G a b r i e l  T a r d e

Gabriel Tarde and the Imitation of Deviance

By Gwen Williams

One of the earliest formulations of a learning perspective on deviance is discovered in the writings of the French social theorist Gabriel Tarde (1843-1904). Tarde’s theory of imitation is a 19th century social learning theory; he was the forerunner of modern-day learning theorists. We will discuss Tarde’s belief that people learn from one another through the process of imitation. Attempting to bring up to date this 19th century theory by discussing contemporary issues, we will look at how the three laws of imitation might explain drug/alcohol use and gang behavior as imitated phenomena. We will also look at how one of the leaders of social learning theory and imitation, Albert Bandura, takes Tarde’s basic principles and uses them to make a contemporary argument on imitation and modeling that is very much in use today.

Jean-Gabriel Tarde was born in the small town of Sarlat, about one hundred miles east of Bordeaux, in 1843. He wrote several short volumes on his family and the town in which he lived, as well as editing and republishing the papers of outstanding family members. While in school, Tarde retained a permanent distaste for socially imposed discipline whenever it limited individual freedom. The success of racial and geographic theories which Lombroso, Garofalo, Ferri and others had developed led Tarde to publish a series of articles criticizing the "new Italian school" and emphasizing the preponderance of social factors—especially the socialization and imitation—behind crime. (Tarde, 1969a: 2-5)

Tarde directed attention to the social processes whereby forms of behavior and ways of thinking and feeling are passed on from group to group and person to person. His was a theory of "imitation and suggestion." The origins of deviance were pictured as very similar to the origins of fads and fashions. Each was a socially learned acquisition, governed by what Tarde referred to as the "three laws of imitation." These included (1) the law of close contact, (2) the law of imitation of superiors by inferiors, and (3) the law of insertion.

These three laws of imitation describe why people engage in crime. First, individuals in close intimate contact with one another imitate each other’s behavior (Tarde, 1969b: 30). By the law of close contact, Tarde meant simply that people have a greater tendency to imitate the fashions and customs of those with whom they have the most contact. If someone were regularly surrounded by people involved in a world of deviant behavior or lifestyles, they would be more likely to imitate these people than they would others with whom they had little association. Direct contact with deviance was believed to foster more deviance. Tarde theorized that there was short-term behavior (fashion) and long-term behavior (custom). He suggested that, as population became denser, behavior would be oriented more toward fashion than toward custom. (Williams & McShane 1988: 27)

The functions of the higher senses are more transmissible through imitation than those of the lower. We are much more likely to copy someone who is looking at or listening to something than someone who is smelling a flower or tasting a dish (Tarde, 1903a: 195). Imitation, contrary to what we might infer from certain appearances, proceeds from the inner to the outer man (Tarde, 1903b: 199).

As we look at indirect contact, we think of a world in which much of our contact with people, their actions, and their beliefs are mediated by mass communications. Tarde’s writing anticipated such a world of indirect imitation. He believed that the media played a central role in the proliferation of such nineteenth-century "epidemics of deviance" as the rise in mutilations of women, the practice of women disfiguring the faces of male lovers, and the rash of "Jack the Ripper"-type murders became evident. In Tarde’s own words, "infectious epidemics spread with air or wind; epidemics of crime follow the telegraph." If only Tarde had known of the coming of television, surely his law of close contact is relevant to the current debate over whether violence and other forms of deviance are learned from models displayed by the mass media (Pfohl, 1994a: 299). This will be discussed in more detail as we examine Albert Bandura’s modeling theory.

Tarde’s second law of imitation spreads from the top down; consequently, youngsters imitate older individuals, paupers imitate the rich, peasants imitate royalty, and so on. Crime among young, poor or low-status people is really their effort to imitate wealthy, older, high-status people. This law suggests perhaps people follow the model of high-status in hopes their imitative behavior will procure some of the rewards associated with being of a "superior" class. In any event, Tarde’s ideas have a particular relevance in our own age of visibly "high-class" deviance. Does post-Watergate knowledge of the deviance of "superior" persons, such as high governmental officials and corporate executives, increase the likelihood of deviance by us all?" Tarde’s law of imitation of superiors suggests that possibility. (Pfohl, 1994b: 299)

Tarde’s third law is the law of insertion: new acts and behaviors are superimposed on old ones and subsequently either reinforce or discourage previous customs. This law refers to the power inherent in newness or novelty; new fashions were said to replace old "customs." For example, drug taking may be a popular fad among college students who previously used alcohol. However, students may find that a combination of both substances provides even greater stimulation, causing the use of both drugs and alcohol to increase. Another example would be a new criminal custom developing that eliminates an older one – truck hijacking replacing train robbing. When two mutually exclusive ways of doing something come into conflict, Tarde believed the newer one would ordinarily win out. The replacement of the knife by the gun as a weapon of deviant destruction was also cited as an example of this process. (Pfohl, 1994c: 299)

From its early inception in Tarde’s three laws of imitation, the learning perspective, has exerted an enormous impact on the study of deviance and social control. It is the product of learning in the world in a particular way, learning with and from others about how to define, feel, and act within a world which we create together.

As we examine social learning more, we see a lot of theories integrated, which originated to some extent from Tarde’s imitation theory. Social psychologists suggest that drug abuse patterns may result from the observation of parental drug use. Parental drug abuse begins to have a damaging effect on children as young as two years old, especially when parents manifest drug-related personality problems, children imitate their behavior. Children whose parents abuse drugs are more likely to have persistent abuse problems than the children of nonabusers, because one is more exposed intimately than the other. (Ashby, Vaccaro, McNamara, and Hirky, 1996:166-180)

A study was conducted that tested the validity of social learning theory for juveniles’ use of alcohol and marijuana. The data were collected by questionnaires given to 3,065 male and female adolescents, grades 7-12. The study measured the main concept of the social learning theories: imitation, differential association, etc. There was strong support for the social learning theory of adolescent drug and alcohol behavior. 55 percent of the variance in drinking behavior and 68 percent of the variance in marijuana behavior was explained by the model. The analyses showed that some subsets of variables specified by the theory are more important than others and the peer variable was the most important single variable; the most influential of why the adolescents used alcohol and drugs. In a study done on adolescent alcohol use, a number of students described more generally definitive reasons likely applied to many potential alcohol situations, e.g., "I’m worried that I can become addicted": "I’m worried that using alcohol will wreck my future"; I want to be careful with alcohol and not be an alcoholic like my uncle." (Forgays, 1998:11)

Adolescents respond to peer group influences more readily than adults because of the crucial role peer relationships play in identity formation. Youth’s greater desire for acceptance and approval renders them more susceptible to peer influences as they adjust their behavior and attitudes to conform to those of their contemporaries. Significantly, young people "commit crimes, as they live their lives, in groups." (Morse, 1997a: 108). It is widely assumed that peer influence plays an important role in adolescent crime, and evidence supports the claim that teens are more subject to this influence than are adults. Peer influence seems to operate through two means: social comparison and conformity. Through social comparison, adolescents measure their own behavior by comparing it to others. Social conformity to peers, which peaks at about age fourteen, influence adolescents to adapt their behavior and attitudes to that of their peers. Peer influence could affect adolescent decision-making in several ways. In some contexts, adolescents might make choices in response to direct peer pressure. More indirectly, adolescent desire for peer approval could affect the choices made, without any direct coercion. Peers may provide models for behavior that adolescents believe will assist them in accomplishing their own ends. (Morse, 1997b: 162) We are led to copy from others everything that seems to us a new means for attaining our old ends, or satisfying our old wants, or a new expression of our old ideas; and we do this at the same time that we begin to adopt innovations which awaken new ideas and new ends in us. (Clark, 1969:186)

 


ALBERT BANDURA

Social learning is the branch of behavior theory most relevant to criminology. Social learning theorists view violence as something learned through a process called behavior modeling. In modern society, aggressive acts are usually modeled after three principle sources. The most prominent models are family members. Albert Bandura, a social learning theorist, reports that studies of family life show that children who use aggressive tactics have parents who use similar behaviors when dealing with others. A second influence on the social learning of violence is provided by environmental experiences. People who reside in areas in which violence is a daily occurrence are more likely to act violently than those who dwell in low-crime areas where norms stress conventional behavior. A third source of behavior modeling is provided by the mass media. Films and television shows commonly depict violence graphically. Moreover, violence is often portrayed as an acceptable behavior, especially for heroes who never have to face legal consequences for their actions; for example, Batman and the Power Rangers. (Siegal, 1998a: 145).

Bandura first presented the principles of social learning theory in 1963. The study demonstrated that modeling is one of the most effective ways to teach children ways of behaving and their consequences. These theories are relevant to studies that have shown a link between movie portrayals of behavior and the behavior of juvenile viewers. A recent study found that adolescent subjects accepted the behavior of movie characters as moral even if it was violent or antisocial as long as they could identify with the character. In addition, it was easier for the more aggressive viewer to accept the violence of the film actor. Some said the effects of media violence on children only exists in a small amount that is still up for debate. Studies of the effects of media violence on behavior generally caution that variables such as belief in the reality of the media presentation, predisposition toward violence, an aggressive family environment, identification with aggressive media characters, and how the consequences of aggressive behavior are portrayed may all affect the relationship between media and violence.

Social learning theorists argue that people are not actually born with the ability to act violently but that they learn to be aggressive through their life experiences. These experiences include personally observing others acting aggressively to achieve some goal or watching people being rewarded for violent acts on television or in movies. People learn to act aggressively when, as children, they model their behavior after the violent acts of adults. Later in life, these violent behavior patterns persist in social relationships. The boy who sees his father repeatedly strike his mother with impunity is the one most likely to grow up to become a battering parent and husband (Siegal, 1998b: 145). Bandura’s social learning theory when applied to effects of mass media, is an important concept. It was the "backbone" of subsequent research, studying the impact of television violence on children. This is a contemporary look at what Tarde spoke about, but because this technology was not available during his lifetime, he spoke mainly of verbal communication via telegraphs and newspapers. The conclusion from Bandura’s observational learning research relates to mass communication, particularly the "effects" of film and television on youth. Bandura spoke about modeling, or observational learning when he performed the Bobo Doll Experiment. He made a film of a young woman, beating up a Bobo Doll, and showed it to kindergartners. The kids imitated the young woman’s actions. The research proves children will imitate and learn behavior performed by symbolic models on television. http://www.ship.edu/~cgboeree/bandura.html

Another viewpoint is that men learn to commit rapes much as they learn any other behavior. Many rapists were sexually victimized as adolescents. A growing body of literature links personal sexual trauma with the desire to inflict sexual trauma on others. Tarde’s ideas are quite similar to those of modern social learning theorists, who believe that both interpersonal and observed behavior, such as watching a movie or television can influence criminality. Evidence is mounting that some men are influenced by observing films and books with both violent and sexual content. Watching violent or pornographic films featuring women who are beaten, raped, or tortured has been linked to sexually aggressive behavior in men. In one startling case, a 12-year-old Providence, Rhode Island, boy sexually assaulted a 10-year-old girl on a pool table after watching TV coverage of a case in which a woman was similarly raped (the incident was made into a film, The Accused, starring actress Jodie Foster). (Omaha World Herald, 1984:50).

Although social learning theorists agree that mental or physical traits may predispose a person toward violence, they believe that the activation of a person’s violent tendencies is achieved by factors in the environment. The specific forms that aggressive behavior takes, the frequency with which it is expressed, the situations in which it is displayed, and the specific targets selected for attack are largely determined by social learning. Their interpretations of behavior outcomes and situations influence the way they learn from experiences.

Ronald Akers (differential reinforcement theory) says people learn to evaluate their own behavior through interaction with significant others and groups in their lives, this parallels Tarde’s close contact law. These groups control sources and patterns of reinforcement, define behavior as right or wrong and provide behaviors for observational learning. The more individuals learn to define their behavior as good or at least as justified, rather than as undesirable, the more likely they are to engage in it. For example, kids who hook up with a drug-abusing peer group whose members value drugs and alcohol, encourage their use, and provide opportunities to observe people abusing substance, will be encouraged through this social learning experience to use drugs themselves.

Akers’ theory posits that the principal influence on behavior is from those groups, which control individuals’ major sources of reinforcement and punishment and expose them to behavioral models and normative definitions. The important groups are peer and friendship groups, schools, churches and similar institutions. Within the context of these critical groups, deviant behavior can be expected to the extent that it has been differently reinforced over alternative behavior…it is defined as desirable or justified. The deviant behavior, originated by imitation, is sustained by social support (Siegal, 1998c: 204)

Individuals acquire certain behaviors and attitudes via a process of social learning, let’s take for example gangs. Social learning theory claims that if behavior is rewarded and repeated episodes are met with reinforcement, it continues. Of course, if behavior is punished, the perpetrator is discourages from engaging in the conduct and the behavior decreases. A potential recruit learns through close interactions with the gang members what is "appropriate or inappropriate at least according to their reverse value system. The profile of the youth that joins might include a youth that is friends with gang-members, someone who experiences peer-pressure to join, or intimidated by the gang.

Personal responsibility and family values are now vogue explanations for youth gang activities. (Brown, 1998a: 1) Many scholars agree that the family is probably the most critical factor relating to crime and delinquency (Brown, 1998b: 2). Some gang members live "wherever I can". Often, this means, "today a friend’s house and tomorrow a drug house". All adult family participants in a study expressed concern about their children’s, or grandchildren’s involvement in youth gangs. Most attempted to control their children’s activities. "I tell him all the time to stay away from them kind of kids," says one mother. A father states, "I don’t like him running wild out there, but we (including his wife) both got jobs. We just can’t watch them all the time". (Brown, 1998c: 5). In the study over half of the sample indicated they became involved with gangs through introduction by friends and peers. (Brown, 1998d: 7)

This hypothesis was substantially more supported among whites in urban or rural settings than among blacks. An argument can be made, though, that juveniles who are surrounded by adults, particularly significant others such as parents, who have achieved relatively little in reference to those residing outside of socially disorganized neighborhoods, would perceive their chances for success blocked relative to youth residing elsewhere. Basically, failure, or expectation of failure, provides the motivation for youth to enter gangs. This assertion can be asserted to the study of general delinquency, rather than gang membership per se. That is, youth living in socially disorganized neighborhoods are more likely than other youth to perceive their opportunities blocked and, therefore, engage in delinquency. (Vowel and Howell, 1998: 390). In this way, imitation passes on from one person to another, as well as from one class to another within the same people. Do we ever see one class which is in contact with, but which has never, hypothetically, been subject to the control of another determine to copy its accent, its dress, its furniture, and its buildings, and end by embracing its principles and beliefs? (Tarde, 1903c: 201)

In integrating Tarde’s imitation theory, Edwin Sutherland put forth a few propositions, which just need to be mentioned because of its relevance to imitation. Edwin Sutherland spoke of differential association. He hypothesized that "any person can be trained to adopt and follow". Sutherland, in summation, felt that criminal behavior is learned, and learned in interaction with other persons in a process of communication. He also proposed that the learning part of criminal behavior occurs within intimate personal groups. This parallels Tarde’s second law of imitation, close contact. (Sutherland and Cressey, 1994a: 192). However in this Sutherland felt the process of learning criminal behavior by association with criminal and anticriminal patterns involves all of the mechanisms that are involved in any other learning. Negatively, this means that the learning of criminal behavior is not restricted to the process of imitation. A person who is seduced, for instance, learns criminal behavior by association, but this process would not ordinarily be described as imitation. (Sutherland, 1994b: 194).

Sutherland suggested that the distinction between lawbreakers and the law-abiding lies not in their personal fiber but in the content of what they have learned. Those with the good fortune of growing up in a conventional neighborhood will learn to play baseball and to attend church services; those with the misfortune of growing up in a slum will learn to rob drunks and to roam the streets looking to do mischief. (Lilly, Cullen, Ball , 1995:47).

Now, after examining the theory of imitation and its relevant integrated theories, we need to look at some criticisms of these works. Learning theorists fail to account for the origin of criminal definitions; How did the first "teachers" learn criminal techniques and definitions. Learning theories also imply that people systematically learn techniques that allow them to be active and successful criminals, but they fail to adequately explain spontaneous and wanton acts of violence and damage and other expressive crimes that appear to have little utility or purpose, i.e. a random shooting. Little evidence exists that people learn the techniques that enable them to become criminals before they actually commit criminal acts (Siegal, 1998d: 207)

As we look at other criticisms of Tarde’ work, along with others who have brought his theory to the forefront, we see that criticisms of the mass media are based on the assumption that what people see and hear strongly affect their attitudes and behavior. Elitist critics condemn the emphasis on sex and violence and the generally low level of intellectual sophistication of most programming. Critics on the left argue that the masses are lulled into defining public issues as personal problems. Although it is difficult to believe that the media do not have a direct impact on attitudes and actions, the research is unclear. (Hess, Markson, & Stein, 1993:565)

The mass media—primarily radio, film or print at the time most research was conducted—emerged as unlikely to be a major contributor to direct change of individual opinions, attitudes or behavior or to be a direct cause of crime, aggression, or other disapproved social phenomena (Graber, 1990: 22).

Tarde’s three laws are rather loose and have been criticized for being overly simplistic and for neglecting a host of other physical, psychological, social, political, and economic factors related to deviance. Some of the dynamics of these laws were never specifically laid out. Why, for instance, was newness more attractive than established custom? Are we more likely to accept new forms of doing things if they do old things better, for example, alcohol to crack, 45 magnums to machine guns? Tarde was not clear about such issues. Nonetheless, his ideas about the imitative origins of deviance opened the door for an interpretation of deviance as learned behavior. Tarde rejected the biological theories as well as explanations, which viewed society as independent of the activities of its members. He planted the theoretical seeds of a perspective, which later came to fruition in Edwin Sutherland’s theory of a differential association. Note the importance placed upon associative imitation in the following excerpt from Tarde’s Penal Philosophy:

The majority of murderers and notorious thieves (begin) as children who have been abandoned, and the true seminary of crime must be sought for upon each public square and/or each crossroad of our town, whether they be small or large, in those flocks of pillaging street urchins, who like bands of sparrows, associate together, at first for marauding, and then for theft, because of a lack of education and food in their homes. (Pfohl, 1994d: 299-300).

Many have adapted and refined Tarde’s work. His research on deviance and how it is manifested has caused many contemporaries to take notice and embark on new avenues that emit from it. Tarde’s three laws, close contact, superiors and inferiors, and insertion all have been expanded upon in today’s contemporary criminological research.

B I B L I O G R A P H Y

 

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Graber, Doris A. (1990). Media Power in Politics 2nd Edition. 22
Hess, Beth, Markson, Elizabeth, and Stein, Peter. (1993). Sociology, Fourth Edition. 565
(http://www.ship.edu/~cgboeree/bandura.html)
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Lilly, Cullen, Ball. (1995). Criminological Theory. 47
Pfohl, Stephen, Images of Deviance and Social Control, Second Edition, 1994
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Associated Press, "Trial on TV May Have Influenced Boy Facing Sexual-Assault Count," Omaha World Herald, 18 April 1984, p50.