9. Learning Theories

9.6 Moving Past a Monolithic Approach to Learning Theory

Dr. Zachary Rowan and Michaela McGuire, M.A.

While this chapter does not represent the entirety of knowledge on learning theories, it represents the dominant approach used to situate learning theories within criminology. Some of this is a function of the fact that the scholars responsible for developing and testing the theories are white, western, and male and their ideas and methodologies are complicit in the colonial project through the silencing of Indigenous peoples (Deckert, 2014, 2016). Learning is universal, yet ironically (with some exceptions) the bulk of what we believe learning theory represents and explains is derived from frames of reference and samples of primarily white colonisers. When diversity is considered, it is largely relegated to descriptive differences as opposed to the elevation of truths or experiences of people who have lived on these lands since time immemorial. Learning theories are often operationalized within western research methodologies (such as quantitative research) that have been criticized and deemed silencing (Deckert, 2016). Indigenous knowledge has been disregarded as less esteemed/legitimate than western knowledge and of “little criminological value” (Cunneen & Tauri, 2019, p. 42). Given the over-representation of Indigenous peoples in the imposed justice system, this silencing of knowledge should be of concern. If learning theories were to incorporate the oppression of Nation-based governance into their frameworks, these theories would surely take a necessary step and arguably through such a consideration strengthen not falsify or detract from the explanatory power of the theory.

For example, learning theories do not question the role of the state or include reference to state culpability for human rights violations. Nor do these theories critically analyse how the oppression of Nation-based governance, law, and justice and the imposition of western systems impact socialisation experiences. Indeed, the primary socialising agents derived from learning theories are individuals rather than institutions that force exposure to particular associates or definitions. Still, we must be cautious about individualising the application of mainstream learning theories to Indigenous peoples and simply attributing blame to an individual’s socialisation with such institutions. This would only perpetuate harm and ignore the role of colonial policies (Cunneen & Tauri, 2017). There are virtually no direct tests of learning theory, which if done, could arguably be an advancement within Indigenous communities; however, this type of research still represents a colonial adaptation to the study of deviance among Indigenous peoples and ignores how the imposed state-defined structures fundamentally change the social environments of Indigenous peoples. This add Indigenous and stir approach is highly contested and problematic. Learning theories that consider the oppression, racism, genocide, and colonial harm inflicted by the state have yet to be developed and tested.

Despite the above-noted shortcomings of learning theories, extensions of the theory do acknowledge that society is differentially organised such that individuals are positioned within unique communities and structures that inform the extent of conditions conducive to crime (e.g., Matsueda & Heimer, 1987). Some communities may be organised towards definitions favourable to crime, which suggests individuals may not have an equal chance of exposure to such definitions. These group-level differences allude to the potential importance of cultural or social distinctions that structure learning processes. Thus, to a certain extent, updated versions of learning theory demand attention be paid to structural and contextual differences. However, all learning theories tend to assume that the mechanisms are the same across different groups (i.e., race, culture), but what varies may be the context or sources of such learning. For example, these theories certainly allow for the identification of different sources of influence within Indigenous communities and non-Indigenous communities. Perhaps the emphasis on interconnectedness amongst families within some Indigenous communities contributes to a stronger focus on family-based peers that may not be as important within non-Indigenous communities. Still, this approach discounts the very real possibility that within these communities, the mechanisms of learning are different or experienced differently based on distinct cultural variations. For instance, although SLT includes a consideration of the imitation of behaviours, it is primarily relegated to the initial acquisition of a particular behaviour. In contrast, Tanaka et al. (2007) summarise the extremely important role that mentorship, learning by doing, deep observation, and learning within communities has within Indigenous teaching and learning. Thus, among Indigenous peoples perhaps there is greater weight given to the role of imitation and related observatory learning practices.

It is also possible that mechanisms of learning are structured in fundamentally different ways based on state-driven actions. Learning theories might help explain intergenerational trauma and its influence on explaining (state-constructed) deviance among some Indigenous communities. For instance, learning theories could be utilised to examine the interconnections between childhood trauma in residential schools, subsequent trauma, and learned behaviours such as neglect or abuse culminating in intergenerational trauma and ongoing child apprehension. The over-incarceration of Indigenous youth and over-representation in foster care suggests that Canada has continued to take

Indigenous children away from their homes at unprecedented rates. In addition, these experiences also arguably impact the lens through which Indigenous children view other social interactions. Research suggests that childhood exposure to high-conflict relationships, adversity, and academic challenges contribute to increases in the likelihood that youth will attach to delinquent peer groups (e.g., Fergusson & Horwood, 1996). However, as has been previously emphasised, a surface level analysis would ignore the role of the state, imposed law and governance, colonialism, and racism. There is a direct connection between the multigenerational impacts of colonialism, genocide and racism and the continued state control of Indigenous peoples through confinement (reserves, day/residential schools, foster care/group homes, incarceration) that require a substantially more meaningful consideration into learning frameworks that are beyond the scope of the current chapter (Monchalin, 2016; TRC, 2015; Woolford & Gacek, 2016).

This is not to suggest that the mechanisms outlined by Sutherland (1947) or Burgess and Akers (1966) have no place in understanding deviance within Indigenous communities. Indeed, these scholars argued there is consistency in how mechanisms operate across people, thereby providing a general explanation of deviance that repudiates strict biological determinism of crime by arguing individuals involved in crime are inherently not biologically different than those that refrain from crime. However, we must go further if we take seriously the unique lived experiences of Indigenous Nations, peoples, and communities. Simpson (2016) argues that the study of Indigenous peoples and justice (or lack thereof) often ignores the continuation of harm. In the context of learning theories, it is necessary to evaluate how state-based structures actually create and control the presence of definitions, values, and reinforcement mechanisms favourable towards crime and deviance.


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Introduction to Criminology Copyright © 2023 by Dr. Zachary Rowan and Michaela McGuire, M.A. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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