Theories of Deviance (Criminology)

I have a big mid-term this evening. So I thought I’d try to write what I know down here off the top of my head as a little prep work:

Theories of deviant behavior have there origins in two controversial and conflicting theories: social control and differential association theory. Social control theory – with roots in psychology and Freud – has been championed by Travis Hirschi in two works, Causes of Delinquency and A General Theory of Crime (with Gottfredson). Where most crime theories ask why do people commit crimes?, Hirschi inverts the question and posits, What prevents people from committing criminal acts? Hirschi uses a Hobbesian model of human behavior, wherein all men have deviant wants and desires, but a social contract bonds humans to a consensus belief structure. Man’s life would be “solitary, nasty, brutish and short” where it not for strong social bonding that keep men on a straight and narrow path. Thus, normative behavior is maintained through faith in central social structures (the family, social institutions) and a central culture (one unifying believe system derived from laws and conformity).

In contrast Edwin Sutherland’s Differential Association Theory (DAT) is much less centered on conforming values and normative behavior. Sutherland was less focused on the cause of criminal behavior and more attuned to the process by which such behavior is acquired and transmitted. Developed through a series of nine statements over many years, Sutherland’s central thesis is that crime is learned in the same manner that other learning is acquired, and that it is transmitted within social groups. Unlike social control theory which hints at elements of determinism, DAT considers that humans are open to the possibility of learning criminal behavior depending on four factors; the frequency of exposure to criminal behavior, the duration of that exposure, the priority of it (were such behaviors learned early in life), and the intensity or priority of the learning. These variables work on the individual and thus determine the probability that he or she may turn to social deviance.

These two theories are a sort of nature vs. nurture argument, with Hirschi arguing the determinist, “born bad” position, while Sutherland argued that individuals were born with a blank slate, and through social conditioning could be influenced into criminal acts. Of the two, Hirschi’s argument is a a more individual approach to crime; strong bonding, particularly with parents at a young age, will help prevent adolescents from pursuing criminal outcomes. Sutherland’s is the more sociological argument; social systems can influence individuals and lead to criminal behavior.

Both theories have much to offer, but also many facets that are problematic for criminological thinking. Social control is more “cause” oriented and thus easier to test through traditional methods of experimentation (samples, control groups, observations). Sutherland’s work was developed more through loose questioning of basic assumptions of behavior, and thus less open to classic experimental testing. This has led many critics to question DAT’s validity. Yet despite early problems with measurement and operationalizing DAT, many later empirical tests of the theory have improved on these problems and demonstrated evidence that social learning exists.

In later years, Sutherland and his supporters expanded DAT beyond the individual learning process. Differential Group Organization (DGS) attempts to demonstrate how learning can migrate to the macro, aggregate level. DGS has its origins in the industrial revolution, where rapid economic expansion led to massive accumulation of wealth in western societies. This expansion led to an increasingly fractured society wherein an increasing separation between the haves and have nots (the creation of a class structure, and thus cultural strain) was created. DGO leads to the inevitable creation of subcultures, societies that compete and at time contradict with the central, law abiding consensus culture. In subculture theory, groups come to embrace a value system that is different from the central / middle-class value system imagined under control theory. Subcultures that are unable to attain wealth, power and success by legitimate purposes, come to achieve these means through illegitimate, and ultimately deviant measures.

It is through differential group organization that Sutherland falls in most sharp contrast to Hirschi and control theory. For control theorists there can only ever be one structure and culture held as constant; the traditional family structure and its support systems and the central consensus culture derived through law. In contrast, DGO allows for many cultures and structures that are all variable in there influence, and can thus influence each other. Structure can be determined by social class, by race, by family headship (two parent, single headship); culture is the accumulation of shared values of a community, and may be as variant as the imagination will allow.

It is not hard to see how these two approaches have been through the years co-opted for political advantage. At it’s worst, control theory – with it’s determinism and focus on one, unifying belief systems – becomes a tool of conservative thought There is only one view, one value system – relying heavily on a belief systems that appears moralistic – and society must bend to this structure, this culture’s will. In contrast, social learning theory is a liberal position; an inclusive theory that allows for every shade of belief system imaginable. It’s theories can’t be tested, but they are known to the devout through “testing” by “hippie” ethnographies and cultural acceptance.

Fortunately the truth meets a little more in the middle with these approaches, and over the years much scholarly attention has been devoted to test, augment, and improve these criminological methods.

Beginning with Akers, social learning theory has been added to by introducing elements of individual behavioral science to the Sutherland. Akers – introducing psychological aspects of BF Skinner’s work – realised that not only was crime learned, but that learning could be improved / detracted from through positive and negative reinforcement.

So too with Hirschi, who in his second major work, A General Theory of Crime distilled down his control theory to its origins, simply allowing that crime is committed by individuals with low self-control, and that individuals prone to low self control tend to be impulsive risk takers – self-centered, volatile – who prefer physical activity, and that low self control was introduced withing the first 6 – 8 years of life, at which time it was set for life (one wonders why it took Hirschi 30 years to realize what for most of us seems like common sense, but ours is not to contemplate the motivations of academia…)

Hirschi’s most devoted champion – some might call her his flying monkey – has been Ruth Kornhauser. Though she only published on work, 1978’s Social Sources of Delinquency, Kornhasuer has been a thorn in the side of social learning for the past 30 years. Kornhauser’s main contribution seems to have been taking later theories that showed support for social learning and hijacking them to demonstrate support for Hirschi.

Beginning in 1957 with the work of Sykes and Matza who introduced Neutralization or Drift theory to explain how criminals neutralize the effects of shame or guilt on their actions, both Kornhauser and Hirschi have argued that drift theory is actually control theory in drag, and what looks like pre-neutralization for anticipated criminal actions is actually post-justification for deeds already done. Thus attempts by criminals to deny responsibility, injury, a victim, to blame the condemners or appeal to an alternate authority are actually evidences that individuals are weakly socially bonded to a central conforming value system.

Further, Kornhauser has suggested that work by Thrasher, Sampson, Bursik and Grasmick focused on social disorganization and cultural transmission is evidence that social control is the dominant theory in criminological thinking. Key to these theories is the underlying assumption of a dominant, normative belief system that unifies a community. Where Kornhauser would argue that this belief system is Hirschi’s social consensus according to law, detractors disagree and say Kornhauser’s interpretation is too extreme (communities have a broad interpretation of concensus; “A lifestyle free from threatening crimes”).

Many later studies have gone on to demonstrate the validity of social disorganization and cultural transmission as examples of social learning. In two empirical studies Karen Heimer (later with De Coster) demonstrated the interrelation and variability of class and structure on inner-city communities. Heimer showed how community disadvantage, social capital, and criminogenic elements could influence levels of youth violence; where structural elements (family, race, female headship) could reduce disadvantage, social capital (strong community involvement at the private, parochial and public level) could reduce youth violence, and exposure to crime culture could increase youth violence.

Much debate exists over which is the dominate theory in criminal deviance theory, social control or social learning. Such all-or-nothing arguments lead to theoretical short-sightedness, it is better to learn from the contributions of both approaches and apply them as necessary toward a greater understanding of criminal behavior. Hirschi’s approaches is more centered on an individual, consensus model, attempting to explain a person’s position in a unifying social order. Sutherland argues from a group, learning position wherein social structures compete to influence the motives and behaviors of cultures. One hopes that future research an empirical study will help to clarify the positions and relations of these two theories withing the sociological discipline.


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