SOC 2700 Lecture Notes - Homicide, Symbolic Interactionism, George Herbert Mead

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Crim Theory Chapter 9
Learning Theories
- Learning theories focus on the content of what is learned and the processes by which that learning
takes place
- Some of these learning theories briefly point to the structural conditions that give rise to the learning
in the first place, while others describe these structural conditions more extensively
- But in each case, the theories focus on the learning itself, rather than on the underlying structural
Basic Psychological Approaches to Learning
- Learning refers to habits and knowledge that develop as a result of the experiences of the individual in
entering and adjusting to the environment
- These are to be distinguished from unlearned or instinctual behaviour, which in some sense is present
in the individual at birth and is determined by biology
- Aristotle argued that all knowledge is acquired through experience and that none is inborn or
- Basic sensory experiences become associated with each other in the mind because they occur in
certain relationships to each other as we interact with the object
- He formulated four laws of association that described these relationships
- the law of similarity, the law of contrast, the law of succession in time, and the law of
coexistence in space
- He believed the most complex ideas are all built out of these simple associations between sensory
- Associationism has been the dominant learning theory through the centuries to the present
- It was the basis for the first experiments on human memory carried out by Ebbinhaus
- A major controversy among learning theorists is between behavioural theorists and the cognitive
theorists, who retain the original Aristotelian notion that learning takes place because of the association
of ideas and factual knowledge
- Whereas behaviourists argue that we acquire habits through the association of stimuli with responses,
cognitive theorists argue that we acquire factual knowledge through the association of memories, ideas,
or expectations
- Behaviourists argue that learning occurs primarily through trial and error, while cognitive theorists
describe learning as taking place through insight into problem solving
- There are 3 basic ways that individuals learn through association
- The simplest way is classical conditioning, as described by Pavlov
- Some stimuli will reliably produce a given response without any prior training of the organism
- The organism is passive and learns what to expect from the environment 23
- In operant conditioning, the organism is active and learns how to get what it wants from the
- Operant conditioning is associated with B.F Skinner
- It uses rewards and punishments to reinforce certain behaviours
- A third theory that describes how people learn by association attempts to combine both operant
conditioning and elements of psychology
- Called social learning theory, it emphasizes the point that behaviour may be reinforced not only
through actual rewards and punishments, but through expectations that are learned by watching what
happens to other people
- Social learning theory is focused on human learning, since it directs attention to higher mental
- Sutherland’s theory of differential association became the first dominant theory in the field and still
has a profound effect today
Sutherland’s Differential Association Theory
- His theory has remained unchanged since 1947 and consists of the following nine points
- Criminal behaviour is learned, and it is learned in interaction with other persons in a process of
- The principal part of the learning of criminal behaviour occurs within intimate personal groups
- When criminal behaviour is learned, the learning includes a) techniques of committing the crime,
which are sometimes very complicated, sometimes very simple, b) the specific direction of the motives,
drives, rationalizations, and attitudes
- The specific directions of the motives and drives is learned from definitions of legal codes as favorable
or unfavorable. In some societies an individual is surrounded by persons who invariably define the legal
codes as rules to be observed, while in others he is surrounded by persons whose definitions are
favorable to the violation of the legal codes
- A person becomes delinquent because of an excess of definitions favorable to violation of law over
definitions unfavorable to violation of law. This is the principle of differential association
- Differential associations may vary in frequency, duration, priority, and intensity. This means that
associations with criminal behaviour and also associations with anticriminal behaviour vary in those
- The process of learning criminal behaviour by association with criminal and anticriminal patterns
involves all of the mechanisms that are involved in any other learning
- While criminal behaviour is an expression of general needs and values, it is not explained by those
general needs and values, since noncriminal behaviour is an expression of the same needs and values.
The attempts by many scholars to explain criminal behaviour by general drives and values, such as the
happiness principle, striving for social status, the money motive, or frustration, have been, and must
continue to be, futile, since they explain lawful behaviour as completely as they explain criminal
behaviour. They are similar to respiration, which is necessary for any behaviour, but which doesn’t
differentiate criminal from noncriminal behaviour
- Sutherland’s theory has two basic elements
- The content of what is learned includes specific techniques for committing crimes; appropriate
motives, drives, rationalizations, and attitudes; and more general definitions favorable to law violation
- In addition, the process by which the learning takes place involves associations with other people in
intimate personal groups
- Both elements of his theory are derived from symbolic interactionism, a theory developed by George
Herbert Mead
- Sutherland’s description of the content of what is learned was derived from Mead’s argument that
human beings act toward things on the basis of the meanings that the things have for them
- In Mead’s theory, a cognitive factor – meanings determines behaviour
- He argued that people construct relatively permanent definitions of their situation out of the meanings
they derive from particular experiences. That is, they generalize the meanings they have derived from
particular situations and form a relatively set way of looking at things
- It’s because of these different definitions that different people in similar situations may act in different
- Sutherland argued that the key factor in determining whether people violate the law is the meaning
they give to the social conditions they experience, rather than the conditions themselves
- Ultimately, whether people obey or violate the law depends on how they define their situation
- Sutherland’s description of the process by which definitions are learned was also derived from Mead’s
- Mead argued that the meaning of such things is derived from, or arises out of, the social interaction on
has with one’s fellows
- Sutherland argued that the meaning of criminal acts arises primarily from the meanings given to these
acts by other people with whom the individual associates in intimate personal groups
- Sutherland also argued that these associations vary in frequency, duration, priority, and intensity
- He also discussed the general social conditions underlying the differential association process
- In the final version of his theory, he argued that there are numerous divergent associations organized
around different interests and for different purposes
- Under this condition of divergent, differential social organizations, it is inevitable that some of these
groups will subscribe to and support criminal patterns of behaviour, others will be essentially neutral,
and still others will be definitely anticriminal and self-consciously law abiding
- Sutherland’s coauthor Cressey substituted the term normative conflict for the term culture conflict
after Sutherland’s death
- Normative conflict refers to the situation in which different social groups hold different views about
appropriate ways to behave in specific situations and circumstances
- He was clarifying, not changing, Sutherland’s argument
- Sutherland’s theory stated that in a situation of differential social organization and normative conflict,
differences in behaviour, including criminal behaviours, arise because of differential associations
Research testing Sutherland’s Theory
- In Sutherland’s theory, crime and delinquency are caused by associating with other people who
transmit definitions that favor violations of the law
- Sheldon and Eleanor Glueck said that “birds of a feather flock together” – that is, delinquents may
select as friends other youths whose values and behaviours are similar to their own
- If this is the case, then delinquency causes delinquent friends, but delinquent friends don’t cause
- Not everyone who associates with criminals and delinquents adopts or follows the criminal pattern
- Sutherland suggested that with respect to associations, frequency, duration, priority, and intensity
determined how much impact they had on a person, and he supported this argument with case histories
and with self-appraisal statements by various individuals who had followed a criminal pattern
- Sheldon Glueck questioned whether Sutherland’s theory was inherently untestable
- Matsueda asserted that differential association theory can be tested and that a considerable amount
of research has support it
- He argued that a variety of studies have found that juveniles who report having more delinquent
friends also report committing more delinquent acts, and that these studies provide general support for
the theory
- He also stated that a number of studies have focused on the content of definitions that are favorable
to violation of the law and showed that these definitions are associated with increased tendencies to
engage in criminal and delinquent behaviour
- He said these definitions are disagreements with the larger culture about the specific situations in
which the laws should apply
- For example, he described the legal defenses to crime, such as self-defense and insanity, as
prototypical definitions favorable to crime, but stated that these defenses are included in the law rather
than excluded from it