How differential association and social learning impacts prison populations

A large percentage of offenders were exposed to mores prior to developing cognitive ability and were then taught a whole new set of norms and standards throughout their respective life courses


Corrections is multifaceted — it is a microcosm of society that is ambiguous and saturated with both sociological and psychological principles. I have, in the past, reiterated that corrections is not a cut and dry issue. How can it be? Humanity, in and of itself, is filled with complexity that is all too often incomprehensible. Humans have emotions, feelings, biological adaptations/proclivities, and freewill. 

Along with specific biological traits also come sociological pressures and acclimatization. According to Sumner (2013), man is involved in the competition of life — this competition is a rivalry in which the individual interacts with surrounding organisms in order to both obtain and preserve his/her existence. This competition for survival subsequently produces societal organization (Sumner, 2013). Humans battle with peer pressures as well as the sociological development of folkways, mores, taboos, and laws.

Mores, in this case, can be crudely defined as rudimentary norms of a society that provide a primitive explanation as to what is right and wrong. According to Sumner (2002), humans are subjected to the influence of mores before they are capable of logically reasoning about them. Prior to the human ability to be introspective, reasonable, or cognitively aware, we are subjected to basic mores that, in a way, dictate what is right and wrong in society and create expectations. With this in mind, I’d like to introduce the criminological theory of social learning and delve into how this theory expands on the premise of mores in developing/cultivating behavior. 

Differential Association
Social learning theory is comprised of four main parts: differential association, differential reinforcement/punishment, definitions, and imitation (Skinner, 1997). For the purposes of this article, I would like to focus on differential association. Akers (1996) postulates that the process of differential association takes place when individuals are exposed to definitions favorable or unfavorable to criminality and, due this exposure, individuals adapt, learn, and ultimately apply these definitions. In order to translate this theory to make it applicable in practice to our corrections systems, I will provide an example. 

Take, for example, a young man born in a low-income, inner-city neighborhood. As an infant, this individual may be exposed to violence, hostility, and aggressiveness. In the development of mores, this individual may be agreeable to these particular definitions of right and wrong long before ever being able to reason about them and create his/her own perceptions. 

Then, advancing into the prepubescent years, this same individual may be exposed to general criminality, the incarceration of his friends, family, other associates, and various forms of violence and hostility. This individual may be “taught” that criminality is the way of life in his particular social setting and that incarceration is nothing more than a mere, temporary annoyance. 

This young man may have been exposed to criminality his entire life and, given the principles of differential association, has been taught norms that are in total contradiction to the middle-class expectations of hard work, longevity, stability, non-aggression, and showing respect toward authority. Stewart, Schreck, & Simons (2006) postulate that disadvantaged, African-American inner-city areas are plagued with violence and that this violence can be traced back to the norms established in these areas. 

According to Stewart et al (2006), displaying violence and the willingness to aggressively enact retribution on those who do not show “respect” is deeply engrained into the culture. Additionally, those who do not adopt this norm (those individuals who are passive and do not display aggression) are seen as weak and have a much higher rate of victimization (Stewart, Schreck, & Simons, 2006). Seemingly, this culture of violence preys upon the individuals who display values more aligned with the middle-class. 

A Different Outlook
This article is not professing an excuse for this man, or any other individuals who may have experienced this same exposure. Instead, this article aims to educate the general public about the prison population and to disseminate particular insights about our collective job as corrections professionals. The offenders under our care and custody have an entirely different outlook on life — a large percentage were exposed to mores prior to developing cognitive ability and were then taught a whole new set of norms and standards throughout their respective life courses. 

Aggressiveness, hostility, violence, and posturing are far more important than middle-class values in this environment. Survival in prison is not based on middle-class values at all, but instead is based on being both feared and “respected.” Many inmates fit into this counterculture and we have to continue to understand their norms, values, and beliefs in order to combat recidivism and gain compliance. 

We need to move past the cut-and-dry ideology of right and wrong and attempt to change social learning. This is not something that the corrections systems can do alone. We need the help and support of society to universally improve mores and, in turn, help make differential association more positive. This is not an easy task, but the fate of prison populations may depend on societal reformation. Simply put, corrections alone cannot be singularly responsible for the rehabilitation of offenders! There are far too many sociological facets at play for one organization to combat. Without understanding the counterculture, we may not be able to enhance rehabilitative efforts nor be able to see success in inmate reintegration. 

Works Cited
Akers, R. L. (1996). Is differential association/social learning cultural deviance theory?. Criminology, 34(2), 229-247.

Skinner, W. F., & Fream, A. M. (1997). A social learning theory analysis of computer crime among college students. Journal of research in crime and delinquency, 34(4), 495-518.

Stewart, E. A., Schreck, C. J., & Simons, R. L. (2006). “I ain't gonna let no one disrespect me” Does the code of the street reduce or increase violent victimization among african american adolescents?. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 43(4), 427-458.

Sumner, W. G. (2013). Folkways-A study of the sociological importance of usages, manners, customs, mores and morals. Read Books Ltd.

Sumner, W. G. (2002). Folkways: A study of mores, manners, customs and morals. Courier Corporation.

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