Micro-Macro Transitions in the Elaboration of Social Learning Theory

Gary F. Jensen, Vanderbilt University

Three major types of sociological theories were elaborated in the twentieth century, purporting to explain societal and individual level variations in crime--structural-strain, anomie theory, cultural deviance-differential association theory, and social disorganization-social control theory. One of the reasons Hirschi's Causes of Delinquency (1969) became the most quoted work in criminology in that century was its attempts to specify crucial differences among the three theories, differences that are most apparent when the contrasts draw on theorists who proposed their perspectives while also rejecting alternatives. For example, Robert Merton (1957) rejected theories emphasizing social and personal pathology and advocated an alternative, stressing the criminogenic effects of disjunctions between widely shared cultural goals and available means. Walter Miller (1958) rejected anomie-strain theories and proposed a type of cultural deviance theory as an alternative. Hirschi challenged versions of strain and cultural deviance theory and sought to resurrect social disorganization-social control theory, explaining delinquency by the absence of constraints while specifically rejecting the need for any form or source of cultural or subcultural motivation in the explanation. When Hirschi's work was published, a nascent "social learning theory" was under construction by Ronald Akers, elaborating on Burgess and Aker's (1966) reformulation of Sutherland's "differential association" theory. Initially presented as an operant restatement of Sutherland's basic propositions, Akers' specifications of a more general social learning theory elaborated new ideas that distinguished the theory from its predecessors, including cultural deviance theory and some interpretations of differential association theory. However, since social learning theory did not emerge as a repudiation of alternatives, issues that distinguished it from prior theories were not intially addressed. Akers has addressed the relation to other theories in recent works (1994, 2000) and has been elaborating the relevance of the theory to "macro" issues in criminology as well (1998). Yet, while the basic model is well-elaborated at the micro-level, the transition to a more macro-level version has not been completed. This paper takes additional steps in that direction by addressing the implications of micro characteristics of the theory for macro-level conceptions of the role of structure and culture in the generation of crime.

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Updated 05/20/2006