In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Social Learning Theory

  • Introduction
  • General Treatments
  • Critiques Against Social Learning Theory
  • The Role of Peers, Family, and Community in Social Learning
  • Social Learning–Based Intervention Strategies

Criminology Social Learning Theory
Thomas Holt
  • LAST REVIEWED: 14 December 2009
  • LAST MODIFIED: 14 December 2009
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0002


Social learning theory has had a distinct and lasting impact on the field of criminology. This framework evolved from Edwin Sutherland’s Differential Association in the 1940s, which argued that crime is learned through interactions with intimate peers where individuals acquire definitions that support or refute the violation of law. This theory was revised in Burgess and Akers 1966 (see Social Learning) to become a Differential Association-Reinforcement model recognizing the impact of peer attitudes and reactions to delinquency. The theory was further revised in the 1970s and 1980s to become a social learning model developed by Ronald Akers. This model builds from the previous work by recognizing the significance of delinquent peers, differential definitions of and reinforcement for offending behaviors, and the influence of imitation of peer behavior. Finally, Akers adapted the model in 1998 to become a macro-level model of delinquency and crime by arguing that social learning mediates the influence of structural factors on offending. This perspective provides a distinct framework to understand the influence of human agency, social forces, and peers on behavior.

General Treatments

Akers and Jensen 2003 provides an excellent theoretical and empirical assessment of multiple facets of the micro and macro social learning models. Akers and Jensen 2006 provides a detailed overview of the research on social learning in 2006 and find that this theory is generally supported when various individual and aggregate-level variables are included in models with social learning constructs. These two works are appropriate for graduates and researchers, while Akers and Sellers 2008 provides a comprehensive and accessible chapter on social learning theory that would be appropriate for graduates and undergraduates alike. Other seminal texts on social learning theory are discussed in other sections of this bibliography.

  • Akers, Ronald L., and Gary F. Jensen, eds. 2003. Social learning theory and the explanation of crime: A guide for the new century. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

    Significant edited volume that provides a robust discussion of social learning theory from multiple authors, including empirical and theoretical discussions of a variety of components of both social learning and the larger social structure and social learning models.

  • Akers, Ronald L., and Gary F. Jensen. 2006. The empirical status of social learning theory of crime and deviance: The past, present, and future. In Taking stock: The status of criminological theory. Edited by Francis T. Cullen, John Paul Wright, and Kristie R. Blevins, 37–76. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

    Summary of the body of social learning research, including support for and critiques of this theory, as well as future areas of exploration.

  • Akers, Ronald L., and Christine S. Sellers. 2008. Criminological theories: Introduction, evaluation, and application. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Provides a robust discussion of social learning theory and its evolution over time, along with a variety of other criminological theories.

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