Critical itself was problematic. Many criminologists tried to

Critical analysis of Learning
focus on the theories of Sutherland and Akers


Learning theory, as an
integrated concept, include many sub-theories developed from Differential
Association Theory. Sutherland’s Differential Association Theory, as one of the
most important and influential theory, has it own role in the development of criminology.

The occurrence of it marked a significant watershed in criminology, since the
studies of crime at that time were strongly effected by the development of
Psychiatry, Psychoanalysis, and Biology, Sutherland firstly noticed that the
studies, at his time, always focus on the question why “mad” people commit
crime, and the reason why normal people commit crime was merely studied. The
establishment of Differential Association Theory ended the rule of medical
scientist and psychiatrists, and marked the birth of the theory of normal
psychology and social psychology of crime, and the arrival of modern criminal
sociology. Apart from the contribution of Sutherland’s work, however, the
theory itself was problematic. Many criminologists tried to revise the theory
to make it a better one, like the Differential Identification Theory by Daniel
Glaser, the Differential Association-Reinforcement Theory by Akers and Burgess,
and Bandura’s Social Learning Theory, all of these theory attempted to restate
Sutherland’s original Differential Association Theory. Even though the revised
theories themselves also had some problems, it is still a good phenomenon,
because the more studies of it, the better the theory could be. In this
article, the development of Differential Association Theory, which are
Differential Association Theory, Differential Identification Theory,
Differential Association-Reinforcement Theory, and Social Learning Theory, will
be discussed separately in different parts, but and the contributions and problems
of each theory will be critical assessed in these different parts. 

Differential Association Theory

Nobody will question the
fact that the Differential Association Theory occupied an important and special
status in criminology. Indeed, it is this theory that promote the idea that
environmental factors, rather than biological or psychological factors, matter.

It also established the perspective that criminal behavior is learned like any
other behaviors. 

This theory, despite all the
contributions it has, is problematic. In this part, according to the classic
“nine points”, this article summarizes four core issues that Differential
Association Theory has:

The first problem is
Differential 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 seems
like the Differential Association Theory only considers the external factors,
which is the social process of transmission, but fails to recognize that
internal factors also matter. Sutherland himself made three arguments for this
criticism: (1) what kind of personalities should be considered as significant?
(2) the term “personal trait” was not included in the concept of Differential
Association Theory thus it can’t be used as supplements to differential
association. (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 the
basis of the other two. The Learning process and learning outcome should not be
considered separately. Sutherland’s theory illustrate that because of the
differential association, people learn how to commit crime. However the
learning process, not only the learning process of deviant behavior, will not
take place only once, as the “point 7” pointed out, “Differential associations
may vary in frequency, duration, priority, and intensity”. The learning outcome
which is called the “personal trait”, thus will not be produced only once. Each
time when a learning process finishes, some out come, even not a complete
outcome,  will be produced, or it won’t
be called “learning” process. After that, the product of learning will have an
influence on the next learning process. Because of this, Sutherland’s argument
that these two things are different and should not be considered together
neglect the process of “interaction”. Moving on to the second argument, since
the “personal trait” should be take into account, this argument now look to
have been blown out of the water. The first argument, thus need to be
considered, but the question what kind of “personal trait” should be taken into
account is totally another aspect and it’s not the aim of this article, so it
won’t be discussed here.

The second problem is, some
of the expressions in this theory (point 6 and point 7) is ambiguous,
inexplicit, and hard to justify or test. Before this Firstly, The terms
appeared in the point fifth, sixth, seventh of the theory, which are the
“favorable to and unfavorable to”, “excess”, “frequency, duration, priority and
intensity”, are hard to observe, test and measure. this part will critical
analysis these term separately:

The most problematic one is
the use of term “favorable” and “unfavorable”. It is nearly impossible to
operationalize the term “favorable and unfavorable” (Short, 1957). To
illustrate it, the “weight” of each differential association must be discussed
first. This theory simply stated that differential association is the key
factor of the learning of deviant behavior, however as the article talked
before, this association action may happen many times, and as Sutherland
pointed out, the learning process of crime is the same with the learning
precess of any other behavior, so this means differential association might
occur and has nothing to do with criminal behavior and anti-criminal behavior
(Cressey, 1978). As this article discussed before, the “personal trait” should
have been added in the theory, the receptivity, which is one of the personal
traits, will be shaped and influenced by those associations (Gibbons, 1968).

Then the problem occurs: do those associations have the same influence on the
definition of “favorable to and unfavorable to”, or some of them, even one of
them have been added “weight”, because of the different receptivity of
different individual, that shape the meaning of “favorable to and unfavorable
to”? The theory didn’t explain this well. Even the theory could solve this
problem, 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 of
differential associations.

Moving on to the other
ambiguous terms, which are “excess” and “frequency, duration, priority and
intensity”. In an accurate description of a person’s criminal conduct, the form
of numbers and the mathematical ratio should be used to account for these forms
of contact. No such formula has been proposed yet, and it is extremely
difficult 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 the
variation and content of “frequency, duration, priority and intensity”.

The third problem of
Differential Association Theory is a fundamental one, which is the basis of the
theory. The two core propositions of Sutherland’s work is (1) ??????? and (2) ?????????. This two
propositions came from the theory named “symbolic interactionism” created by
George Herbert Mead, and in some extent, this theory is similar with the
cognitive-development theory, which is a branch of general learning theory
(Vold, 2002). However even in the area of general learning theory, the
cognitivism is not the most popular one, since there were different types of
cognitive theories, and it also need to face the fact that the behaviorism is
also influential. This article will not discuss which theory is better, because
it is not the the aim, however, what this article wants to illustrate is that
Sutherland’s Differential Association Theory could work only when the basis of
the theory is correct. This is not the responsibility that Sutherland should
take , since a criminologist is not an expert of the general learning theory,
but it will still make the theory questionable.

the last problem of
Differential Association Theory is in some extent, it is a circular argument.

Sutherland believed that the reason why a person commit crime is “because of an
excess of definitions favorable to violation of law over definitions
unfavorable to violation of the law”. This explanation shows that, from
Sutherland’s perspective, all of it could be blamed on the differential
individual’s life experiences and differential associations. However, history
can not be repeated and can not be tested. Although this definition answers the
question of why crime is committed, it does not really solve the problem. In
other words, Sutherland’s point of view is that “this person’s mind forms
the thought of sin.” Therefore, this means that Sutherland is using
criminal 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 needs
to explain the phenomenon, but another important theoretical value is to
provide relevant guidance for policy formulation. In this respect, the policy
implication of different association theory is not sufficient compared to other
theories, such as control theory or rational choice theory. Different
Association Theory suggest that crime is learned through learning process, and
that proposition has no practical value to the individual. Because in the
general 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 comes
from learning process and from this point of view, it is difficult to say that
the crime can be controlled from that aspect of society. If this theory is
true, the advice the theory can offer to families or individuals could simply
be “stay away from the bad guys”. However, this suggestion has the same essence
as some of the problems mentioned earlier in this article, which are difficult
to operate.

Differential Association-Reinforcement Theory

Sutherland’s Differential
Association Theory raises the idea that crime is learned, and lists what should
be learned as “the techniques of committing the crime and the specific
direction 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 the
indirect learning process (these two points are not analyzed in the earlier
part, because this paper thinks these two points are more related to the future
direction of research, not the flaws in theory itself). The most important
amendments to the different communicative theories is Different Reinforcement
and Social Learning theory (Akers and Burgess, 1966). In this revised theory,
Burgess and Axis applied the terms of modern learning theory (combining
Skinner’s operational control theory and Bandura’s social learning theory) to
restate Sutherland’s theory (Gibbons, 1987). This theory tried to solve the two
problems above, which include imitation and social learning into the theory,
and elaborate the process of studying and maintaining criminal behavior.

In this part, this article
will critical analysis the four main concepts which are the differential
association, definition, differential reinforcement and imitation:

The first problem is the
role “differential association” plays in this theory is ambiguous. When Akers used
modern behavior theory to review Sutherland’s theory, they find that three
questions were needed be answered: (1) what is the learning process, (2) what
factors maintain the repeat criminal behavior, and (3) what factors maintain
the pattern or contingency of reinforcement? Akers stated that, in the learning
process 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 provide
social reinforcement for these crimes. After that, the factor that can sustain
the continuance of criminal behavior is differential reinforcement (Akers,
1979). It is clear that Akers tried to build a theory based on the Differential
Association Theory rather than an alternative one, so differential association
was included in the four main concept of the theory (Krohn, xxxx). However,
according to Akers’ statement, the role of differential association in his
theory is “a kind of summary or global index of all the other unmeasured
behavioral process” (Akers,1998). So here comes the question: how could the
role of differential association play, in the same theory, as a starting point
and a summary at the same time?

The second problem of this
theory is it didn’t take into account the diversity of individual’s
personalities. In the earlier part this article has discussed the absence of
“personal trait” in Differential Association Theory. In this part, this article
will still talk about the absence of personalities in Differential
Reinforcement and Social Learning Theory, however, in a different perspective,
which is the testability of the theory. This theory, even if it is an
improvement on Differential Association Theory, still has the same problem
which is it’s hard to measure or test. Ideally, the stimulus at least can be
observed and identified if different individuals have the same pattern of
acceptance and response to the same stimulus. However, if we take into account
the diverse personality traits of individuals and the different modes of
response 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 the
laboratory (Krohn, xxxx). It can not set a fixed stimulus or easily review the
past of the subjects, which greatly increases the difficulty of recognizing
differential reinforcement.

The advantages and problems of the single theory focuses on

This part of the article will
not discuss the theories of Sutherland and Akers (but the Different Association
Theory will be the main example) as both have worked to make a single theory
that can explain the complex phenomenon of crime. However, through the analysis
of this article, both of these theories have problems in micro-level.

Therefore, this part will focus on the value of the single theory which focuses
on the macro-level, and critical analysis of its advantages and problems.

Before the Differential
Association Theory, etiology of crime is a multi-factor model, according to
this model, criminal behavior is caused by a variety of factors, such as mental
illness, broken families, minority status, age, social class, and so on
(Matsueda, 1988). However, this approach, in criminology, doesn’t have a
general meaning or value (Michael, 1933 and Adler, 1971), the explanation
including all the factors equals to explain nothing. Sutherland agree with this
view (Matsueda, 1988), and he wanted to build a single theory that can explain
the complex phenomenon of crime. With the continuous exploration of the nature
of the crime, Sutherland believed that a general and simple theory had been
founded by himself, namely: the occurrence of crime is because a person gets
excessive definition of crime, and the way how a person gets more definition of
crime is through differential association. This is an analysis from the micro
level (individual level). This conclusion is so clear and simple, abstracted,
and consistent with people’s common sense of life, so this theory is easily
accepted. This is also the advantage of a single theory.

However, through the
analysis of learning theory in this article, it can be found that there are
problems if individuals are the only thing to be studied. For example, the
issue of individual differences may not be verified at all. It is for this
reason 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 necessary
because social structures lead to crime by influencing people’s differential
association, definition, social reinforcement and imitation (Vold 2002).

Moreover, Akers (2009) also incorporates the concepts of other theories of
criminology into its own social learning theory and tried to integrate the
theory. Indeed, a general, unifying theory of criminology does not provide us
with an equally general, once and for all solution to the social problems.

Perhaps we can not use a unified formula, including all the independent
variables, including from top to bottom, from macro to micro various factors.

Could the theory really provide what we need, when trying to cover such a
complex phenomenon “crime” in human society with a simple concept?


This article
focuses on the learning theory of criminology. Taking into account both the
importance and development of the theory, two most representative one, which
are Sutherland’s Differential Association Theory and Akers’ Differential
Association-Reinforcement Theory, are conducted a critical analysis.

There are many
voices of criticism for different communicative theories, however, some of
which are due to the misunderstanding of the theory, such as “the theory
does not explain the origin of the crime; prison guards, police and
criminologists whether it is easier to become a criminal ” are not included in
this article. While recognizing and briefly describing the important
contribution of Sutherland’s theory in the field of criminology, this article
selects five typical questions for critical analysis. First of all, this theory
holds that “personality traits,” “psychological variables,”
and other factors should not be taken into account. Although these factors are
not part of the process of learning, the outcome of the learning process, which
is the “personal trait”, will have mutual effects on the subsequent learning
process, because different contacts will not happen only once; secondly, some
of the expressions of the theory are ambiguous, hard to be operationalized.

Thirdly, this paper argues that the theoretical basis of Differential
Association Theory is cognitive theory in the area of general learning theory,
and the credibility of this basic theory is doubtful. Fourth, back to the main
idea of the theory, that is, the occurrence of criminal acts is because through
differential association, the definition of favorable to law violation excesses
the definition of unfavorable to law violation, resulting in criminal thinking.

To some extent, this argument is a kind of circular argument. Finally, the
theory’s policy implications may be limited due to its features.

moving on to
Differential Association-Reinforcement Theory, first of all, this theory is the
improvement of Differential Association Theory, so it fills in some theoretical
gaps of it. However, the theory is still somewhat inadequate. First of all, the
role of differential association in the position of the theory is not clear.

According to the foregoing, differential association seems to be both a
starting point and a conclusion in this theory, which seems to be contradictory
to some extent. Secondly, the theory, like Differential Association Theory,
does not take into account different individual factors.

After analyzing these
two theories, this article further analyzes the advantages and problems of a
single criminological theory focusing on the micro level. The reason for doing
this is because neither Sutherland nor Akers hopes to establish a
once-and-for-all theory to explain the phenomenon of criminality, but
ultimately both seek help in macroscopic theories, which are the “differential
social structure” and “social structure”.

Through the
analysis of learning theory, this paper argues that it is impractical to create
a unified theory to explain all the criminal problems, at least based on the
theory of learning. This article is not to deny the undeniable role played by
learning theory in the history of the development of criminological theory. It
is simply not enough to rely on a single theory. The fact that learning theory
grew from the micro-level to the macroscopically social level (as described
above) suggests that the theories of criminology may should not be on their
own, 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 of
theory ignores the conflicting assumptions between theories (Hirsehi, 1979),
this paper argues that the theoretical integration can enhance the explanatory
power of criminological theory compared with the single theory of inadequate
interpretation of crime, and provides better policy implications.