Social Process Theory is a criminological theory that emphasizes the importance of social interactions in shaping behavior. It is based on the premise that individuals learn criminal behavior through their social interactions with others.

But have you ever wondered who developed this theory and how it came into existence? Let’s take a closer look.

The Origin of Social Process Theory

Social Process Theory has its roots in the work of sociologist George Herbert Mead, who developed a symbolic interactionist approach to sociology in the early 20th century. Mead argued that individuals develop their sense of self and their ability to interact with others through the process of socialization.

The Contributions of Edwin Sutherland

While Mead’s work provided a foundation for understanding the role of social interactions in shaping behavior, it was criminologist Edwin Sutherland who first applied these ideas specifically to the study of crime. In his 1939 book, “Principles of Criminology,” Sutherland introduced the concept of differential association as an explanation for why some individuals engage in criminal behavior while others do not.

Sutherland argued that criminal behavior is learned through social interactions with others who hold favorable attitudes toward crime. These attitudes may be communicated directly or indirectly, through things like jokes or stories about criminal activity. Individuals who are exposed to these messages are more likely to adopt them as their own beliefs and engage in criminal behavior themselves.

Expanding on Sutherland’s Work: Robert Burgess and Ronald Akers

While Sutherland’s work laid the foundation for Social Process Theory, subsequent researchers have expanded on his ideas and developed new concepts within this framework. One key figure in this development was Robert Burgess, who introduced the concept of social learning as an extension of differential association theory.

Burgess argued that criminal behavior is not just learned through exposure to attitudes favorable towards crime but also through direct reinforcement and punishment. Individuals who are rewarded for criminal behavior are more likely to engage in it again, while those who are punished will be less likely to repeat their actions.

Another important contributor to the development of Social Process Theory was Ronald Akers, who introduced the concept of social bonding. Akers argued that individuals who have strong bonds to conventional social institutions such as family, school, and religion are less likely to engage in criminal behavior. These bonds serve as a protective factor against deviant behavior by providing individuals with a sense of belonging and a stake in conformity.


Social Process Theory has evolved significantly since its inception, with contributions from numerous scholars over the decades. From Mead’s foundational work on symbolic interactionism to Sutherland’s introduction of differential association theory and the subsequent expansion of these ideas by Burgess and Akers, this theory has become an important tool for understanding how social interactions shape behavior.

By examining the social context in which criminal behavior occurs, Social Process Theory offers insights into why some individuals are more likely to engage in deviant behavior than others. It also highlights the importance of addressing underlying social factors when attempting to prevent crime.