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Social Theories and Criminal Behavior

This post will look at various social theories that try to explain criminal behavior. In addition, when possible, we will tie these theories to the classroom context.

Differential Association Theory

Differential association theory states that children learn their values from close family and friends. Of course, this can be good or bad. If the family are law-abiding, productive members of society, the child may absorb these traits. However, if the child comes from a home of drugs and violence, they may absorb these norms of disruption.


Whether the behaviors the child absorbs are positive or negative, the child will make excuses or justifications for their adopted behaviors. For example, a drug-dealing child may justify their behavior because they are trying to make a little money, and it is not a big deal if people do drugs a little here and there. The straight-A student will justify their behavior by stating they have a chance at going to a good college and finding a good-paying job. IN other words, rationalization can be used to justify positive and negative behaviors.

Neutralization Theory

Developed in the 1950s, neutralization theory states that criminals go back and forth between criminal behavior and obeying the law. For example, a drug dealer may legally choose to buy food from the grocery store. IN other words, even though this person has no respect for law and order, he may choose to buy groceries legally. It may appear contradictory that a criminal would buy groceries legally when they are a drug dealer, but the catch is that neutralization theory states that crooks mistakenly believe they are normal members of society.

The neutralizing of this theory happens when the perpetrators of crime deny their criminal behavior in one of five ways.

  • Denies responsibility
  • Denies harm
  • Denies the Victim
  • condemns people of power
  • Appeals to a higher authority

Many of the bullets above are self-explanatory. Denying responsibility is claiming that whatever happened was an accident. For example, someone steals some money and says it wasn’t their fault. Denying harm is excusing criminal behavior because of a false perception it doesn’t hurt. For example, saying stealing a little bit is okay if it’s not too much. Denying the victim is rationalizing that the victim deserved what happened to them.

Condemning people of power is seeing all people of authority as corrupt. This neutralization technique has been popular in the media and protesting as of late to justify destructive behavior and emotional outbursts. Lastly, appealing to a higher authority is the claim that a person makes that they committed a crime for some greater good. For example, a man is stealing money from a company to help his family.

These are all excuses that students generally make when they break the rules and or classroom policies. They will deny responsibility, deny harm, deny the victim, attack the teacher, and blame friends.

Containment Theory

Containment theory states that external and internal pressures can lead a person towards crime or breaking the rules and containments that pressure an individual to not go in that direction. External pressures can include such things as friends and media, which have a negative influence on the individual. Internal pressures are often personality traits that are considered negative such as a lack of self-esteem.

Containments restrain negative behaviors and can be external or internal. External containment is essentially the opposite of external pressures and can include good friends, strong family, and positive media choices. Internal containments are also personality traits and can include strong self-esteem rather than weak.

Again the ideas of containment theory seem to mirror what happens in the classroom. Children with many negative external pressures and few containments will generally cause more disruption. Naturally, it is not this simple in the real world, but this theory provides a platform for trying to explain poor behavior.

Social Bond Theory

Social bonds are relationships that restrain someone from criminal behavior. This theory is similar to the containment theory, but nevertheless, it has four components

  • Attachment
  • Commitment
  • Involvement
  • Belief

People attached to a family, friends, and or institution, such as the church, have positive roles in their life that make it harder to commit crimes. Commitment is how invested a person is in society. People with something to lose will generally be less likely to commit crimes. For example, people who have good jobs and families will often commit fewer crimes than single unemployed ma. The difference is not just financial but the fact that the person with a good job has more to lose from criminal behavior.

Involvement is time spent in community development. Community involvement develops relationships, and these social relationships restrain criminal behavior. Lastly, beliefs are associated with attitude. Each of these components aligns well with students and their tendency to break the rules in the classroom.


Why people break laws and or rules will never be fully explained. People will always find ways to do what they want. The ideas presented here are just another way to explain unacceptable behavior. For the teacher, these theories can provide insights into students’ motivations for obeying the rules.

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