Given that sentencing policy is developed around the assumption that offending behaviour is a rational choice; the validity of Social Learning Theory might be questionable. Criminal psychology was traditionally concerned with positivist theory which attempted to identify the causal factors of criminality within the individual. The development of the Chicago School's Social Theory however, was to have great bearing upon both criminology and psychology as academic disciplines (Hollin, 2002). The focus of research becoming less concerned with positivism, focussing instead upon the exploration of deterministic causal variables of offending behaviour; those factors external to the individual and specific to the social structure within which that individual developed. As the influence of Chicago School grew, so too did the understanding of Social Theory (Hollin, 2002).
The theorist considered to have had the greatest influence upon the later development of Social Learning Theory, Edwin Sutherland, was responsible for the theory of Differential Association (1947) in which he suggested that offending behaviour is learned rather than inherited, and existed more commonly within an environment of deprivation and disadvantage1 (Hollin, 2002). Matza (1964; 1969) and Jeffrey (1965) expanded upon Sutherland's theory; Matza argued that when an individual learned to behave in a deviant way, they would subsequently fulfil the societal role deviancy; while Jeffreys, in his theory of Differential Reinforcement, explained how learned deviance is then reinforced by positive experiences: financial and material gain, approval and a growth of status within their society (Hollin, 2002).
Furthermore, Strain Theory associated with Merton (1968), similarly explained offending behaviour as being a consequence of social strain, learned behaviour and limited opportunities, thus indicating that offending behaviour is the result of social pathology which in turn leads the individual to develop innovative ways of achieving 'culturally defined goals'2 (White and Haines, 2004). Central therefore to social theory and specifically to that of Differential Association, is the hypothesis that offending behaviour is a consequence of learning from the social environment and not of physiological origin. Social theory also introduces the concept of a 'normal' individual finding themselves in 'abnormal' social circumstances and with limited choices; as opposed to the commonly held view that an offender is an 'abnormal' individual attempting to cope with societal norms (White and Haines, 2004).
Studies which have proven seminal to the development of policy and practice in respect of young offenders however, remain those of Farrington's longitudinal and ongoing Cambridge Study in Delinquent Behaviour3 which, among numerous other finding identifies a clear link between childhood, parenting pro-offending associations and offending (Muncie, 2001). Rutter's (1998) research findings bear striking similarity to those of Farrington's study; and to reinforce this, Matthews (1968) and Blackburn (1993) correspondingly found that offenders who participate in certain forms of crime are more likely than their non-offending counterparts to have pro-offending family members and peers, while Farrington, Rutter and Blackburn agree that inadequate parenting provides a key causal variable in the development of offending behaviour (Putwain and Sammons, 2002).
Such information has been utilised by the YJB in the creation of the ASSET diagnostic risk-assessment tool which focuses upon an offender's exposure to risk and protective factors which can be divided into four categories4: family; education, training and employment; community and lifestyle, and specific individual factors5 (YJB, 2003). Given the plethora of academic research texts regarding the influence of 'significant others' upon the development of offending behaviour; the discipline of academic psychology appears to have demonstrated some reluctance in embracing psycho-social theory. However, in 1977, influenced by the development of social theory, Bandura developed Social Learning Theory, which like many other social theorists attempted to make sense of the relationship between the social environment and offending behaviour and reasoned that such behaviour is the product of social learning and imitation (Hollin, 2002; Putwain and Sammons, 2002).
Bandura theorised that the 'influential model' (the observed) is selected by the observer by their status; whether that be because they are a parent, sibling or 'significant other' (Hollin, 2002; Putwain and Sammons, 2002). Replication of that 'models' behaviour will then be dependent upon the observed benefits or sanctions that are meted out in response to their actions, a process termed: 'vicarious reinforcement and punishment'; a theory previously suggested by Miller and Dollard (1941), (Howitt, 2006; Putwain and Sammons, 2002). That an observation of unpunished bad behaviour is an antecedent to the future behaviour of the observer is hardly surprising; in fact, as early as 1942 Shaw and McKay had written that offending behaviour transcends the generations by a child's observations of their family members 'speech, gestures and attitudes', a process defined by Muncie as 'environmental determinism' (Muncie, 2001).