Applying Social Learning Theory in Crime


Social structure theory points out that the socioeconomic structure of the places where a person resides influences their probability of them engaging in criminal acts. The theory suggests that people in lower class areas are more likely to engage in crime due to their inability to acquire social or monetary success in a legit way. The social structure theory has three tenets that helps in understanding crime. These include cultural conflict, strain, and social disorganization theories. The social disorganization theory state that slum residents infringe the law because they reside in areas with a broken social control system. These are disorganized areas characterized by differing values and temporary populations, which have a high probability of producing criminality. The strain theory perceives crime as resulting from frustrations and anger that individual’s face due to their inability to accomplish legit economic and social goals. The scarce means to meet their needs leads to crime. Cultural conflicting theory suggests that the lower class areas have unique value system that has approved behaviors such as defying authority. These behaviors exacerbate to become part of criminal acts. Therefore, the social structure theory enhances our understanding of the causes of crime and how we can correct them to prevent occurrences in future.


There are a number of theories which criminologist applies to determine the origin of crime provided that crime is a global issue. These theories have been applied to evaluate criminal events for many years. One of the most common theories used to examine crime and criminal events is the social structure theory. This theory discusses reasons why crime is more prevalent in some areas compared to others. The social structure places emphases on lack of education, disorganization of family, poverty, absence of marketable skills, and income inequality as the fundamental causes of crime. Social structure theory plays an important role in criminal justice system. The criminal justice system can be applied in the criminal justice system to trace the roots of crime to issues in our society. Through this, the theorists suggest there is need to regulate the social structure of society to minimize crime. To reduce crime, the society and the justice system should first understand why it occurs. Although some offenders may suffer from psychological and biological defects that result in committing crime, most criminals do not. Most of the criminal behaviors are facilitated by the breakdown of the norms of society (Akers, 2017, pp.14 -16).

Social structure theory

The concept of social structure is core in most social sciences. The social structure theory states that the socioeconomics condition of a place has a direct impact on the crime rate in that particular place. The social structure theorists suggest that individuals living in poverty are more likely to engage in crime as opposed to the rich. The reason is because poor individuals will require achieving economic success and the means to achieve it is through crime. In addition, people in lower class level are characterized by high level of unemployment, high levels of drug use and addition, and lack of education resources, which exposes them to socially approved behaviors such as crime to meet their economic and social success (Barton, Valasik & Brault, 2021, pp. 138). There is a strong correlation between poverty and crime. According to Barton, Valasik, and Brault (2021, pp. 140), approximately 45 millions of Americans are living in poverty. These two issues seem to occur from poor solid infrastructure in the economy to support the less privileged in society. Social structure theories use a sociological approach to research studies on deviance and crime. The aim of social structures is to regulate and socialize people so as to adapt to the dominant norms of society, while punishing some behaviors and rewarding others. The intervention strategies are formulated based on the causes of crime. The social programs established based on social structure seek to promote opportunities for success through socially acceptable means.

Major types of Social Structure Theories

The social structure theory consists of three major types including culture conflict theory, strain theory, and social disorganization theory. According to Stinson (2020, pp. 73), the social disorganization theory, people living in slums have a high probability of engaging in activities that violate the law because they already have a broken social control system. It focuses on breakdown of institutions such as employment, schools, and family in neighborhoods. The theory demonstrates that disorganized areas are flawed by conflicting values, which have an effect of generating crime. According to Stinson (2020, pp. 77), social structure guides the behavior of people. People develop behaviors, attitudes, and perceptions from their areas in the social structure and act based on those behaviors. The elements of social structure work together to improve social order by organizing, guiding, and limiting human behaviors. The strain theory points out that the cause of crime results from the anger, which develops from the failure to achieve success. The society places pressures on people to achieve legitimate economic and social success. However, these individuals lacks the means or ability to accomplish the socially accepted goals, which results in strain, which in turn could prompt a person to engage in criminal activities to achieve the desired goals. These strains could result in development of negative emotions such as frustrations and anger, which might pressure a person to commit crime. Some people may use crime as a means to reduce the negative emotions or escape from the strain. For instance, if a person experiences unemployment for a long time, they may resort to engage in criminal activities such as drug dealing or theft as a means for economic success. In addition, a person making 50 thousand a year will not be able to accomplish their dreams such as a secondary education or a buying a new car thereby establishing a more gap to their inability to accomplish their goals (Stinson, 2020, pp. 78-81). Therefore, the strain theory has helped to explain reasons why criminal acts are conducted at one place and not others. The cultural conflicting theory suggests that various behaviors have been approved in lower class areas. Examples of the approved behaviors in lower class areas include defying authority, never showing fear, and being tough. The theorist believe that lower class individuals’ perceptions and fear that they have limited opportunities for success lead to acts of crime to satisfy their needs (Stinson, 2020, pp.82). The social structure theories demonstrate that individuals share same social structure and beliefs. However, these beliefs and social structure are created different through the organization of the social structure. All the three tenets of social structure theory are comparable in the sense that they involve individuals, groups, and societal expectations. They all explain how individuals or groups connect to what is acceptable to society. According to Stinson (2020, pp. 87-90), the social disorganization theory, the disorganized or lower class areas makes the environment conducive to criminal behavior. Environment also plays a role in the strain theory whereby the measures of success by society encourage criminal behavior. However, the culture conflict theory is different from the two because it does not focus on environmental factor but concentrates on the idea of mainstream society.

Criticisms of the social structure theory

The opponents to the social structure theory argue that the theory is not conclusive because it only places emphasis on few elements, which are highly hypothetical such as socioeconomic ways as a cause of crime. They indicate that the theory should provide several reasons that cause crime because a person can commit crime in numerous ways. For instance, a person may be influenced by the pressure of their peers to choose the suitable method for executing crime. Similarly, it is crucial to indicate that not all people are prompted by poverty to engage in criminal acts. The opponents argue that, adoption of such a mode of analysis would mean that all people living in poverty should be criminals. There are people who are poor but have strong values and thus they use other legit means to achieve their goals and satisfy their needs (Siegel & Ziembo-Vogl, 2010, pp. 13). Therefore, the opponents suggest that the explanations about the origin of crime as explained by the social structural theory is outdated.

Importance of the social structure theory

Although there are opponents to these theories suggesting that they have many flaws, it is evident that play a significant role in discussing people’s views towards it and the use of resources. Modification of the structural theory will add new elements such as homelessness and develop a standard structured theory, which will be utilized to adequately explain the causes of crime (Wacquant, 2019, pp. 39-41). The American dream is guided by the dreams of prosperity and freedom. This means that various individuals find psychological, economic, and cultural motivation in the dream. Most believe that dream can be accomplished through establishing the right culture. The society finds it challenging to differ from the dream because it demonstrates that they have the ability to achieve the dream. This helps to keep the society safe from any kind of crime because everybody is focused on ensuring that they accomplish the dream. However, it does not mean that no challenges exist in efforts to achieve the dream. These frustrations are handled before they worsen to other forms of crime (Nicholson & Higgins, 2017, pp. 12-13). Similarly, there are instances where people engage in crime. This offers an explanation on why different people have difficulty living while they have expectations on the dream. The strain theory has demonstrated that achieving the American dream is fundamentally a focus in the belief that it can be accomplished. The structure of a society or area may hinder people from recognizing their dreams, which have an impact of causing individuals to resort to illegal means of achieving their goals. Deviant subcultures in disorganized areas such as gang groups may use crime. Theorists have observed that small groups may disengage from society and create their own meaning and values about life. These groups may commit crimes to meet their needs, which cause harm to the whole society (Nicholson & Higgins, 2017, pp. 18-19). The criminal tactics among youths from poor areas are because of the existing social norms in those areas. Their viewpoint towards life derives feelings of low self-esteem, which could be adopted from youths in other lower social class areas, whose only source of livelihood is crime. According to theorists, criminal tendencies have been utilized as a resolution to the imaginary results. The gangs believe that the benefits of crime are the major answer to their problems. These individuals use violence to retaliate because they believe that the upper class individuals contribute to the poverty status of those in lower social class. This means that the people living in lower class areas have a more reason to engage in crime. It is evident that 95% of the wealth is owned by 1% of the population, which creates a huge gap between the less privileged and the privileged in society (Wacquant, 2019, pp. 49-53). The social structure theory has made it easy to create a link between the economic status of an individual and the reasons for a particular type of behavior.  Findings reveal that people who are detached from the society or family have a high likelihood of engaging in crimes. Committing crimes is not a choice to some people because they need to survive. The use of criminal means to achieve basic needs is inevitable. Sometimes the gangs are willing to stop engaging in criminal acts as long as they are provided adequate support from society. It is crucial for the society to reach out to individuals living in poverty to minimize the gap between the poor and rich. Connolly et al. (2021, pp. 15-16) points out that the society can put in place measures that will help reduce the rates of crime. First is to include the less privileged individuals when structuring communities. The society should establish a clear framework, which is based on ensuring every member in the community thrives. The aim of establishing a structural functioning is not to avoid crime completely, but to get rid of any crime that may a repetitive component.


The need to control crime has resulted to the need to determine the causes of crimes. The social structure theories have been found to be persuasive in explaining reasons why crimes are committed. The aim of social structure theories is to alleviate the social conditions that generate crime. The theory has suggested that people living in poor areas are prone to crime. The society provides people of different social groups with differing means of achieving the societal goals. However, most of the people in lower class level have blocked opportunities due to socioeconomic status or class location. As a result, these individuals are not able to accomplish their goals through legitimate means. However, it is important for the social structure theory to focus on other causes of crime, because the idea that the socioeconomic aspect is the only cause of crime makes the theory inconclusive as suggested by the opponents. The three subtypes of social structure theory that has been identified include culture conflict theory, strain theory, and social disorganization. They offer explanation on the reasons why criminal behaviors occur in in our society. Therefore, through understanding the various ways in which crime occurs will help in ensuring appropriate approaches are formulated to deal with the causes of crime.


Akers, R. L. (2017). Social learning and social structure: A general theory of crime and deviance. New York: Routledge. Retrieved > Barton, M. S., Valasik, M. A., & Brault, E. (2021). Disorder or disadvantage: investigating the tension between neighborhood social structure and the physical environment on local violence. Criminal justice review46(2), 134-155. Retrieved> Connolly, E. J., Said Al-Ghamdi, M., Nezar Kobeisy, A., Alqurashi, F. H., Schwartz, J. A., & Beaver, K. M. (2021). Neighborhood exposure to violence and delinquency in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia: a partial test of social structure and social learning theory. Journal of interpersonal violence36(15-16), NP8747-NP8772. Retrieved> Nicholson, J., & Higgins, G. E. (2017). Social structure social learning theory: Preventing crime and violence. In Preventing crime and violence (pp. 11-20). Springer, Cham. Retrieved> Siegel, L. J., & Ziembo-Vogl, J. M. (2010). Criminology: Theories, patterns, and typologies. Wadsworth/Cengage Learning. Retrieved> Stinson, P. M. (2020). 4. Social Structure Theories. In Criminology Explains Police Violence (pp. 73-90). University of California Press. Retrieved> Wacquant, L. J. (2019). Making class: The middle class (es) in social theory and social structure. In Bringing class back In (pp. 39-64). Routledge. Retrieved>

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