Thursday, November 11, 2010

Social learning theories vs. choice

Differential association

“White collar” crime refers to crimes committed by those in positions of trust or authority (e.g. employees, businessmen, public officials). The name was coined by Edwin Sutherland, who had argued that “the principal part of the learning of criminal behavior occurs within intimate personal groups.” (“Differential Association”) Although white collar crime is sometimes also referred to as “economic crime”, its classification was based on the group characteristics of the offender rather than the types of crime committed. For example, embezzlment is considered white collar crime because it is a crime committed by white collar workers. The term “blue collar” crime is less often used, but can refer to crimes typically committed by lower income brackets, such as robbery.

As a general observation, it seems intuitively obvious that groups can promote the learning of criminal activity. For example, gangs not only provide an environment where delinquent activity is permissible, but minimize the chance of apprehension through cooperation. Similarly, large scale white collar crime requires the complicity of multiple offenders to succeed. It seems highly unlikely that one individual could have planned and executed the Enron accounting fraud.

Yet Sutherland does not merely say that groups are where one learns how to commit crime. According to his theory of differential association, criminal behavior results when an individual is exposed to an excess of “definitions” favorable to law breaking. The beliefs of the group actually produce criminal behavior in individuals, by “association”. Individuals in lower economic classes may be exposed to definitions favorable to vandalism, theft or robbery; individuals in wealthier groups may be exposed to definitions favorable to business fraud or embezzlement. The degree of exposure has, according to this theory, a direct effect on the resulting behavior.


However, in A General Theory of Crime Gottfredson and Hirschi observe that white collar criminals are especially concerned with hiding their crimes from other employees, suggesting that if these crimes are developed in groups, such groups are small in relation to the organization. Does this not suggest that there is an excess of definitions favorable to law abiding behavior?

There are various theories that take a group approach, claiming that behavior is the product of group learning. However the notion that individuals become criminals by some form of osmosis, automatically absorbing the ideas of the group, must artificially limit what counts as “the group” in order to account for behavior. An employee who embezzles money may work within a group of other corrupt employees, but does he not also work within a much larger community of law abiding ones? A delinquent is drawn to criminal behavior because of the influence of other delinquents, but why is he not likewise influenced by his family, law abiding siblings or the many role models he encounters at school and in the community?

Social learning theories also raise the question: if a person’s values are determined by those around him, then where did they get their values from? Presumably from another group, and then what about them? Social learning is not an explanation, but an infinite regression.

Social learning theories promote crime

The problems of social learning follow from ignoring the fact that individuals can choose the groups they wish to join. Just as you may join a community group that shares an interest in tennis or theater, so criminals seek out associates who aid in their activities. As a child, were you automatically inducted into a group of other students, or did you choose your friends and have to win their approval by demonstrating similar attitudes or interests? In any community there is a diverse range of groups with competing values. This very observation contradicts social learning theories, which if true would discourage differences and spread similarities.

And this is the real danger of social learning theories. By taking the position that criminal behavior is merely learned from others, they excuse individuals from the responsibility of acting by their own judgment. The criminal becomes a victim to be “treated” rather than punished. More than this: by giving the ideas of the group primacy, they say in effect that individuals have no power over their own lives. Consider the logic. Criminal activity infers that criminal values are in the majority. Individual behavior is the product of the values of the majority. Therefore, if you are a law-abiding individual in a crime-ridden community, you are doomed. If you have children, they are doomed as well. No attitude could aid in the spread of crime more than this.

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