What Are the Social Process Theories in Juvenile Delinquency?

By Geoffrey St. Marie

Criminal activity or behavior is something most societies throughout history have sought to explain. With the advance of modern science, more and more theoretically oriented frameworks have been applied to the study of criminology in an attempt to better understand what motivates offenders, such as juvenile delinquents. Social process theory is actually an umbrella term for different constituent theories that isolate social networking and language as primary catalysts for delinquency.

Theoretical Basis

Social process theory is an approach taken by some criminologists to interpret and explain the behaviors of delinquents. It is derived from a sociological model called symbolic interactionism. The basic premise of the model assumes that all people, including criminals or delinquents, must make some sense of their social reality. In so doing, they assign symbolic meanings to aspects of that reality which subsequently shape their reactions to it. In perceiving their own version of this reality, the individual can realign notions of action and consequences to suit that perception. This concept is at the heart of the Thomas Theorem as it relates to social process theory.

Socialization & Language

For social process theorists, the ways in which individuals socialize is a key part in developing delinquent behaviors. In many instances, these groups are formed in reaction to specific social conflicts, which must be either dealt with or avoided. In responding to these conflicts, the groups develop a language or communication system that redefines the consequences or quality of asocial behaviors -- such as criminal ones -- into acceptable or even desirable ones. These ideas are further distilled in one of the chief theories used in social process analysis: differential association.

Differential Association Theory

In differential association theory, asocial or criminal behavior is viewed as a learned behavior, not one inherent to the perpetrator. The behaviors, their motives, justifications and mechanisms, are cultivated within groups who take it upon themselves to reinterpret the validity of society and its laws. In other words, the delinquent feels a sort false entitlement to reordering the rules of society by excusing their behavior as necessary for fulfilling needs that society, in its given form, is unable to meet. Juvenile delinquents then continue to hone and refine these ideas through the influence of their peers and the consistent re-performance of criminal activities.

Theories of Criminal Behavior

In addition to differential association theory, there are two other that attempt to explain the prevalence, frequency of criminality in social process theory. Social learning theory holds that the history of either reward or punishment, as it is connected to delinquent behavior, greatly influences its nature continuation. Social bonding theory states that the more a juvenile becomes involved with and connected to social institutions, the less likely they are to want to reject society and to conceive of criminal behavior as a viable solution to social conflict.

Theories of Rehablitation

Three main social process theories try to approach the rehabilitation of the delinquent. Self-control theory asserts that all criminal behavior stems from inadequate self control, thus the answer is to instill that value and related behaviors in the individual. labeling theory suggests that a delinquent is more likely to engage in or return to criminal behavior if they believe society as labeled them as a criminal. This can be avoided by removing that stigma from the former offender's self identification. Finally neutralization theory targets the individuals feelings of guilt or ability to neutralize or block them. The latter ability is a key component in how criminals dismiss shame or emotional consequences from their actions.

About the Author

Geoffrey St. Marie began writing professionally in 2010, with his work focusing on topics in history, culture, politics and society. He received his Bachelor of Arts in European history from Central Connecticut State University and his Master of Arts in modern European history from Brown University.