criminal activity has been negated by the extant empirical research that clearly shows that such variations in such physiological functioning does in fact significantly influence criminal behavior.

          • In defense of Sutherland, this body of research does suggest that such physiological factors may affect individuals’ criminality largely due to the effects that such detriments have on the learning process of people in everyday life.

      • Classical Conditioning

        • At the time in which he developed his theory of differential association, Sutherland used the dominant psychological theory of learning of the early 20th century.

        • This learning model was classical conditioning, which was primarily developed by Pavlov.

        • Classical conditioning assumes that animals, as well as people, learn through associations between stimuli and responses.

        • The organism, animal, or person is a somewhat passive actor in this process, meaning that they simply receive and respond to various forms of stimuli and respond in natural ways to such stimuli.

        • Furthermore, the organism (i.e., individual) will learn to associate certain stimuli with certain responses over time.

        • In developing the theory, Pavlov performed seminal research that showed dogs, which are naturally afraid of loud noises such as bells, could be quickly conditioned to not only be less afraid of bells, but to actually desire and salivate at their sound.

          • Specifically, a dog naturally salivates when presented with meat.

            • So when this presentation of an unconditioned stimuli (meat) is given, a dog will always salivate (unconditioned response) in anticipation of eating the meat.

            • Pavlov demonstrated through a series of experiments that if a bell (conditioned stimuli) is always rung at the same time the dog is presented with meat, then the dog will learn to associate what was previously a negative stimulus with positive stimuli (food).

            • Thus, the dog will very quickly begin salivating at the ringing of bell, even when meat is not presented.

              • When this occurs, it is called an unconditioned response, because it is not natural; however, it is a very powerful and effective means of learning and it can sometimes take only a few occurrences of coupling the bell ringing with meat before the unconditioned response takes place.

      • Reaction to Differential Association Theory

        • Since Sutherland’s nine statements were published, they have been subjected to significant scrutiny and interpretation.

        • Researchers have been critical of his statements and have also pointed to several “misinterpretations” of his work.

          • Some people assume that Sutherland’s theory is only concerned with associations between criminals.

            • If this was the only relevant type of association, then the theory is invalid because some people have an extensive association with criminal behavior patterns but are not considered criminals.

        • As indicated, Sutherland theorized that crime occurs when the ratio of associations favorable to violation of the law “outweigh” associations favorable to conforming to the law.

          • But measuring this ratio and understanding when the balance tips in favor of a criminal lifestyle is all but impossible.

        • Some empirical studies have found support for differential association variables, particularly in the area of white-collar crime.

          • For example, one recent study involving a sample of 133 graduate business students, in an MBA program, found participants would go against their friends’ and professors’ opinions and commit corporate crime if they felt that their coworkers and superiors at work agreed with the illegal behavior.

            • This study found that the influence of associating with people who have a different set of values, in this case strong corporate attitudes, on a daily basis can have a powerful effect on criminal decision-making, even to the point where individuals will do things they know their family and friends feel are immoral.

        • Sutherland theorized that criminal associations lead to crime, but the reverse is plausible.

          • That is, one may commit crime and then seek out individuals with attitudes similar to their own.

          • After a rather lengthy literary debate, most recent research points to both causal processes occurring: criminal associations cause more crime, and committing crime causes more criminal associations.

        • If criminal behavior is learned, and people are born with a blank slate (referred to as tabula rasa), then who first committed crime if no one taught them the techniques and motives for it?

        • If they were the first to do it, then who could expose them to the definitions favorable to violation of law?

        • What factor(s) caused that individual to do it first if it was not learned?

          • If the answers to these questions involve any other factor(s) than learning, which it must have been because the theory’s assumptions assume there was no one to teach it, then it obviously was not explained by learning theories.

            • This is a criticism that really cannot be addressed, so it is somewhat ignored in the scientific literature.

        • Some research is supportive of Sutherland’s theory.

          • Researchers have found that young criminals are “tutored” by older ones, that criminals sometimes maintain associations with other criminals prior to their delinquent acts, and that the deviant attitudes, friends, and acts are closely connected.

        • Many of Sutherland’s principles are somewhat vague and cryptic, which does not lend the theory to easy testing.

        • Perhaps one of the biggest problems with Sutherland’s formulation of differential association is that he used primarily one type of learning model—classical conditioning—to formulate most of his principles, which neglects the other important ways that we learn attitudes and behavior from significant others.

        • Sutherland was adamant about such learning of how and why to commit crime was only through social interaction with significant others, and not from any media role-models, such as in movies, radio, etc.

      • Glaser’s Concept of Differential Identification

        • Allows for learning to take place not only through people close to us, but also through other reference groups, even distant ones such as sports heroes or movie stars who the individual has never actually met or corresponded with.

        • Glaser claimed that it did not matter much whether the individual had a personal relationship with the reference group(s); in fact, he claimed that they could even be imaginary, such as fictitious characters in a movie or book.

          • Thus, “a person pursues criminal behavior to the extent that he identifies himself with real or imaginary persons from whose perspective his criminal behavior seems acceptable.”

        • The important thing, according to Glaser, was that the individual identify with the person or character, and thus behave in ways that fit the norm set of this reference group or person.

        • Glaser’s proposition has been virtually ignored by subsequent criminological research, with the exception of Dawes’ (1973) study of delinquency which found that identification with persons other than parents was strong when youths reported a high level of rejection from their parents.

        • Far more research should examine the validity of Glaser’s theory in contemporary society given the profound influence of video games, movies, music, and television on today’s youth culture.

    • Differential Reinforcement Theory

      • Burgess and Akers argued that by integrating Sutherland’s work with contributions from the field of social psychology—namely, the learning models of operant conditioning and modeling/imitation—decisions to commit criminal behavior could be more clearly understood.

      • Elements of Differential Reinforcement Theory

        • In their 1966 article, Burgess and Akers presented seven propositions to summarize differential reinforcement theory—also often referred to as social learning theory in the criminological literature.

        • Propositions

          • Criminal behavior is learned according to the principles of operant conditioning.

          • Criminal behavior is learned both in nonsocial situations that are reinforcing or discriminative and through that social interaction in which the behavior of other persons is reinforcing or discriminative for criminal behavior.

          • The principal part of the learning of criminal behavior occurs in those groups which comprise the individual’s major source of reinforcements.

          • The learning of criminal behavior, including specific techniques, attitudes, and avoidance procedures, is a function of the effective and available reinforcers, and the existing reinforcement contingencies.

          • The specific class of behaviors which are learned and their frequency of occurrence are a function of the reinforcers which are effective and available, and the rules or norms by which these reinforcers are applied.

          • Criminal behavior is a function of norms which are discriminative for criminal behavior, the learning of which takes place when such behavior is more highly reinforced than noncriminal behavior.

          • The strength of criminal behavior is a direct function of the amount, frequency, and probability of its reinforcement.

        • Differential reinforcement theory, however, can be distinguished from the rational choice perspective

          • Rational choice assumes humans are born with an innate capacity for rational decision making,

          • The differential reinforcement perspective assumes individuals are born with a blank slate (i.e., tabula rasa) and thus, must be socialized and taught how to behave through various forms of conditioning (e.g., classical and operant conditioning), as well as modeling.

          • Differential reinforcement theory is far more deterministic than rational choice theory, in the sense that the former assumes that individuals have virtually no free will/free choice (but rather is based on the definitions, beliefs, rewards, punishments, etc., they are subject to after their previous behaviors), whereas the latter is based almost entirely on the assumption that individuals do indeed have the ability to make their own choices, and tend to make calculated decisions based on the contextual circumstances of a given situation.
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