Critical analysis of LearningTheory——focus on the theories of Sutherland and AkersIntroductionLearning theory, as anintegrated concept, include many sub-theories developed from DifferentialAssociation Theory. Sutherland’s Differential Association Theory, as one of themost important and influential theory, has it own role in the development of criminology.The occurrence of it marked a significant watershed in criminology, since thestudies of crime at that time were strongly effected by the development ofPsychiatry, Psychoanalysis, and Biology, Sutherland firstly noticed that thestudies, at his time, always focus on the question why “mad” people commitcrime, and the reason why normal people commit crime was merely studied.
Theestablishment of Differential Association Theory ended the rule of medicalscientist and psychiatrists, and marked the birth of the theory of normalpsychology and social psychology of crime, and the arrival of modern criminalsociology. Apart from the contribution of Sutherland’s work, however, thetheory itself was problematic. Many criminologists tried to revise the theoryto make it a better one, like the Differential Identification Theory by DanielGlaser, the Differential Association-Reinforcement Theory by Akers and Burgess,and Bandura’s Social Learning Theory, all of these theory attempted to restateSutherland’s original Differential Association Theory. Even though the revisedtheories themselves also had some problems, it is still a good phenomenon,because the more studies of it, the better the theory could be. In thisarticle, the development of Differential Association Theory, which areDifferential Association Theory, Differential Identification Theory,Differential Association-Reinforcement Theory, and Social Learning Theory, willbe discussed separately in different parts, but and the contributions and problemsof each theory will be critical assessed in these different parts. Differential Association TheoryNobody will question thefact that the Differential Association Theory occupied an important and specialstatus in criminology. Indeed, it is this theory that promote the idea thatenvironmental factors, rather than biological or psychological factors, matter.It also established the perspective that criminal behavior is learned like anyother behaviors.
This theory, despite all thecontributions it has, is problematic. In this part, according to the classic”nine points”, this article summarizes four core issues that DifferentialAssociation Theory has:The first problem isDifferential Association Theory do neglect an important determinant of crime,what it means is this theory does not properly take into account the”personality traits” or “psychological variables” in criminal behavior.furthermore, the factors such as “response pattern”, “acceptance pattern” and”receptivity pattern” of individuals are not take into account either. It seemslike the Differential Association Theory only considers the external factors,which is the social process of transmission, but fails to recognize thatinternal factors also matter. Sutherland himself made three arguments for thiscriticism: (1) what kind of personalities should be considered as significant?(2) the term “personal trait” was not included in the concept of DifferentialAssociation Theory thus it can’t be used as supplements to differentialassociation. (3) the differential association is a process of learning, but the”personal trait” is the product of learning, they can’t be combined together.This article will talk about the third argument first, since this one is thebasis of the other two. The Learning process and learning outcome should not beconsidered separately.
Sutherland’s theory illustrate that because of thedifferential association, people learn how to commit crime. However thelearning process, not only the learning process of deviant behavior, will nottake place only once, as the “point 7” pointed out, “Differential associationsmay vary in frequency, duration, priority, and intensity”. The learning outcomewhich is called the “personal trait”, thus will not be produced only once. Eachtime when a learning process finishes, some out come, even not a completeoutcome, will be produced, or it won’tbe called “learning” process. After that, the product of learning will have aninfluence on the next learning process. Because of this, Sutherland’s argumentthat these two things are different and should not be considered togetherneglect the process of “interaction”. Moving on to the second argument, sincethe “personal trait” should be take into account, this argument now look tohave been blown out of the water. The first argument, thus need to beconsidered, but the question what kind of “personal trait” should be taken intoaccount is totally another aspect and it’s not the aim of this article, so itwon’t be discussed here.
The second problem is, someof the expressions in this theory (point 6 and point 7) is ambiguous,inexplicit, and hard to justify or test. Before this Firstly, The termsappeared in the point fifth, sixth, seventh of the theory, which are the”favorable to and unfavorable to”, “excess”, “frequency, duration, priority andintensity”, are hard to observe, test and measure. this part will criticalanalysis these term separately:The most problematic one isthe use of term “favorable” and “unfavorable”. It is nearly impossible tooperationalize the term “favorable and unfavorable” (Short, 1957).
Toillustrate it, the “weight” of each differential association must be discussedfirst. This theory simply stated that differential association is the keyfactor of the learning of deviant behavior, however as the article talkedbefore, this association action may happen many times, and as Sutherlandpointed out, the learning process of crime is the same with the learningprecess of any other behavior, so this means differential association mightoccur and has nothing to do with criminal behavior and anti-criminal behavior(Cressey, 1978). As this article discussed before, the “personal trait” shouldhave been added in the theory, the receptivity, which is one of the personaltraits, will be shaped and influenced by those associations (Gibbons, 1968).
Then the problem occurs: do those associations have the same influence on thedefinition of “favorable to and unfavorable to”, or some of them, even one ofthem have been added “weight”, because of the different receptivity ofdifferent individual, that shape the meaning of “favorable to and unfavorableto”? The theory didn’t explain this well. Even the theory could solve thisproblem, it still hard to find out which is the determinant one in practice,due to the complexity of real life, there could be a huge number ofdifferential associations. Moving on to the otherambiguous terms, which are “excess” and “frequency, duration, priority andintensity”.
In an accurate description of a person’s criminal conduct, the formof numbers and the mathematical ratio should be used to account for these formsof contact. No such formula has been proposed yet, and it is extremelydifficult to come up with such a formula. As Glaser (1956) mentioned, the phrase”excess of definitions” itself lacks clear denotation in human experience.Stanfield (1966) also pointed out the extreme difficulty to measure thevariation and content of “frequency, duration, priority and intensity”.The third problem ofDifferential Association Theory is a fundamental one, which is the basis of thetheory.
The two core propositions of Sutherland’s work is (1) ??????? and (2) ?????????. This twopropositions came from the theory named “symbolic interactionism” created byGeorge Herbert Mead, and in some extent, this theory is similar with thecognitive-development theory, which is a branch of general learning theory(Vold, 2002). However even in the area of general learning theory, thecognitivism is not the most popular one, since there were different types ofcognitive theories, and it also need to face the fact that the behaviorism isalso influential. This article will not discuss which theory is better, becauseit is not the the aim, however, what this article wants to illustrate is thatSutherland’s Differential Association Theory could work only when the basis ofthe theory is correct. This is not the responsibility that Sutherland shouldtake , since a criminologist is not an expert of the general learning theory,but it will still make the theory questionable.the last problem ofDifferential Association Theory is in some extent, it is a circular argument.
Sutherland believed that the reason why a person commit crime is “because of anexcess of definitions favorable to violation of law over definitionsunfavorable to violation of the law”. This explanation shows that, fromSutherland’s perspective, all of it could be blamed on the differentialindividual’s life experiences and differential associations. However, historycan not be repeated and can not be tested. Although this definition answers thequestion of why crime is committed, it does not really solve the problem. Inother words, Sutherland’s point of view is that “this person’s mind formsthe thought of sin.” Therefore, this means that Sutherland is usingcriminal thought to explain the criminal behavior, and this is, in some extent,a circular argument, and thus this theory might not have the falsifiability.A good theory not only needsto explain the phenomenon, but another important theoretical value is toprovide relevant guidance for policy formulation.
In this respect, the policyimplication of different association theory is not sufficient compared to othertheories, such as control theory or rational choice theory. DifferentAssociation Theory suggest that crime is learned through learning process, andthat proposition has no practical value to the individual. Because in thegeneral sense, the most basic feature of human nature is education. (Kuli,1999) Because of this nature, individuals are always ready to accept the”definition” of law violation and criminal activities. Furthermore,”learning” is an inevitable process of social adaptation. crime comesfrom learning process and from this point of view, it is difficult to say thatthe crime can be controlled from that aspect of society. If this theory istrue, the advice the theory can offer to families or individuals could simplybe “stay away from the bad guys”.
However, this suggestion has the same essenceas some of the problems mentioned earlier in this article, which are difficultto operate.Differential Association-Reinforcement TheorySutherland’s DifferentialAssociation Theory raises the idea that crime is learned, and lists what shouldbe learned as “the techniques of committing the crime and the specificdirection of motives, drives, rationalizations, and attitudes.” However,he did not discuss the details of the learning process, which is how to learn,and he also didn’t take into account theindirect learning process (these two points are not analyzed in the earlierpart, because this paper thinks these two points are more related to the futuredirection of research, not the flaws in theory itself). The most importantamendments to the different communicative theories is Different Reinforcementand Social Learning theory (Akers and Burgess, 1966). In this revised theory,Burgess and Axis applied the terms of modern learning theory (combiningSkinner’s operational control theory and Bandura’s social learning theory) torestate Sutherland’s theory (Gibbons, 1987). This theory tried to solve the twoproblems above, which include imitation and social learning into the theory,and elaborate the process of studying and maintaining criminal behavior.In this part, this articlewill critical analysis the four main concepts which are the differentialassociation, definition, differential reinforcement and imitation:The first problem is therole “differential association” plays in this theory is ambiguous.
When Akers usedmodern behavior theory to review Sutherland’s theory, they find that threequestions were needed be answered: (1) what is the learning process, (2) whatfactors maintain the repeat criminal behavior, and (3) what factors maintainthe pattern or contingency of reinforcement? Akers stated that, in the learningprocess of criminal behavior, everything started from differential association.These include the association with those who subscribe to the values of crime,those who can serve as role models for imitated crimes, and those who providesocial reinforcement for these crimes. After that, the factor that can sustainthe continuance of criminal behavior is differential reinforcement (Akers,1979). It is clear that Akers tried to build a theory based on the DifferentialAssociation Theory rather than an alternative one, so differential associationwas included in the four main concept of the theory (Krohn, xxxx). However,according to Akers’ statement, the role of differential association in histheory is “a kind of summary or global index of all the other unmeasuredbehavioral process” (Akers,1998). So here comes the question: how could therole of differential association play, in the same theory, as a starting pointand a summary at the same time?The second problem of thistheory is it didn’t take into account the diversity of individual’spersonalities.
In the earlier part this article has discussed the absence of”personal trait” in Differential Association Theory. In this part, this articlewill still talk about the absence of personalities in DifferentialReinforcement and Social Learning Theory, however, in a different perspective,which is the testability of the theory. This theory, even if it is animprovement on Differential Association Theory, still has the same problemwhich is it’s hard to measure or test.
Ideally, the stimulus at least can beobserved and identified if different individuals have the same pattern ofacceptance and response to the same stimulus. However, if we take into accountthe diverse personality traits of individuals and the different modes ofresponse to stimuli, we will find that the same stimuli reinforce one person,but not for others. Social science is not the subject of experiments in thelaboratory (Krohn, xxxx). It can not set a fixed stimulus or easily review thepast of the subjects, which greatly increases the difficulty of recognizingdifferential reinforcement.The advantages and problems of the single theory focuses onmicro-level This part of the article willnot discuss the theories of Sutherland and Akers (but the Different AssociationTheory will be the main example) as both have worked to make a single theorythat can explain the complex phenomenon of crime. However, through the analysisof this article, both of these theories have problems in micro-level.
Therefore, this part will focus on the value of the single theory which focuseson the macro-level, and critical analysis of its advantages and problems.Before the DifferentialAssociation Theory, etiology of crime is a multi-factor model, according tothis model, criminal behavior is caused by a variety of factors, such as mentalillness, broken families, minority status, age, social class, and so on(Matsueda, 1988). However, this approach, in criminology, doesn’t have ageneral meaning or value (Michael, 1933 and Adler, 1971), the explanationincluding all the factors equals to explain nothing. Sutherland agree with thisview (Matsueda, 1988), and he wanted to build a single theory that can explainthe complex phenomenon of crime. With the continuous exploration of the natureof the crime, Sutherland believed that a general and simple theory had beenfounded by himself, namely: the occurrence of crime is because a person getsexcessive definition of crime, and the way how a person gets more definition ofcrime is through differential association. This is an analysis from the microlevel (individual level).
This conclusion is so clear and simple, abstracted,and consistent with people’s common sense of life, so this theory is easilyaccepted. This is also the advantage of a single theory.However, through theanalysis of learning theory in this article, it can be found that there areproblems if individuals are the only thing to be studied.
For example, theissue of individual differences may not be verified at all. It is for thisreason that in the later Sutherland studies he introduced the macro concept of”different social organization” to his theory; similarly, Akers(1992) also considered adding the concept “social structure” is necessarybecause social structures lead to crime by influencing people’s differentialassociation, definition, social reinforcement and imitation (Vold 2002).Moreover, Akers (2009) also incorporates the concepts of other theories ofcriminology into its own social learning theory and tried to integrate thetheory. Indeed, a general, unifying theory of criminology does not provide uswith an equally general, once and for all solution to the social problems.Perhaps we can not use a unified formula, including all the independentvariables, including from top to bottom, from macro to micro various factors.Could the theory really provide what we need, when trying to cover such acomplex phenomenon “crime” in human society with a simple concept?Conclusion This articlefocuses on the learning theory of criminology. Taking into account both theimportance and development of the theory, two most representative one, whichare Sutherland’s Differential Association Theory and Akers’ DifferentialAssociation-Reinforcement Theory, are conducted a critical analysis.There are manyvoices of criticism for different communicative theories, however, some ofwhich are due to the misunderstanding of the theory, such as “the theorydoes not explain the origin of the crime; prison guards, police andcriminologists whether it is easier to become a criminal ” are not included inthis article.
While recognizing and briefly describing the importantcontribution of Sutherland’s theory in the field of criminology, this articleselects five typical questions for critical analysis. First of all, this theoryholds that “personality traits,” “psychological variables,”and other factors should not be taken into account. Although these factors arenot part of the process of learning, the outcome of the learning process, whichis the “personal trait”, will have mutual effects on the subsequent learningprocess, because different contacts will not happen only once; secondly, someof the expressions of the theory are ambiguous, hard to be operationalized.Thirdly, this paper argues that the theoretical basis of DifferentialAssociation Theory is cognitive theory in the area of general learning theory,and the credibility of this basic theory is doubtful. Fourth, back to the mainidea of the theory, that is, the occurrence of criminal acts is because throughdifferential association, the definition of favorable to law violation excessesthe definition of unfavorable to law violation, resulting in criminal thinking.To some extent, this argument is a kind of circular argument.
Finally, thetheory’s policy implications may be limited due to its features.moving on toDifferential Association-Reinforcement Theory, first of all, this theory is theimprovement of Differential Association Theory, so it fills in some theoreticalgaps of it. However, the theory is still somewhat inadequate. First of all, therole of differential association in the position of the theory is not clear.
According to the foregoing, differential association seems to be both astarting point and a conclusion in this theory, which seems to be contradictoryto some extent. Secondly, the theory, like Differential Association Theory,does not take into account different individual factors.After analyzing thesetwo theories, this article further analyzes the advantages and problems of asingle criminological theory focusing on the micro level. The reason for doingthis is because neither Sutherland nor Akers hopes to establish aonce-and-for-all theory to explain the phenomenon of criminality, butultimately both seek help in macroscopic theories, which are the “differentialsocial structure” and “social structure”. Through theanalysis of learning theory, this paper argues that it is impractical to createa unified theory to explain all the criminal problems, at least based on thetheory of learning. This article is not to deny the undeniable role played bylearning theory in the history of the development of criminological theory.
Itis simply not enough to rely on a single theory. The fact that learning theorygrew from the micro-level to the macroscopically social level (as describedabove) suggests that the theories of criminology may should not be on theirown, and theoretical integration may be the solution to this problem. Indeed,criminologists did such research (Ellitoo et al.
, 1979, Braithwaite, 1989,Tittle, 1995, Vila, 1994). Although some scholars think that the integration oftheory ignores the conflicting assumptions between theories (Hirsehi, 1979),this paper argues that the theoretical integration can enhance the explanatorypower of criminological theory compared with the single theory of inadequateinterpretation of crime, and provides better policy implications.