Skip to main content
SearchLoginLogin or Signup

Culture & Social Learning

Published onJan 03, 2023
Culture & Social Learning

Lesson Objectives

Learning Activities

Learning Assessment

  1. Know the tenets of Culture / Social Learning theories

  2. Identify the development of Culture / Social Learning theories

  3. Distinguish between Culture / Social Learning theories and theorists

  4. Apply Culture / Social Learning theories to real-world criminal cases

  5. Discuss Culture / Social Learning theories’ ability to explain crime

  6. Evaluate Culture / Social Learning theories’ ability to explain crime

Read Culture / Social Learning Overview

Read Wolfgang & Ferracuti; Anderson; Sutherland; Akers

Complete Study Guide Culture / Social Learning

Watch Theorist Video-Matsueda

Annotate Theorist Video-Matsueda

Watch “Woman recalls being branded as part of joining secret society”

Annotate “Woman recalls being branded as part of joining secret society”

Explain how Cultural theory applies to the crime in the video

Come up with your own example of Cultural theory operating in another case, such as a recent news event or your own life

Overview and Reading Quiz. Culture / Social Learning

Theorist Video Quiz-Matsueda

Video Discussion-Culture


Given that this is a criminological theory class, I can’t reiterate the following enough. So, you’ll keep seeing the following:

Theory is a statement about how something affects something else.

Scientific theory states how something empirical (an independent variable) affects something else empirical (the dependent variable).

Something is empirical if you can hear, see, touch, smell, or taste it.

The reason it is good for theories to be empirical is they can be tested and falsified.

Indeed, whether a theory is good isn’t only about being valid. Also, a theory is better if it is simpler, more general, more original, and more useful.

Criminological theory states how something (an independent variable) affects crime (the dependent variable).

The vast majority of criminological theories make statements about why communities, individuals, and situations are more likely to have or commit crime.

Note that criminological theories rarely, if ever, only focus on empirical somethings, but let’s ignore that.

There are a lot of criminological theories that differ in a lot of ways. Mostly though, you should think of criminological theories as being based in one or more disciplines, such as economics, biology, sociology, psychology, anthropology, and so on.

Criminology, to be clear, is not a discipline. It’s a field of study; that is, the study of crime.

Current Course Section

After the introductory material, this course has seven sections reflecting major disciplinary approaches to the study of crime. However, because criminology is interdisciplinary, sometimes the lines between disciplines have become murky, so some of the sections have elements of multiple disciplines.

The current section focuses on sociological theories of crime.

As with “theory,” “criminology,” and many other words, “sociology” and “psychology” have different meanings. In this class, simply think of them as the study of society and the human mind, respectively.

For this section, you will read three works relating to a particular strand of such theories, namely that of “culture” and “social learning.”

Before briefly going over those works, I’m obliged to remind you that we won’t examine every criminological theory of this sort. But if you want to see further examples, you should either do a Wikipedia search or, maybe better yet, browse the Oxford Bibliography entries on Criminology.

Readings and Theories Therein

Usually in this course, I suggest that you read the community-level works first, then the individual- or situational-level theories. I’m not sure if that’s the best order for this particular section for reasons I’ll spare you of. Anyways, that’s just to say to feel free to start with the third and fourth readings, then work to the first and second ones. But for consistency, I’ll recommend beginning with the community-level works.

The first community-level reading is Wolfgang and Ferracuti's article. Therein, they describe a particular subculture of violence to explain the occurrence of violence, particularly homicide. They contend that within the subculture, violence is viewed as normal. This subculture was observed among predominately lower-class, minority communities. However, not all persons exposed to the subculture share values conducive to violence to the same extent. Their theory suggests that the subculture influences the use of violence through social learning and differential association.

The second community-level reading is Anderson’s article. He describes a particular subculture that he says emerges out of the social disadvantages faced in many poor inner-city communities. “The code of the streets,” as he calls it, is a set of informal rules that people use to gain status and protect themselves in such communities.

In addition to describing the various facets of this culture, he goes into detail about its causes; its effect on crime, especially violence, and other behaviors; and how it compares to “decent culture” also found in such communities.

The first individual-level reading is an excerpt from Sutherland’s Principles of Criminology. You may like this reading because it’s really short, but, of course, that’s not why you’re reading it.

After providing a definition of criminology and discussing the basics of scientific explanations, he presents a series of propositions about why people become involved, or not, in criminal behavior. These propositions make up what are known as his theory of differential association.

The basic tenants of Sutherland’s theory more or less align with what nowadays people refer to as social learning theory. The second individual-level reading is Akers’ article on differential association and social learning, including how they compare to cultural deviance theory (e.g., ideas like those of Wolfgang, Ferracuti, and Anderson).

This article does a really nice job of summarizing Sutherlands’ ideas, explaining how they form a less developed version of social learning theory (which Akers is famous for), and the connections between “social learning” and “culture.” In doing so, Akers goes to great length to dispel some of the mistaken criticisms of Sutherland’s theory and his own.

Wolfgang, Marvin E., and Franco Ferracuti. 1967. The Subculture of Violence: Toward an Integrated Theory in Criminology. Tavistock Publications. (Fair use of pp. 95-99, 140-163)

Anderson, Elijah. 1994. The Code of the Streets. Atlantic Monthly 273(5):81-94. (Open access here.)

Sutherland, Edwin H. 1947. Principles of Criminology, 4th ed. J.B. Lippincott Company. (Fair use of pp. 1-9)

Akers, Ronald L. 1996. Is Differential Association/Social Learning Cultural Deviance Theory? Criminology 34:229-247. (Paywalled here.)

Study Guide

Theorist Video Annotation

For this section, you’ll watch an interview with Ross Matsueda. He is one of the world’s top researchers on differential association and social control theories. Among other topics, he discusses what sparked his interest in that area of research.

Ross Matsueda - Oral History of Criminology

Video Discussion & Gist of This Section

Recall that you’re doing video discussions to see whether you can apply the theories to the real world. Some theories can be complicated, but there fundamental points don’t need to be. People, including you, may disagree with me (this is what makes academia fun), but I think the gist – or essence – of the theories examined in this section is as follows:

  • The dependent variable is crime, meaning acts prohibited by law.

  • Crime is theorized to be affected by culture and social learning.

  • I’m leaving it to the readings to define those independent variables in an academic way.

In theory, a community is more likely to have crime to the extent its subculture promotes crime. In theory, an individual is more likely to have crime to the extent they learn to do so. Also, those theories could be thought of as operating at the situational-level of analysis.

  • An interaction is more likely to result in crime if in a community with a subculture that promotes crime.

  • An interaction is more likely to result in crime if it involves individuals who have learned to commit crime.

  • A small place, such as a bar, is more likely to have crime if in a community with a subculture that promotes crime.

  • A small place, such as a bar, is more likely to have crime if it involves individuals who have learned to commit crime.

If you truly understand the above, you’ll be able to do very well on the discussion post. If you don’t get it right now, don’t worry about it. The readings, video, study guide, and quizzes will get you where your knowledge where it needs to be – if you truly do your best on them.

20/20 Apr 27 Part 1: Woman recalls being branded as part of joining secret society

No comments here
Why not start the discussion?