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Social Process Theories in Criminology

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  • 0:00 Social Process and…
  • 1:30 Differential Association
  • 3:26 Social Learning & Social Bonds
  • 5:48 Neutralization Theory
  • 7:10 Labeling Theory
  • 7:59 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Melanie Norwood

Melanie has taught several criminal justice courses, holds an MS in Sociology concentrating in Criminal Justice & is completing her Ph.D. in Criminology, Law & Justice.

In this lesson, we will discuss the concept of social process in criminology. We will also look at how it relates to symbolic interactionism and how this framework is used in several different criminological theories.

Social Process and Social Reality

The concept of social process in criminology is the foundation for several criminological theories. These theories emerged in response to earlier criminological theories that contended that people commit crime for psychological or biological reasons. Social process explores how we learn things in our interactions with other people. It relies on the concept of symbolic interactionism, which focuses on how people interpret and define their social reality based on interactions with others. It also examines how people assign meanings to things.

For instance, if you were in a serious relationship and your significant other unexpectedly broke up with you on a date, you might get rid of the clothes you were wearing when it happened. You attached meaning to the clothes based on your association of them to a negative interaction with someone else that you cared about.

Another component of social process and symbolic interactionism is the element of social reality. A famous related quote is called the Thomas Theorem, which states: 'What we believe is real is real in its consequences.' Back in our breakup example, you may have believed the outfit you wore that night was bad luck. So, if you did wear it again, and that same day you slammed your hand in your car door, you might believe it was because you wore that outfit. It's not likely that the outfit had anything to do with you slamming your hand in the car door. However, you made the connection with your mind, and you ultimately believe that the outfit is the reason that happened. This is just one of many examples of how a person's beliefs affect their social reality.

Differential Association

One of the first criminological theories to use social process was differential association theory. This was one of the first theories to state that criminal behavior is learned, rather than biological. Furthermore, it stated that the behavior is learned by interacting and communicating with other people. No one had ever proposed these ideas specific to criminal behavior before. Sutherland contended that this learning typically occurs in small, closely-knit groups and includes the techniques of committing a crime. It also provides an avenue for direction regarding the motivations, attitudes, values, beliefs, and rationalizations for committing the crime. Just like a child isn't born knowing how to tie his shoes, he also must learn how to pick a pocket on a train, as well as why he should pick a pocket on a train. Part of the learning also includes favorable or unfavorable perspectives on criminal laws - what it means to live within or outside the boundaries of the law.

A person becomes delinquent because of an excess of unfavorable perspectives towards the law. This is no surprise: young people often listen more to their friends and peers than their adult parents. So, if their friends scoff at the law, they likely will, too, if they are spending more time with their friends than their parents. Sutherland also contended that differential associations will vary in frequency, duration, intensity and priority. Thus, the longer and more frequently one youth interacts with a delinquent youth, the more likely he is to become delinquent himself.

Another component of differential association is that the core process of learning criminal behavior is the same as that of learning law-abiding behavior. People learn to commit crime the same way they learn anything else. Lastly, Sutherland argued that the motivations for criminal and law-abiding behavior cannot be one and the same. In that vein, you can't be driven to achieve academic excellence and cheat on a test at the same time. You wouldn't be academically excellent by cheating because your test scores wouldn't actually be yours.

Social Learning & Social Bonds

Akers and Burgess, two prominent criminologists, built onto differential association by blending a bit of operant conditioning (learning by associating an action with its consequences) into the theory. They developed social learning theory, which added the notion that non-social conditions can contribute to a person's learning of criminal behavior. Specifically, it noted that certain environments can offer situations ripe for learning criminal behavior without any social interaction. Let's say you live in a busy city and are riding the subway home. It's a crowded train during rush hour and people are packed like sardines. You observe a young man wedge his way through the crowd on his way to the exit. Along the way, you see him slip a cell phone from an unsuspecting standing passenger's bag into his pocket as he squeezes his way through the crowd. You try to say something but your voice is drowned out through the din of the crowd and the announcements on the train. You weren't directly instructed, but your experience and observation of the consequences of the thief's actions could enable you to later model your behavior in accordance to what you just learned. Without exchanging a word with the thief, you now know how to steal a cell phone on a train.

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