9. Learning Theories

9.7 A New Approach to Learning Theory

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

In this chapter, we have provided an overview of the main tennts of learning theories that occupy an important role in the history and study of criminology. First and foremost, both theoretical perspectives emphasise the social nature of our world as the source of learning criminal and deviant behaviours. Peers, friends, romantic partners, and coworkers all have the capacity to inform our attitudes towards deviance and even teach us to commit crime. While empirical evidence strongly supports the role these theoretical perspectives have in explaining crime, much remains in the pursuit of an inclusive and critical development of learning theories. The different perspectives offered in this chapter represent our attempt at employing a decolonial approach to reviewing learning theories. Learning theories suggest that definitions acquired through associations are important. Contextualised through the material practices and ideologies of colonial states and by the resistances of Indigenous peoples, one can begin to uncover how the colonial state structures norms, values, and associations that may facilitate state-defined crime. As has been emphasized in this chapter, colonialism, genocide and the imposition of foreign laws, justice and governance coupled with displacement, dispossession and oppression (the reserve system, residential/day schools, foster care), and criminalisation and control (the pass system, Indian Act provisions, imposed criminal justice system) are the root causes of Indigenous over-incarceration. In other words, the state has created the problem it seeks to control.

In many ways, evaluating how the state contributes to the differential social and structural organisation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities takes seriously extensions of SLT that include a consideration of social structures (e.g., Akers, 1998). We do not mean to suggest that we should only understand how learning theories operate within Indigenous communities. A potential weakness of social learning theories is the assumption of the universality of mechanisms attached to learning. Research shows that the socialisation experiences of men/women, racialised/non-racialised young/old people are different. A critical adaptation of learning theory may help identify additional mechanisms of learning, develop a framework to understand how such mechanisms are mediated by colonial structural factors, and ultimately contribute to a deeper understanding of social influences. To move learning theories forward, we echo this statement made by Cunneen and Tauri (2017): “We believe that building ‘from the ground up’ a criminology that privileges the Indigenous perspective and requires a meaningful analysis of colonialism as an explanatory factor in Indigenous peoples’ experiences of settler colonial justice, is a theoretical and practical necessity” (p. 153).


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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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