Ronald Akers is a renowned sociologist, who is currently on the faculty of University of Florida.  Akers is most known for his work with social learning theory, which was first present by Akers and Robert Burgess in their 1966 article, “A Differential Association-Reinforcement Theory of Criminal Behavior.”  Akers continued using this theory over the following decades to explain deviant behavior.  This paper will outline the historical context that influenced Akers and his development of social learning theory.  Then, the development and structure of Akers’ theory will be discussed.  This will be followed by an analysis of the criticism and response to the criticism.  Finally, the paper will conclude with an overview of current use and policy implications.


Ronald Akers’ social learning theory is part of the learning perspective of criminology that has been influenced by historical, social, and political situations.  Learning theory can be traced back to the late 1800s and has varied in its popularity among sociologists (Pfohl, 1994).  Akers’ learning theory uses sociological theories because criminology developed as a sub-discipline of sociology.  The purpose of this paper is to view the work of Ronald L. Akers, which has centered on the expansion of Sutherland’s differential association theory to include aspects of reinforcement, most often referred to as social learning theory. 

The roots of the learning perspective can be traced to Gabriel Tarde (1843-1904).  Tarde (1912) emphasized the idea of social learning through his three laws of imitation.  The three laws included close contact, imitation of superiors, insertion (Tarde, 1912: 322).  The first two laws of imitation are used in Sutherland’s theory of differential association.  Burgess and Akers expanded Sutherland’s theory into social learning theory, which will be the focus of the next section.  Criticisms, which decreased the appeal of the learning perspective, include being too simple and not including other factors, such biological, psychological, and ecological factors, which were prevalent in sociological theories of the early 1900s (Pfohl, 1994). 

In the 1940s, Edwin Sutherland’s theory of differential association expanded upon the learning perspective.  Sutherland’s model for learning in a social environment is still the most recognized within the learning perspective.  The idea of culture conflict, which is the struggle between different factions in a society, specifically over who has the power to determine what is deviant, is prevalent in Sutherland’s work (Sellin, 1938).  For example, The Professional Thief (1937), he theorizes that culture conflict may actually lead to differential association (Pfohl, 1994).  Sutherland’s nine propositions of differential association include the ideas of Tarde, but he expanded on the ideas and was much more specific (Pfohl, 1994).  However, Sutherland also received criticism because his ideas were difficult to operationalize and measure.  The main reason that the concept of learning is difficult to study is that it cannot be directly observed or measured.  For example, how could someone measure the intensity of associations (Pfohl, 1994)?

Ronald Akers offers a revision of Sutherland’s differential association theory; however, he includes the concept of reinforcement, which increases or decreases the strength of a behavior.  In contrast to others in the learning perspective, Akers used the principles of Operant Psychology, which holds that behavior is a function of its consequences (Pfohl, 1994).  Sutherland included a social-psychology approach also, but not to the extent that Akers does (Pfohl, 1994).  Akers received many of the same criticisms that earlier learning theorist had received, specifically that the theory could not be operationalized and studied effectively (Pfohl, 1994).

During the 1950s and 1960s the sociological community experienced a paradigm shift produced by new theoretical work.  Some of these theories and theorist included subculture theories (Cohen, Ohlin, and Cloward), conflict theories (Vold and Quinney), and learning theories (Lemert) (Akers 1998).  However, Akers (1998) describes himself as being most influenced by Sutherland’s theory of Differential Association, which he had received an introduction to at Indiana State University as an undergraduate student.

In 1965, Ronald Akers received the position of assistant professor at the University of Washington.  Here he met Robert Burgess, who was holding the same position.  Burgess was a behavior sociologist, experienced in operant conditioning theory and psychological behaviorism (Akers, 1998).  The Burgess and Akers’ (1966) article, “A Differential Association-Reinforcement Theory of Criminal Behavior,” published in Social Problems, was an expansion of Edwin Sutherland’s theory of differential association using the ideas of behaviorism.

While functionalism was the dominant paradigm of the time, there was an adjustment in that model toward control theories.  As Akers (1998) notes, the Vietnam War was influential at this time, influencing all of society as well as the discipline of sociology.  Specifically, sociology was influenced by conflict and labeling theories that tried to explain the tumultuous situation society had become due to current events (Akers, 1998). 

The political and social environment of the 1970’s was much more conservative on issues such as drug use.  Thus, money was allocated for studies to explain drug use in society.  This prompted Akers to perform a self-report study on the use of alcohol and drugs among students to test his theory of social learning.  Akers also used social learning theory to explain other deviant acts, such as sexual deviations (Akers, 1998).

The 1960s and 1970s exhibited a revitalization of social theories explaining criminal behavior.  People could observe behavior, and they believed that they could see the process of social learning.  During this time and still today, the conservative idea of increasing punishment to deter crime receives a great amount of support (Akers, 1998).  Unlike other theories, social learning theory actually supports the use of punishment, which theories such as labeling did not because it was said to be detrimental (Pfohl, 1994).  One could infer that politicians used negative punishment, as a reinforcement.  They attempt to stop crime by increasing punishment for offense; this translates into longer sentences and more people being sentenced, possibly explaining the increase in prison population that began in the early 1970s (Livingston, 1996). The political situation welcomed social learning theory with its addition of reinforcement. Conservatives, in particular, strongly supported the idea of increased punishment to control crime (Livingston 1996).

In conclusion, Akers and his theory of social learning were influenced by history, political events, and the social situation.  The historical overview provided above is important because it explains the development of the learning perspective.  The social circumstances surrounding the development of Akers social learning theory were that people felt as if this was a phenomenon that they could actually observe.  For example, parents could see the children their own children were spending time with and see the influence of other children on their own; they could also see what kind of affect they have on their own kids.  In this way, parents felt they could see both the process of differential association and reinforcement. 


Robert L. Burgess and Ronald L. Akers’ (1966) article, “A Differential Association-Reinforcement Theory of Criminal Behavior,” was first published in the Society for the Study of Social Problems. The articles focus is the analysis of Sutherland’s first nine propositions of behavior theory. Burgess and Akers reorganized Sutherland’s nine propositions into seven, below they are summarized and the concept of reinforcement is added.  This article best summarizes the Akers’ model of social learning which he continues to use over the next several decades and in using this model describes a variety of deviant behaviors (Burgess and Akers, 1966).

 1.        “Criminal behavior is learned according to the principles of operant conditioning” (Sutherland, 1947: 5-7).        Operant behavior is one of the two major types of behavior and is associated with the central nervous system and voluntary behavior. This type of conduct is affected by ‘environmental consequences.’ Operant behaviors can involve different processes: conditioning, shaping, stimulus control, and extinction. Conditioning is the pairing of a primary stimulus and a neutral stimulus to produce the same response to both. Shaping involves differential reinforcement of behaviors; for example, parents will reinforce ‘baby talk’ and then as the child gets older regular speech. Differential reinforcements also affect stimulus discrimination by only reinforcing the behavior under certain conditions. Extinction occurs once the operant behavior is no longer reinforced. Burgess and Akers conclude that deviant behavior is a form of operant behavior; therefore, it must be reinforced? (Burgess & Akers, 1966: 128-147).

2.        “Criminal behavior is learned both in nonsocial situations that are reinforcing or discriminative, and through social interaction in which the behavior of other persons is reinforcing or discriminative for criminal behavior” (Sutherland, 1947: 5-7).        Sutherland views the learning of criminal behavior as a matter of symbolic interaction. However, Burgess and Akers believe that this excludes other sources of reinforcement that do not involve human interaction. In contrast to Sutherland’s proposition, they say that learning may not occur only due to social reinforcement but may also have nonsocial reinforcement. For example, stealing a loaf of bread may not receive social reinforcement, but it does receive reinforcement because the eating of the bread, thereby nourishing someone who is starving, can be seen as reinforcing (Burgess & Akers, 1966: 128-147).

3.        “The principal part of the learning of criminal behavior occurs in those groups which compromise the individual’s major source of reinforcements” (Sutherland, 1947: 5-7).        Burgess and Akers have taken Sutherland’s third proposition and merely replaced the narrow ‘intimate primary groups’ only with ‘groups.’ They did this because of the realization that other influences in a person’s life may reinforce their behavior. The family is the primary example of an ‘intimate primary group.’ However, Burgess and Akers use of the word ‘groups’ allows for the inclusion of reference groups and media as reinforces (Burgess & Akers, 1966: 128-147).

4.        “The learning of criminal behavior, including specific techniques, attitudes, and avoidance procedures, is a function of the effective and available reinforcers, and the existing reinforcement contingencies” (Sutherland, 1947: 5-7).        Burgess and Akers agreed with much of Sutherland’s fourth proposition. However, they felt that the motivations mentioned by Sutherland in his fourth proposition needed to be more developed. Motivation is involved in the acquisition of reinforcement value by a stimulus (Burgess & Akers, 1966: 128-147).

5.        “The specific class of behaviors which are learned and their frequency of occurrence are function of the reinforces which are effective and available, and the rules or norms by which these reinforcers are applied” (Sutherland, 1947: 5-7).        Burgess and Akers feel Sutherland’s proposition viewing the learning of behavior definitions from legal codes as too narrow because it dealt with the content of learning and not the actual learning.  Therefore, they broadened the idea from which reinforcements may be derived. Effective reinforcements must be analyzed to understand the development of individual behavior and behavior within a group (Burgess & Akers, 1966: 128-147).

6.        “Criminal behavior is a function of norms which are discriminative for criminal behavior, the learning of which takes place when such behavior is more highly reinforced than noncriminal behavior” (Sutherland, 1947: 5-7).        Burgess and Akers take issue with Sutherland’s proposition that delinquent behavior is a result of excessive definitions in favor of delinquent behavior. Rather, their view is that this is part of the process. The rest of the process is the reinforcement of behavior. Therefore, delinquent behavior is not necessarily a matter of excessive definitions, but amount of reinforcement received (Burgess & Akers, 1966: 128-147).

7.        “The strength of criminal behavior is a direct function of the amount, frequency, and probability of its reinforcement” (Sutherland, 1947: 5-7).       Once again Burgess and Akers reformulate Sutherland’s proposition to include the concept of reinforcement. In reference to the amount, when there is an increase in the amount of reinforcement, there is also an increase in the response rate. In reference to frequency, when there is a decrease in the time period, then there is an increase in the response rate. In reference to the probability, when the rate of responses to reinforcement is smaller, then rate of response increases (Burgess and Akers, 1966: 128-147).

Discussion of Social Learning Theory

Burgess and Akers develop a theory that can be applied to many types of criminals and crimes. However, it is best applied to behavior within groups from which they receive reinforcement, such as gangs, peer groups, or social groups (Akers, 1973). This theory can be applied to any crime that brings some kind of gain.  The gain includes positive attention from their group, or pleasure, for example, stealing or committing a crime, such as assaulting a member of a rival group. In most cases, a person will learn behavior from others and then this behavior is reinforced. The level of positive reinforcement will determine the continuation or discontinuation of the behavior. Even though Burgess and Akers argue that there does not necessarily have to be social reinforcement, as shown in the stolen bread example from above (Pfohl, 1994; Akers, 1973). One type of behavior that is learned and reinforced is criminal behavior; however, their theory of differential-reinforcement can also be used to explain other types of behaviors.

One of the deviant behaviors that Ronald Akers (1985) focused on was the involvement of social learning theory in smoking among adolescence.  It was found that social learning theory explained why adolescents continued to smoke but did not explain the origin of the behavior (Krohn et al., 1985).  Akers found support for social learning theory in a study with Lee by accounting for the deviance; however, it did not account for the differences of deviance between males and females (Akers and Lee 1996).

Ronald Akers also focused on drinking behavior.  Lanza-Kaduce et al. (1984) found that social learning theory effectively explained the use of both stronger and weaker drugs.  Additionally, Akers et al. (1989) study of alcohol behavior among the elderly found that elderly drinking and youthful drinking follow the same lines of norms and group behavior.

            In Akers’ 1998 book, Social Learning and Social Structure, he expands further on social learning theory by explaining crime rates as a function social learning in a social structure, called the social structure-social learning theory of crime (SSSL).  While, social learning theory focuses on individual criminal behavior, SSSL focuses on macro-level causes of crime stating that environments impact the individual through learning (Akers 1998: 302). 

            In conclusion, Ronald Akers’ theory of social learning was first introduced in the 1966 article he authored with Burgess involving seven basic principles.  For the next thirty years he used these principles, sometimes in conjunction with other theories, to explain various types of deviance.  Finally, Akers expanded upon his original Social Learning Theory by including environmental influences, something that he alluded to being a necessary development in the original article with Burgess (Akers, 1998).



One criticism of social learning theory is that it does not take into account individual differences or social context (Jeffery, 1990:252; Akers, 1998).  The theory is focused on the interaction between the individual and the social group.   Individual differences may be biological, psychological, or the result of other factors; and these differences may affect the interaction between the individual and the social group that Akers’ social learning theory does not take into account (Jeffery, 1990: 252).  In response to such criticism, Akers expanded upon his social learning theory by including the influence of social context and environment in his social context-social learning theory discussed earlier.

Another criticism of Akers’ work is that it ignores the role of opportunity in criminal behavior (Jeffery, 1990: 261-2). The assumption that people who learn criminal behavior must have come into contact with such behavior is the base of the theory. However, as Jeffery points out, the theory does not explain exactly how a person comes into contact with people exhibiting criminal behavior (Jeffery, 1990: 261-2).  Additionally, the theory does not explain how people who may not have been in contact with other people exhibiting criminal behavior still become criminals.  For example, if a child in a rural area that has not had contact with other children his age begins to pilfer from his mother’s purse; where did he learn this behavior?  Also, Krohn et al. (1985) study of adolescent smoking found that social learning theory did not effectively explain the actual origin of the deviant behavior.

Matsueda (1988) criticizes Akers theory of social learning based on the lack of ability to operationalize it.  Without the ability to operationalize the theory, it becomes untestable (Jeffery, 1990).  This leads to a situation in which there is no way to gather support for the theory nor to disprove the theory (Matsueda, 1988).  For example, how would you operationalize what someone is learning from a group or what is reinforcing their behavior?  With Ronald Akers expanding differential association to include aspects of operant behaviorism, this allowed for a way to test the theory because operant behaviorism had already been operationalized in psychology (Pfohl, 1994). 

Also, Akers’ work has been accused of being tautological (Hirshi, 1969).  Operant learning is based on the idea that reinforcement is anything that strengthens a response and that behavior is reinforced; therefore, the idea that behavior is strengthened by reinforcement is true by definition (Akers, 1998: 45).  However, Akers (1998: 45) responds to this criticism in his 1998 book by arguing that the principles of operant conditioning can be stated in a mannerism that is not tautological.

A final criticism of Akers’ work is that his social learning theory does not provide applicable advice for controlling or preventing crime (Jeffery, 1990: 261-2).  It does explain how criminal behavior is ‘transmitted’ from one person to another, which can explain increases in types of crimes.  The theory does not address the issue of how crime can be prevented (Jeffery, 1990: 252).  However, this does not seem like a fair criticism.  Based on the ideas of social learning theory, there seems as if there should be a number of prevention techniques that could be mostly employed by those outside of the criminal justice system.  This is because the criminal justice system is reactive and Social Learning Theory would be most effective as a preventative strategy because it deals with the process of learning behaviors, which can be changed. 

In conclusion, there are several criticisms.  However, Akers has provided counter arguments or explained why the criticisms are not valid.  The criticism that social learning theory ignores social context was dealt with in the expansion of social learning theory to social context-social learning theory.  However, the criticism that Akers ignored the role of opportunity has not been addressed.  Akers points to his own studies using social learning to deal with the criticism that social learning theory cannot be operationalized.



Sutherland’s theory of differential association is one of the most frequently used and studied theories in criminology.  However, Ronald social learning theory, has not received the same kind of attention or acceptance (Pfohl, 1994).  One of the reasons proposed for this is that Akers expansion of differential association is primarily based on psychological theories of learning, which may account for the lack of major study in the sociological discipline. 

            Another possible reason as to why social learning theory has not been studied is that it has been accused of being difficult to observe (Matsueda, 1988).  However, this does not seem realistic because differential association receives the same criticism (Jeffery, 1990).  One reason that reinforcement is difficult to observe is that they are not defined properly.  What may be reinforcement for one person may not be for another.  Also, reinforcements can be both social and nonsocial.  Social reinforcement involves attention and behavior between more than one person and nonsocial reinforcement would not involve this interaction (Burgess and Akers, 1966)

According to both American Society of Criminology (ASC) and American Criminal Justice Society (ACJS), social learning theory is not one the topics of discussion, nor after reviewing the abstracts does it appear to be used for topics such as alcohol or drug abuse, which are areas that Akers used social learning theory to study.  In JSTOR (4 articles) and Infotrack (30 articles), articles were found using the social learning theory for areas such as drug, alcohol, sexual deviance, and political research.  

The articles found using Infotrack and JSTOR primarily focused on crime, alcohol/drugs, sex, and violence.  Two articles focused on violence within the family.  Yahia and Noursi (1998) used Social Learning Theory to predict conflict tactics within an Arab family; the study found that the more behaviors were witnessed the more likely they were to be displayed.  Also, Milhalic and Elliot (1997) focus on the effect of childhood violence on adult marital violence and the role of social learning theory within the.

Skinner and Fream (1997) use Social Learning Theory to as an explanation for computer crime at colleges.  On the same subject of crime, Houts and Kassab (1997) use the theory to test for difference by race and ethnicity and the fear of victimization.  A final use of social learning theory among the articles was to explain differences in sexuality, which is an issue on which Akers did some work (Hogben & Dyrne, 1998).

Policy Implications

Policy implications would most likely focus on preventative strategies that are outside of the criminal justice system.  The focus of these policy implications should be on the interactions and reinforcements individuals are receive.  Through the modification of these two factors, it would seem the future criminal behavior of some could be prevented.  There are several existing examples of how Social Learning Theory has already been used for policies. 

Mentoring programs are examples of policies based on Social Learning Theory that should prevent some future criminal behavior in theory.  The idea behind mentoring programs is that an adult is paired with a child, who supposedly learns from the behavior of the adult.  Furthermore, the child is positively reinforced, in most of these programs, for good behavior by receiving something positive (Jones-Brown, 1997)

Also social learning theory can be used to adjust behavior.  For example, a teacher may use the theory of social learning in the classroom.  This can work both ways.  A teacher may seat a behaving child and a misbehaving child next to one another in an attempt to get the misbehaving child to behave by providing as example.  However, based on the role of learning and reinforcement, it may be that the behaved child begins to misbehave, which is opposite from the desired result (personal example)

There is a danger that this  theory may be misused.  (personal example)  For example, a parent has a few drinks a week.  This may be seen as being deviant.  Therefore, Child Protective Services comes and removes the child.  The reason that they removed the child is that the child may learn drinking behaviors and may see the behavior being positively reinforced by watching parent enjoy their drink.  This is an extreme example of the misuse of Akers social learning theory, but it is still possibility.

            In conclusion, Ronald Akers’ theory of social learning, has not received the attention and support that other theories have received.  However, it remains one the lesser referred to theories in the field of criminology and sociology.  It appears that social learning theory is being used.  One can see it in everyday life, including policy issues or home discipline issues.  However, it has not received as much recognition as differential association theory, which may be due to the fact that people do not realize that the two theories are separate.


            The roots of social learning theory can be found in the learning perspective with Tarde in the early 1900s, continuing with Sutherland in the 1940s, and still continuing with Ronald Akers into the later part of the 1900s.  The development of this theory was influenced by political, crime control and historical, rapidly changing culture, factors.   Primarily, social learning theory is a reworking of Sutherland’s differential association to include the idea of reinforcement. Sutherland’s nine propositions were transformed into seven by Burgess and Akers (1966).  Social learning theory has received criticism that it is not operationalizable and that it ignores important factors, such as social context.  However, Akers generally answers or counters most criticisms.  Finally, social learning theory has not had the same influence that differential association has on sociological theories, but it can be seen put into practice in prevention techniques used by the criminal justice system.

Sources Cited


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