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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.
 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

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
 Describe neutralization theory
 Understand the policy implications of social process


 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
 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

 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

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
 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 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

Figure 5.1 Diagrammatic Presentation of
Differential Association Theory

Differential social Normative conflict Differential

organization in leads to definitions association with Crime and
lower-class areas favorable to law others holding delinquency
violation such definitions

Ronald Acker’s Social Learning Theory
 Social learning theory applies the concepts of
operant psychology to the vague “definitions
 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

Reinforcement Increases Punishment Decreases Behavior

Positive Reinforcement Positive Punishment

(something rewarding received) (something punishing applied)

Negative Reinforcement Negative Punishment

(something punishing avoided) (something rewarding lost)

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

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
 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 control theory is a theory

that places primary importance on the family.

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
 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

 Self-control: The extent to which different

people are vulnerable to the temptations of the
 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,

Figure 5.3
Diagrammatic Representation of Hirschi's
Social Control Theory

Lack of social bonds Releases natural Crime and

—attachments, inclinations to delinquency
commitment, satisfy needs
involvement, belief expediently
—that function as
social controls

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
 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

 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

Inadequate Failure to develop Low self-

monitoring and self-control. control plus Crime and
supervision Low self- opportunity delinquency
of children by control is the
parents default option
and others

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
 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

Primary deviance Apprehension and Offenders may Secondary

Flowing from a labeling as criminal or come to accept deviance
variety of causes delinquent. Person is labels and Delinquency and
that are of no stigmatized with change their crime consequent
concern to labeling a “master status.” self-concepts to to changes in
theorists fit those labels self-concept

Extending Labeling Theory

 John Braithwaite (1989): Nations

with low crime rates are those
where shaming has great social
 Disintegrative shaming:
Condemnation received by
offenders in the criminal justice
system; this shaming is
 Reintegrative shaming: A method
of condemning the offender’s acts
without condemning him or her

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
 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
 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
 Critics of differential association stress that
antisocial behavior comes naturally to the
unsocialized individual & the theory ignores
individual differences.

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 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 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

Theory Key Concepts Strengths Weaknesses
Differential Crime is learned in Explains the onset of Neglects possibility of like
Association association with peers offending and the seeking like (birds of a
holding definitions power of peer feather). Does not make
favorable to law violation. pressure. distinction between private
Most likely to occur in accepters and temporary
differentially organized compliers.
Social Definitions favorable to Adds powerful Neglects individual
Learning law violation depend on concepts of operant differences affecting what
history of reinforcement psychology to explain is reinforcing to whom and
and punishment. Excess how people learn the ease or difficulty with
rewards for criminal criminal behavior. which one learns.
behavior perpetuate it. Links sociology to
Social Bonds to social The most popular and Neglects structural
Bonding institutions prevent empirically variables contributing to
crime, which otherwise supported theory. family instability and to
comes naturally. The Emphasizes loss of occupational
bonds are attachment, importance of the opportunities. Neglects
commitment, involvement, family and provides differences in the ease
and belief. workable policy with which attachment 35
recommendations. achieved.
Theory Key Concepts Strengths Weaknesses
Self-Control Low self-control explains all Identifies a single Claims too much for a
crime and analogous acts. Low measurable trait to be single trait. Neglects child
self-control occurs in the responsible for many influences on parenting
absence of proper parenting. antisocial behaviors. behavior and the affects
Exposure to criminal Accords well with the of genes on low self-
opportunities explains impulsive nature of most control.
differences in criminal criminal behavior. Links
behavior among low self-control sociology to psychology.
Labeling Crime has no independent Explains consequences of The neglect of causes of
reality. Original primary labeling with a “master primary deviance. Advice
deviance is unimportant; what status.” Identifies the that criminals should be
is important is the labeling social construction of treated not punished
process, which leads to crime and points to the contradicts the theory
secondary (continuing) power of some (the that says that there is
deviance. Labeling people powerful) to criminalize nothing intrinsically bad
criminal leads them to organize the acts of others (the about crime and therefore
their self-concepts around that powerless). there is nothing to “treat.”

Neutralization Delinquents and criminals learn Emphasizes that criminals Says nothing about the
to neutralize moral constraints are no more fully origins of behavior being
and thus their guilt for committed to antisocial neutralized. More a theory
committing crimes. They drift attitudes than they are to of antisocial
in and out of crime. prosocial attitudes. Shows rationalization than of
how criminals handle crime. 36
feelings of guilt.
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

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.