Social Process Theories


There are three social schools of criminological theories that are used to explain criminology and these include social learning theories, social control theories, and social process theories. Each of these three theories seeks to explain criminality and the perpetration of criminal acts by viewing crime as a social process. The social process theories, which are the basis for this study, hold the view that the main causes of crime are because of the interactions that people have with associations, the various institutions in society, and the various procedures that exist within the society.

Social process theories are based on the premise that people have negative relationships with other people within the society and these negative relationships often lead to crimes and the contributing factors to crime. In general, social process theories stipulate that criminal behavior is part of the socialization process as social interactions are critical for human beings to survive (Siegel, 2008).

Key Figures and Individual Contributions

When important interactions with important social institutions and processes such as families, schools, peer groups, employers, and the justice system are disrupted and disturbed, people within such a society might turn to criminal solutions to solve their problems. Sociologist Robert Agnew was able to uncover this process when he studied the criminal history of offenders while they were serving their jail terms. Agnew discovered that social interactions played an important part in shaping the behavior, beliefs, and value systems of the criminal offender. Criminals according to the social process theory were described as people who learned deviant social values which made them detached from conventional social relationships (Siegel, 2008).

The various theories that fall under social process theories include differential association theory which was developed by Edwin Sutherland to explain both individual criminality and aggregate crime rates by determining the conditions in which crime occurs, Ronald Akers social learning theory which was developed by Akers and Burgess to explain the different mechanisms by which the definitions that are favorable to crime can be learned without considering the frequency, priority, duration, and intensity of crime, Sykes and Matza’s neutralization theory which was developed to critique Sutherland’s differential association theory after it failed to explain why people drift in and out of crime instead of staying in crime (Siegel, 2008).

The neutralization theory stipulates that criminals know that their behavior is wrong but they continue to justify it by neutralizing any feelings of shame or guilt after they have committed the crime. By neutralizing their actions, they are minimally attached to the conventional norms that govern society.

The techniques of neutralization according to this theory include denial of responsibility where the blame is shifted away from the criminal offender, denial of injury where the offender denies committing any criminal acts, the denial of the victim where the criminal offender claims that the victim got what they deserve, condemnation of condemners where the criminal offender attempts to share guilt with the people condemning him (victim, police, family members) and the appeal to higher loyalties where the offender’s moral integrity is elevated by claiming ulterior motives (Walsh & Hemmens, 2011).

Impact on Criminology and Crime Control Today

Social process theories have played an important role in the study of crime and criminology where the behavior of criminals has been scrutinized to determine what socialization aspects cause crime within the society. Social process theories have a major influence on policy-making as they influence how criminals will be treated or dealt with within the judicial system (Cote, 2002). They prescribe the sort of treatments that will be given to these criminals based on the sort of delinquent behavior demonstrated by them.

They have also greatly influenced the development of social policies as they determine what community action policies will be developed to deal with crime in society. These policies will mostly be based on how people are socialized and how this socialization controls their behavioral choices as well as their actions. Apart from developing policies, social theories can be used to explain the occurrence of criminal behavior in offenders were their perceptions of reality help to structure their criminal behavior (Schmaelleger, 2009).

Strengths and Shortcomings of Social Process Theories

The strengths of the social process theories are that they explain the onset of criminal behavior in individuals within society. They also explain the presence of crime in all elements that exist within social structures, processes, and institutions such as families, churches, and schools. Another strength of this theory is that social process theories are used to explain why some people living in high-crime areas can refrain from criminal activities while others become involved in crime. The social process theories can link sociological and psychological principles together to analyze the psychological learning of criminal behavior.

A major shortcoming of social process theories is that they view people from all walks of life to have the potential of being criminals or committing criminal behavior if they maintain destructive tendencies and relationships. These theories hold that all improper socialization within the society is a key component of crime and they fail to consider the personal characteristics, attitudes, and personality of the individual which might contribute to criminal behavior. Another shortcoming of social process theories is that they do not provide any origin of antisocial behavior in human beings which needs to be eliminated. These theories provide causes to criminal behavior rather than explaining the rationalization process that leads to criminal behavior (Walsh & Hemmens, 2011).

The basis for Choosing This Group of Theories

The basis for selecting these groups of theories is that social process theories provide an emphasis on how people perceive their reality and how their perceptions can structure their behavior. Social process theories are also able to emphasize the power of peer associations within the society as well as define any favorable law violations that might lead to crime and juvenile delinquency within the society.

These theories can control the treatment of orientations as well as the development of action policies that will be used to deal with criminal behavior in society. They also explain the socialization process of individuals to determine whether they are likely to develop criminal behavior based on their interactions with other members of society. These theories also explain why many delinquents within the society do not evolve to become adult criminals once they mature and why they participate in conventional behavior (Hagan, 2011).


Cote, S., (2002). Criminological theories: bridging the past to the future. California: Sage Publications.

Hagan, F.E., (2011). Introduction to criminology: theories, methods, and criminal behavior. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications.

Schmaelleger, F., (2009). Criminology today: an integrative introduction, 5th Edition. North Carolina: Prentice Hall.

Siegel, L.J., (2009). Criminology. Belmont, California: Thomson Higher Education.

Walsh, A., & Hemmens, C., (2011). Introduction to criminology: a text/reader. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications.