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An Examination of Social Learning Theory & Social Bond Theory

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Published: 26th Aug 2021

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In Ronald Akers and Travis Hirschi’s early academic careers at the University of Washington. They were both good friends but also theoretical rivals during this time Akers developed social learning theory and Hirschi developed the social bond theory. Both theories have been the most studied, most popular, and widely researched theories in criminology today (Krohn, Skinner, Massey, & Akers, 1985; Pratt et al., 2010).

This paper will start with discussing social learning theory and its various steps in developing the theory including the four concepts. After social learning theory, social bond theory will be discussed which will include all four social bonds. And lastly, I will go over Hirschi’s critique and the empirical studies of both theories. Starting with a introduction and background of the Akers social learning theory.

Social Learning Theory

Over the last four decades social learning theory has been the core criminological theory (Pratt et al., 2010). Ronald Akers developed social learning theory based off a theory called differential association which was developed by a theorist named Sutherland. Differential association theory explained why individuals engaged in crime. Sutherland’s differential association was based off nine propositions, which is what lead to the conclusion that crime is learned through the process of differential association (Matsueda, 1988). Since developing social learning theory, it has been criticized by many others including Hirschi. Hirschi described Akers’s social learning theory as a cultural deviance theory (Akers, 1996). Sutherland said that those who lean towards crime are culturally transmitted which means that deviant or criminal behavior was learned, leading to what Akers now calls social learning theory.

Akers’s stepping stone in developing social learning theory was when he developed Differential-Reinforcement Theory of Criminal Behavior with Robert Burgess. Akers and Burgess met at the University of Washington, together they agreed in the reformulation of Sutherland’s differential association theory. According to Burgess & Akers (1966) Sutherland himself revised differential association stating that the theory is essentially a learning theory. When looking into the development of differential reinforcement theory in the 1960’s and recognizing that both theories included the basic “learning” portion without labeling it as a learning theory until later when social learning theory was officially developed by Akers (Burgess & Akers, 1966).

After, Akers reevaluated the two previous theories he officially developed his social learning theory. Social learning theory is an explanation of criminal and antisocial behavior. Social learning theory is based on behavioral psychology and sociology (Matsueda, 1988; Matsueda, 1997). The foundation for social learning theory was based on Sutherland’s differential association. Akers intentions for the expansion on differential association was to add more detail to the mechanism and process when criminal learning behavior takes place (Lugo, 2013).

Akers clearly acknowledges that people learn from those that they associate themselves with and both differential association and social learning theory attempt to explain the learning process (Teneyck & Barnes, 2015). Social learning theory includes four main concepts which explain in detail how the four main concepts create the theory and explain the question of “why do people engage in crime (Pratt et al., 2010).

Four Main Concepts

Akers expanded Sutherlands theory into social learning theory because, Akers & Hirschi (1996) stated that clarification was needed in order to know how cultural elements are included in the theory. Akers social learning theory is a major contribution to shedding light on how people learn to become criminal offenders. As seen in his theory title, crime is a learned behavior from social interaction with others (Bandura, 1978).

Differential Association

The first concept is differential association and is also known as one of the most important concepts (Akers, Greca, Cochran, & Sellers, 1989). Differential association follows two sub-concepts the first is interactional dimensions and the second is normative dimension. Interactional dimension can be indirect and direct association along with indirect or direct interactions with others who engage in specific kinds of behavior.

Normative/cultural dimension is different kinds of values and norms to which a person is exposed through this association (Kim, Akers, & Yun, 2013).  When people associate with individuals with delinquent or criminal behavior results in delinquent or criminal outcomes. By associating with crime-oriented individuals whether it is parents or peers a person will choose to engage in criminal behavior because that it what that person has learned.  Normative conflict exists when society is separated into groups that quarrel over norms, interests, and values. The groups or societies normative/cultural conflicts are changed into rates of crime through the process of differential social organization. Differential association with other individuals is what defines people (Pratt et al., 2010). Differential association describes how normative/cultural conflict generates individual acts of crime (Matsueda, 1997). Sutherland suggested that the differential association process could be different for criminal offenses (Kobayashi, Akers, & Sharp, 2011).


Definition is the second main concept, and is known to be a very important concept (Akers et al., 1989). Sutherland defines definition as favorable or unfavorable to crime are made of motives, attitudes, drives, rationalization and definitions of the situation (Matsueda, 1997). Definition can be general or specific; specific is defined or refers to a distinct act or circumstance or certain acts as wrong and other acts as allowable an example of specific would be importation of drugs, or insider trading. Specific is a learned behavior it is not natural it is simply learned from seeing it done (Kobayashi et al., 2011; Matsueda, 1997). Matsueda (1997) described Sutherlands concern for specific crime acts as when an idea for a specific crime is present it is usually followed with an evaluation or a general definition which is appropriate, inappropriate or appropriate in specific situations.

General definitions can also be positive, negative or neutralizing. When referring to positive definitions that is to have the desire for permissible criminal behavior a couple of examples are spray painting where their peers think its cool that they can do it and get away with it (Matsueda, 1997). Negative meaning disapprove of a behavior or crime is parents see graffiti and show their children and say how disgusting and is unacceptable it looks (Matsueda, 1997). Neutralizing defines crimes as acceptable or an act as wrong but justified and thus permit the behavior depending on the situation, an example of neutralization is stealing a loaf if bread your starving (Matsueda, 1997; Pratt et al., 2010). Matsueda (1997) discussed it as the more reliable scenario is that children learn the general rules of the law first and then learn to apply them to real situations which include learning techniques of neutralization, definitions and other rationalizations.

General vs specific are broad attitudes that approve of conventional behavior and disapprove of criminal behavior (Kobayashi et al., 2011). In Kobayashi’s article, definitions are described as attitudes, and it is stated that definitions are learned behaviors that are developed through small intimate social groups (Kobayashi et al., 2011). What do individuals commit crime? It is due to individuals turn delinquent because of excessive definitions favorable to violating the law.

An individual becomes delinquent due to the excess of definitions favorable to crime over definitions unfavorable to crime. This suggest that a person has association to other individuals who are pro-crime versus anti-crime, which leads to violating the law.  Combining definitions with differential association leads to imitation (Pourheidari & Croisdale, 2010).


The third main concept is imitation, imitation happens after differential association and differential definition are transferred from other people and peers. Imitation means to observe a certain behavior in others and then to follow it or as Pratt et al. (2009) stated is an engagement in behavior after observing similar behavior in other individuals. Krohn, Skinner, Massey, & Akers, (1985) stated that imitation is an individual’s observation of peers and parental and then modeling the behavior. They also discussed how imitation takes places in the social learning theory, its starts with differential association being friends or family, observing favorable behaviors, and later imitating them (Krohn et al., 1985). Sutherland explained this concept because of the fact that crimes tend to follow certain patterns and similar people tend to commit like crimes and sometimes crimes appear to happen at the same time as a cluster which is why he explained this concept is solely imitation (Matsueda, 1997).

Differential Reinforcement

The fourth concept is the most important which is differential reinforcement. Differential reinforcement is the possibility of rewards or an actual reward and consequences that follow behaviors (Akers, 1996). Differential reinforcement are certain acts or behaviors that are reinforced through rewards or the avoidance of discomfort. The reinforced rewards are more likely to be repeated but a consequence or punishment are not as likely to be repeated (Pratt et al., 2010).  Differential reinforcement is described in the article “Social Learning Theory and Adolescent Cigarette Smoking: A Longitudinal Study” as the process in which the chance of one behavior occurring is determined by the balance of rewards and punishment connected to different behaviors (Krohn et al., 1985).

Basically, there are two types of differential reinforcements a positive and negative reinforcement and positive and negative punishment.  A positive punishment is considered a spanking because a negative stimulus plus a negative sensation/feeling equals a positive punishment.  Negative punishment is if parents take away car privileges from their child who broke the rules, because this a positive reward with a negative consequence equals negative punishment. A positive reinforcement is if praise for a certain type of behavior and negative reinforcement is a sever punishment (Nicholson & Higgins, 2017).

In Akers et al., (1989) he revealed that differential association and definitions are more important than social differential reinforcement however in the study done in “Social Learning Theory and Alcohol Behavior Among the Elderly” article differential reinforcement is the strongest variable (Akers et al., 1989). The study in Akers et al (1989) they tested differential reinforcement alcohol behavior among the elderly. When testing the differential reinforcement concept Akers et al., (1989) asked questions like “what were spouse’s, family and friend’s reaction to one’s drinking,” or the “physical effect of alcohol” in order to get the positive, or negative perceptions of drinking alcohol for elderlies. The findings confirmed that general behavior approach well matched with theories of social structure and connected to adults as well as adolescents (Akers et al., 1989).

Social Bond Theory

Hirschi’s social bond theory was his first theory, social bond is one of the earliest sociological concepts thought to effect behaviors (Stewart, 2003). Hirschi’s (1969) theory has been the most dominant and influential control theory in criminology (Peterson, Lee, Henninger, & Cubellis, 2016).Social bonds in criminal behavior is recognized as important in the structure for social bond theory. Hirschi’s social bond theory is considered the leading explanation for the link between social bonds and delinquency/criminality (Peterson et al., 2016).

The social bond perspective in criminology assumes that crime will occur unless some type of social bond controls the natural desire (Stewart, 2003). Social bond theories speculation is that all individuals are motivated toward deviance and crime either through natural tendencies or some other external social factor. Hirschi states that delinquency grows when social bonds are missing or weak (Peterson et al., 2016).

Hirschi big theoretical question is “why don’t people break the law,” “what keeps people from breaking the law or restrains people from acting on impulses” it is called, social bonds (Wu, Lake, & Cao, 2015). Hirschi’s theory of social bond, integrates individuals into a social group.

Social bonds are described for younger individuals as sports, parents, grades and for adult’s marriage and jobs (Wu et al., 2015). Hirschi says that the presence of the social bonds can explain the change in offending. Hirschi’s social bond can explain why individuals go in and out of a life of crime across various points during their lives. There are four social bonds that Hirsch goes into detail about each social bond and has broken them down. Social bond is the key construct in underlying Hirschi’s theory. The fours social bonds are attachment, commitment, involvement and belief (Peterson et al., 2016).


Attachment is defined as a psychological or emotional connection with significant others and represents a main component of the social bond theory (Wu et al., 2015). Peterson et al., (2016) described attachment as people who have an emotion closeness to others and even more so to parents. Hirschi noted that affection is a crucial element, because it was the most frequently used bond (Wu et al., 2015). Stewart (2003) described attachment as affective ties formed to significant people or to the extent in which an individual’s cares about the opinions and expectations of other people who are personally important to them.

Attachment is known as an emotional bond with family and friends, parents were the most focus of attachment as well as the most looked at element in social bonds, other forms of types of attachments are peers, friends or associates (Intravia, Jones, & Piquero, 2012; Peterson et al., 2016; Stewart, 2003; Vazsonyi & Belliston, 2007; Wu et al., 2015). Lastly, is the attachment to school, this is the affection for school, also know as a common social bond (Peterson et al., 2016). The schools are a source of attachment due to students spending a lot of time with their teachers and administrators, who can act as role models to them and teach students socially acceptable behaviors (Stewart, 2003).

When referring to Hirschi’s theoretical question “why don’t they commit crime,” attachment is an “indirect control” due to having a close relationship to parents or other adults (Peterson et al., 2016). Youths do not want to offend because of how they might be viewed by those they are attached too, they are afraid of disappointing their parents or people close to them (Stewart, 2003). Due to children having that attachment and caring about disappointing them. The parental attachment, allows parents to have indirect control (Teneyck & Barnes, 2015). This occurs when children are not in the same place as their parents meaning the children are physically separated from their parental attachment. This is also considered as a psychologically presence.


The second social bond is commitment; commitment is defined as an individuals will to achieve higher education, good grades in school or in an occupation, and the desire of going back to school (Peterson et al., 2016). This social bond is also known as individuals who are invested in conventionality or the conventions of society (Akers & Lee, 2010). Hirschi viewed achievement to aspirations and expectations as dimensions of commitment. Aspirations and expectations in education and employment were measured by Hirschi in Causes of Delinquency (2002). Social bonds built through education are important determinants of criminal and delinquent offending both in and out of schools (Bonding, Krohn, Lanza-Kaduce, & Akers, 1984; Stewart, 2003).

When answering Hirschi’s theoretical question of “why don’t they do it,” meaning why individuals don’t commit crime or participate in deviant behavior. Some individuals are committed to school prosperity concentrating on the success for their future and do not want to ruin it by doing something wrong (Peterson et al., 2016). Those who have high commitments would look at delinquent acts as unreasonable or not worth it. Which shows that their commitment is what controls their decision making when considering participating in criminal acts (Hong Chui & Choon Oliver Chan, 2012).

Although prior research studies focus on religious organizations or a commitment to education. Harrison’s (2012) study focused on police officers’ view of commitment to their law enforcement agency and department as an agent (Harrison, 2012). This study shows that strong social bonds have an effect in the law enforcement department and agency. When strong social bonds are in effect it strengthens the value of social support in the law enforcement work place (Harrison, 2012).


Involvement is the third social bond it is defined as the amount of time spent in conventional activities along with non-inactive leisure time. Conventional is defined as an individual participating in sports, recreational activities, homework, study groups, tutoring or other types school activities (Akers & Lee, 2010). The more involved an individual is, the less time that they have to participate in deviant or criminal behaviors, especially when the activities expose them to pro-social adults (Norman & Ford, 2015). Stewart (2003) states that parental involvement reinforces and encourages proper behavior, students who have involved parents may display less anti-social behavior and do better in their academics.

Hirschi’s question, “why don’t they commit crime?” The reason they do not offend is due to them being unable to participate in delinquent activities, because of limited time. Young individuals who participate in regular activities, decrease the chances of offending (Hart & Mueller, 2013). Due to young individuals participating in organized extra curriculum activities leaves no time for delinquent behavior or criminal activities. Therefore, the devoted time young individuals put into their extracurricular activities, makes it the key factor in social control (Stewart, 2003). In short way of describing involvement individual do not have the time to participate in delinquent or criminal activity due to devoted to other conventional activities.


The fourth social bond is belief, it is defined as a respect for authorities an internalization of social norms and an absence of neutralization. Belief refers to an individual who excepts the moral validity of social rules and has accepted these codes of conduct as valid and justifiable. People who accept the idea of social rules being valid are less likely to break rules than those people who are less constrained by rules (Stewart, 2003).

Religious beliefs play a very important role in some individuals lives, and the belief that one has a moral duty to follow the law (Akers et al., 1989). The way Norman & Ford (2015) explained was the more an individual believes in societies values and norms, the less chances there is for them to break them. They also stated the more they invest in conventional society the more likely they are to accept to the norms and rules put in place by that society. Beliefs can also be described as moral beliefs of young children’s parents(Akers & Lee, 2010).

In regards, to Hirschi’s question on “why they don’t commit crime.” Individuals do not participate in delinquent or criminal behaviors because they believe in the system, laws or rules. Individuals believe in the reason to follow rules and because individuals understand why the rules or laws are in place and therefore the understanding of each rule and law controls those individuals into not breaking them because it would go against the moral thing to do (Bonding et al., 1984; Kobayashi et al., 2011; Stewart, 2003). In the end lower the levels of misbehaviors and crime (Stewart, 2003).

An example Stewart (2003) gives for beliefs in school rules was students who believe and accept in the most important set of regular school rules will be less likely to engage in delinquent behaviors and recognize the reason for those rules and for maintaining a safe school environment. (Stewart, 2003).

Social bonds are four separate bonds but also intercorrelated elements of an individuals bonds to the society attachment can also be called affection, commitment or also referred to investment, involvement or also known as the amount of time spend in activities, and last is belief also said to the extent in which individuals believe they should follow the law or rules (Hass, 2001).  The changes in bonds can explain the changes in criminal offending or delinquent activity. Delinquency occurs when the four social bonds are loosened or lost. When bonds are lost the individual is free to follow the easy fulfillment acquired from crime.

Hirschi’s Critique

First Akers created social learning theory underlining the four concepts after introducing the theory than came many critics including Hirschi because he is a control theorist, he critiqued social learning theory trying to prove it is a cultural deviance theory. In the article of Hirschi (1996) the perspective of differential association was stated that, it was a person who becomes delinquent because of an excess of definitions which lean towards the violation of law over definitions which are leaning away from violating of law.

Sutherland’s differential association and Akers social learning theory has been criticized as a cultural deviance theory, by many theorists, including Hirschi. Cultural deviance theory is assumed to be cultures having deviant or criminal behaviors and not just a individual person (Akers, 1996).

Hirschi (1996) critiqued differential association theory by stating only the culture groups can be deviant; no one within it can deviate from the group’s culture (Hirschi, 1996). Hirschi’s critique rolled over from Kornhausers’ previous critique adding more to it while reevaluating the theory. Kornhauser is a person who Hirschi learned a lot from and defended when critiquing cultural deviance theory (Hirschi, 1996). Hirschi and others also stated cultural deviance is suggesting that committing delinquent acts is living up to the norms of their culture (Hirschi, 1996).

In Akers (1996) there were two weaknesses that were uncovered in differential association/social learning theory. The first problem was that definitions was not properly defined and the second one was that learning problem was left unspecified (Akers, 1996; Hirschi, 1996). Although Hirschi interpretation of cultural deviance theory is that definitions toward crime require criminal or deviant behavior (Hirschi, 1996). However, when Sutherland specified definitions as favorable crime form an important part of subcultures of criminals, Hirschi argued the interpretation it has all such definitions are subcultural and then stating that behavior cannot be deviant subcultures are only deviant.

Control theories state that groups never reward or value crimes, unlike one of the four concepts differential social reinforcement (Matsueda, 1997).

Kornhauser was using differential association to explain individual variation in delinquent or criminal behavior (Hirschi, 1996). Kornhauser critiqued differential association theory not to revise or attempt to test it but to show it is more of a cultural deviance theory. Kornhauser wanted to also explain individual variation in delinquent behavior and for a clearer understanding (Hirschi, 1996). Kornhauser did not believe that people with appropriate models can learn and believed that culture must be consistent with human nature. In Matsueda (1997) Costello argued that differential association theory began by stating that deviant norms require deviant behavior whereas control theories identify that deviant norms or beliefs merely allow deviant behavior.

The purpose of differential association and social learning theory is to describe an individual’s criminal or delinquent behavior not for groups/cultures criminal or delinquent behavior. In contrast Hirschi stated that, Sutherland’s differential association and Akers’s social learning theory rely on the assumption that socialization is completely successful (Akers, 1996). The conclusion for Hirschi’s critique is that Akers failed to distinguish social learning from differential association (Matsueda, 1997).

Human Nature & Motivation

The differences between Akers differential association/social learning theory and Hirschi’s control theory are seen through human nature and motivations (Matsueda, 1997). Control theory outlook is that motivation for deviant behavior is consistent across people and crime which is due to failures in socialization unlike social learning stating socialization is perfect and subcultures can only be deviant.

Motivations to crime was described by social learning theory as strain to an individual causing them to commit crime, and the argument was that the explanation for strain alone being motivation can only hold for control theory.  Differential association theory proposed that organization in favor of crime fluctuates in strength across societies and groups, the motivation to commit crime fluctuates systematically across individuals and crime is learned from other people. (Matsueda, 1997). In contrast Hirschi’s control theories assume that organization that approve of crime either does not exist or is continuous across groups, crime is never transferred or learned across individuals and the motivation to commit crime is consistent across people (Matsueda, 1997).  To be more specific control theorist assume all humans and animals have motivations and impulses needed to commit a crime and these motivations are consistent across all people.  Basically, control theorist believes because motivations to commit crime or definitions approving crime are consistent across people therefore individual criminal acts are a function entirely of the strength of bonds or anti-criminal patterns to normal society (Matsueda, 1997).

Differential association/social learning theory ask micro-level questions like why some individuals are more likely than others to be involved in deviant or criminal behavior.  Hirschi’s control theory ask why people do not commit crime.  Matsueda (1997) distinguished the difference between both theories by asking question like “if motivation to crime is constant across people,” “if criminal organization and subcultures are irrelevant to criminality,” or “if crime can never be learned or transmitted across individuals.” In Sutherlands theory conformity and crime involve positive learning, definitions lead to conformity or lean towards crime either way they must be internalized to cause the motivation to act in one way or the other but in short Sutherland’s differential association answers those question with a “no” to all of the above questions (Matsueda, 1997). And Hirschi’s control theory answer all those question with “yes.”

While Hirschi’s perspective on social learning learning/differential association was that they focused only on the positive causes of crime and Hirschi’s control theory focus on the negative causes of crime. Both theories have explained the age-crime relationship at the individual social psychological level. (Akers & Lee, 2010)

Empirical Support

Social Learning

Akers social learning has been the subject of extensive empirical testing. Akers provided the most comprehensive testing and support for social learning theory mainly with adolescent behavior patterns as the dependent variables (Akers et al., 1989).

When testing social learning theory, the findings suggested that when social learning is fully operationalized its capacity to explain criminal involvement is significantly increased. According to other findings when individuals have strong attachments to family and school along with involvement in different activities does not predict adolescent ecstasy use when compared to the variables of social learning theory (Norman & Ford, 2015). The findings are consistent with previous studies that have compared theoretical correlates of adolescent drug use and have found social learning theory to be the strongest correlation of drug use among adolescents (Norman & Ford, 2015).

Social learning theory’s variables are found to have the strongest effect when compared to other theories (Akers, 1990). In Warr (2002), it states when it comes to delinquent behavior there is no factor as powerful as peer association. Cullen et al., (2003), discusses how learning can also be used in treatment programs.

Social bond

Hirschi’s social control theory has undergone several empirical testing. The tests included the social bonds and introduced measurement improvements.  But the research for social bond/control theory was weakened due to the inconsistencies because there was no attention was given to the construct validity of the four social bond elements (Kempf, 1993).  Although, when Hirschi performed his own study, he found his theory valid but then again he is a control theorist, so he made sure to include all four elements of the social bond/control theory (Pratt et al., 2010).

The empirical research done by others found that attachment was the weakest predictor of delinquent or criminal behavior. Involvement to conventional activities was also unimportant unless concerned with commitment. Involvement tested by Agnew found homework, extracurricular activities including school was identified as a good predictor in the control model (Kempf, 1993). Commitment also known as stakes in conformity was a element with the strongest expository value only in the social bond/control model (Krohn & Massey, 1980).  Belief in one measure was found to be an important element but overall was the weakest of all four because it had no effect when applied to the overall studies belief was the weakest.  In the end several recommendations have been suggested for future research of Hirschi’s social bond/control theory.


Social learning theory has remained one of the core criminological paradigms over the last four decades. Many researchers have tested theories from social learning theory to Hirschi’s social bond theory. Researchers tested each concept of social learning theory and others have tested each one of the social bonds that make up the social bond theory. Many theorists have critiqued and defended both theories. One example is Matsueda (1997) when defending Akers social learning theory against Hirschi and Kornhauser stating that control theories based on their critique came up with the same conclusion as differential association. Matsueda used this statement and says they have failed to specify a new theoretical position. While critics claim that Sutherland assumed that socialization is always perfect (Matsueda, 1997).

Although social bond theory has found in many studies that approve and support the theory.  Social bond theory also had issues that arose, one example would be that bonds may work differently for minorities and women (Mcquillan, Berdahl, Chapple, & Mcquillan, 2005).  Another, issue is that some individuals may not be naturally interested in one’s self. Many studies established measurement improvements. Due to the recommendations that Hirschi received he has since expanded on his theory of social control even though he had not tested it once more (Hirschi,1979).

These rival theorists will not be the last to continue this rivalry on social learning and social bond.


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Teaching is a profession whereby a teacher will help students to develop their knowledge, skills, and understanding of a certain topic. A teacher will communicate their own knowledge of a subject to their students, and support them in gaining a comprehensive understanding of that subject.

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