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Chapter 5 Social Process Theories. Chapter Summary. Chapter Five introduces the reader to the social process theories of crime. The chapter begins with an overview of differential association theory, and how this theory developed out of the neoclassical theories.

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chapter summary
Chapter Summary
  • Chapter Five introduces the reader to the social process theories of crime.
  • The chapter begins with an overview of differential association theory, and how this theory developed out of the neoclassical theories.
  • This follows with a description of the social bond theories. Theories regarding labeling and neutralization are the last theories to be discussed in Chapter Five.
  • The author follows with an overview of the pros and cons of each of the theories. Chapter Five concludes with the policy implications set forth by each of the social process theories.

Chapter Summary

After reading this chapter, students should be able to:

  • Explain symbolic interactionism
  • Describe & critique differential association theory
  • Understand and critique social bond theory
  • Explain the process of labeling theory and critique the theory
  • Describe neutralization theory
  • Understand the policy implications of social process theories
  • Social process criminologists operate from a general sociological perspective known as symbolic interactionism, which focuses on how people interpret and define their social reality and the meanings they attach to it in the process of interacting with one another via language.
  • Thomas theorem: If men [and women] define situations as real, they are real in their consequences
  • Social process theories seek to describe the process of criminal and delinquent socialization and how the process of social conflict pressures individuals into committing antisocial acts.
differential association theory
Differential Association Theory
  • Edward Sutherland championed differential association theory.
  • Nine propositions outlining the process by which individuals come to acquire attitudes favorable to criminal or delinquent behavior:
    • Criminal behavior is learned.
    • Criminal behavior is learned in interaction with other persons in a process of communication.
differential association theory7
Differential Association Theory
  • The principle part of learning criminal behavior occurs within intimate personal groups.
  • When criminal behavior is learned, the learning includes techniques of committing the crime, the specific direction of motives, drives, rationalizations, and attitudes.

Differential Association Theory

  • The specific direction of motives and drives is learned from definitions of legal code as favorable and unfavorable.
  • A person becomes delinquent because of an excess of definitions favorable to violations of law over definitions unfavorable to violations of law.
  • Differential associations may vary in frequency, duration, priority, and intensity.

Differential Association Theory

  • 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.
  • While criminal behavior is an expression of general needs and values, it is not explained by them since non-criminal behavior is an expression of the same needs and values.
differential association theory10
Differential Association Theory
  • Definitions: Meanings our experiences, how we see things, our attitudes, values & habitual ways of viewing the world.
  • Differential social organization: allows differential association theorists to adequately account for the association people have without reference to individual differences.

Figure 5.1 Diagrammatic Presentation of Differential Association Theory

Differential social organization in

lower-class areas

Normative conflict

leads to definitions favorable to law


Differential association with others holding

such definitions

Crime and delinquency

ronald acker s social learning theory
Ronald Acker’s Social Learning Theory
  • Social learning theory applies the concepts of operant psychology to the vague “definitions favorable.”
  • Operant psychology: A perspective on learning that asserts that behavior is governed and shaped by its consequences.
  • Behavior has two general consequences; it is reinforced or it is punished.
  • Reinforcement: Positive or negative consequences for behavior that make it more likely the behavior will be repeated in similar situations.

Ronald Acker’s Social Learning Theory

-Punishment: Leads to the weakening or eliminating of the behavior preceding it that may also be positive or negative.

Rewards & punishments are differentially valued, & shaping our behavior.

-Discrimination: Clues that signal whether a particular behavior is likely to be followed by reward or punishment.


Figure 5.2

Illustrating Types of Reinforcement and Punishment

social control theories
Social Control Theories
  • Social control: Any action on the part of others, deliberate or not, that facilitates conformity to social rules.
  • Social control may be direct, formal, and coercive, but indirect and informal social control is preferable because it produces prosocial behavior regardless of the presence or absence of external coersion.
walter reckless containment theory
Walter Reckless’ Containment Theory
  • Walter Reckless’ theory is an early control that sought answers to why it is that some people in similar environments are immune to criminal temptations and others are not.
  • Those of us who resist antisocial temptations are contained by two overlapping forms of containment: outer and inner.
  • Outer containment is the social pressure on individuals brought to bear by the family & other important individuals and groups to abide by community rules.

Walter Reckless’ Containment Theory

  • Inner containment relies heavily on how persons see themselves—their


  • Persons with a negative self-concept are more likely to become criminal and delinquent than persons with a positive self-concept.
travis hirschi s social bonding theory
Travis Hirschi’s Social Bonding Theory

Travis Hirschi’s social control theory is a theory that places primary importance on the family.

the four social bonds
The Four Social Bonds
  • Hirshi makes the assumption that the typical delinquent lacks:
  • Attachment: Emotional component of conformity.
  • Commitment: Rational component of conformity and refers to a lifestyle in which one has invested considerable time and energy in the pursuit of a lawful career.
  • Involvement: A direct consequence of commitment; it is a part of an overall conventional patter of existence.
  • Belief: The acceptance of the social norms regulating conduct.
  • Antisocial and criminal behavior will emerge automatically if social controls are lacking.
from social to self control gottfredson hirschi s low self control theory
From Social- to Self-Control: Gottfredson & Hirschi’s Low Self-Control Theory
  • Self-control: The extent to which different people are vulnerable to the temptations of the moment.
  • Following an unrestrained path to pleasure often leads to crime.
  • Most crimes are spontaneous acts requiring little skill and earn the criminal minimal, short term, satisfaction.

Figure 5.3

Diagrammatic Representation of Hirschi's Social Control Theory

Lack of social bonds



involvement, belief

—that function as

social controls

Releases natural inclinations to

satisfy needs


Crime and


the origin of self control
The Origin of Self-Control
  • Low self-control

is established in early childhood, it tends to persist throughout life, and it is the result of incompetent parenting.

  • Low self-control

is the default outcome that occurs in the absence of adequate socialization.

  • Low self-control is considered a stable component of a criminal personality.
  • A criminal opportunity is a situation that presents itself to an offender by which he or she can immediately satisfy needs with minimal mental or physical effort.
labeling theory the irony of social reaction
Labeling Theory: The Irony of Social Reaction
  • The labeling or societal reaction school takes seriously the power of bad labels to stigmatize, and by doing so they evoke the very behavior the label signifies.
  • Labeling theory shifts the focus from the actor to the reactor.
  • Tannenbaum (1938) viewed labeling of a delinquent or criminal as “bad” or “evil” as amounting to a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Figure 5.4

Diagrammatic Representation of Self-Control Theory

Inadequate monitoring and supervision

of children by


and others

Failure to develop self-control.

Low self-

control is the default option

Low self-

control plus opportunity

Crime and delinquency

the nature of crime
The Nature of Crime
  • Labeling theorists asserted that crime is defined into existence rather than discovered.
  • There is no crime independent of cultural values and norms.
  • No act is by its nature criminal, because acts do not have natures until they are witnessed, judged good or bad, and reacted to as such by others.
primary secondary deviance
Primary & Secondary Deviance
  • Edwin Lemert: Primary deviance is the initial nonconforming act that comes to the attention of the authorities.
  • Secondary deviance: Deviance that results from society’s reaction to offenders’ primary deviance
  • Labeled persons may alter their self-concepts in conformity with the label.
  • The label may exclude the person from conventional employment opportunities & lead to the loss of conventional friends.

Figure 5.5

Diagrammatic Presentation of Labeling Theory

extending labeling theory
Extending Labeling Theory
  • John Braithwaite (1989): Nations with low crime rates are those where shaming has great social power.
  • Disintegrative shaming: Condemnation received by offenders in the criminal justice system; this shaming is counterproductive.
  • Reintegrative shaming: A method of condemning the offender’s acts without condemning him or her personhood.
sykes and matza s neutralization theory
Sykes and Matza’s Neutralization Theory
  • Techniques of neutralization theory suggests that although delinquents know that their behavior is wrong, they justify it as “acceptable” on a number of grounds:
  • Five techniques of neutralization
  • Denial of responsibility
  • Denial of injury
  • Denial of victim
  • Condemnation of the condemners
  • Appeal to higher loyalties

Sykes and Matza’s Neutralization Theory

  • If we start engaging in behavior that we consider morally wrong, but find that behavior rewarding, we tend to develop a form of psychological discomfort called cognitive dissonance.
  • The elimination of uncomfortable inconsistencies between attitudes and behavior becomes a powerful motive to change on or the other.
  • Techniques of neutralization are both ways of easing uncomfortable feelings of guilt and shame, and ways of loosening moral constraints.
evaluation of social process theories
Evaluation of Social Process Theories
  • Differential association theory shares the unconstrained vision in that it assumes that it is antisocial behavior is learned, & not something that comes naturally in the absence of prosocial training.
  • Critics of differential association stress that antisocial behavior comes naturally to the unsocialized individual & the theory ignores individual differences.
evaluation of social process theories32
Evaluation of Social Process Theories
  • Ackers’ social learning theory specifies how definitions favorable to law violation are learned.
  • This is emphasized through the use of operant conditioning, although it neglects the role of individual differences in the ease or difficulty with which persons learn.
  • Hirschi’s social control theory is criticized for its lack of emphasis on the social, economic & political factors that impede stable and nurturing families.
evaluation of social process theories33
Evaluation of Social Process Theories
  • One of the positive elements of neutralization theory is that it eliminates much of the over determined image of subcultural values implied in subculture theories.
  • Neutralization theory says nothing about the origins of the antisocial behavior the actors seek to neutralize.
evaluation of social process theories34
Evaluation of Social Process Theories
  • The major criticism of self-control theory arises from the Gottfredson and Hirschi’s claim that it is a general theory meant to explain all crime.
  • Labeling theory comes dangerously close to claiming that the original causes of crime do not matter.

Theory Key Concepts Strengths Weaknesses

Differential Association

Crime is learned in association with peers holding definitions favorable to law violation. Most likely to occur in differentially organized (lower-class) neighborhoods.

Explains the onset of offending and the power of peer pressure.

Neglects possibility of like seeking like (birds of a feather). Does not make distinction between private accepters and temporary compliers.

Social Learning

Definitions favorable to law violation depend on history of reinforcement and punishment. Excess rewards for criminal behavior perpetuate it.

Adds powerful concepts of operant psychology to explain how people learn criminal behavior. Links sociology to psychology.

Neglects individual differences affecting what is reinforcing to whom and the ease or difficulty with which one learns.

Social Bonding

Bonds to social institutions prevent crime, which otherwise comes naturally. The bonds are attachment, commitment, involvement, and belief.

The most popular and empirically supported theory. Emphasizes importance of the family and provides workable policy recommendations.

Neglects structural variables contributing to family instability and to loss of occupational opportunities. Neglects differences in the ease with which attachment is achieved.

policy prevention implications of social process theory
Policy & Prevention: Implications of Social Process Theory
  • If learning crime and delinquency within a particular culture is the problem, then changing relative aspects of that culture appear to be the answer; the provision of positive role models to replace negative role models.
  • Given the importance of nurturance and attachment, both versions of control theory support the idea of early family intervention designed to cultivate these things.

Policy & Prevention: Implications of Social Process Theory

  • Social-control theory emphasizes opportunity as well as self-control, thus some of the same policies advocated by routine activities and rational choice theorists (target hardening) are being recommended.
  • Labeling theory recommends that we allow offenders to protect their self-images as non-criminals by not challenging their “techniques of neutralization.”
policy prevention implications of social process theory39
Policy & Prevention: Implications of Social Process Theory

The only policy implication of neutralization theory is that criminal justice agents charged with managing offenders should strongly challenge their excuse making.