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Socialisation & Crime - Sian Rowe

Sian Rowe is a first year student studying for a degree in Criminology and criminal justice at the University of Portsmouth

Causes of crime

How useful are the concepts of primary and secondary socialisation in explaining criminality?


Socialisation is more than just what we learn when we are at school. It is the effect of our families and those around us, including the media and our peers (White, 1977). Often, the idea of socialisation is broken into two categories, primary and secondary socialisation. The positivist hegemonic idea surrounding primary socialisation is that our learning is concentrated from within the family, whereas sociologists assume that secondary socialisation marks our transitions into adult life, including our education (White, 1977). It is important for a child to have a source of primary socialisation, in terms of positivist ideas, as this is when, we, as humans, learn our societal moral conducts. We learn what is right and wrong, what is acceptable and unacceptable within society, and for the child to be able to co-operate within the learning of such forms of socialisation (White, 1977).


The most dominant way of learning these socially acceptable norms and values is through our communication with others, although there are some boundaries in relation to certain traits and behaviours which could be put down to our biology (Brown, H: Corcoran D, 1971). This leads on to the idea of nature, or our genes, being a reason behind how we behave, or nurture, where our behaviour is down to the interaction of others influencing the way we are reared, and then later, how we act (Harris, 1998). In 1977, Greenberg suggested that the move from childhood to adulthood has been made problematic due to societal changes (Hansen, 2003).


Both primary (our family) and secondary (education) socialisations can draw upon psychological ideas. For example, Albert Bandura created the idea of the Social Learning Theory which focuses upon the aspect of behaviourist psychology. Behaviourist psychology draws upon the idea that external stimulus, or the effects of our environment, affect the way we behave. This suggests that we learn our behaviour through the ways of conditioning and observation (Newburn, 2007). The use of Bandura’s Social Learning Theory can be linked to a real life scenario. For example, the James Bulger case can very easily be linked in here in relation to the family aspects of both Jon Venables and Robert Thompson. Robert’s father, particularly, showed a violent disposition, and repeatedly beat Robert’s mother. This could therefore clarify the idea of the Social Learning Theory, in that, through observation, Robert learnt these violent traits and, therefore, thought that it was an acceptable behaviour to have (Scott, 2012).  In relation to Bandura’s theory, Sutherland also created a theory, known as Differential Association, which suggests that interaction with other likeminded persons, leads on to having the influence of their behaviour, and creating a criminal subdivision through society (Hopkins Burke, 2009). Both of these theories can be linked to both the family (primary socialisation) and education (secondary socialisation).    


Farrington (2008), conducted a study in 1990 focusing around the parental influences on children, or primary socialisation. His study, known as the Cambridge Study in Delinquent Development, looked at the risk factors amongst 411 boys from London. His study showed that parental influences and a lack of care and control over their child were main causes of childhood delinquency.


In addition, the family’s social class background can also be used as an idea to function both primary and secondary socialisation. The associations that we have with others from our own social class affect how we behave. As White (1977) writes, the mixing of others within your own social class produces behaviours associated with these. For example, middle class families tend to be highly educated, and have a sense of belonging through that particular social class, whereas, in contrast, working class families tend to be slightly more dysfunctional, often worried about money and, due to the nature of a mothers’ activities, her children develop through the influence of their peers (White, 1977). The effects of social class upon education link to criminality. For example, the work of Willis explains that some working class jobs are stereotyped or of a dead-end nature. These are often dull, profitless and uninspiring (Macleod, 1995). In some circumstances, other classes, such as the underclass, may find it necessary to turn to the aspect of crime, due to the low pay that the job provides, or in some cases, because they lack a job. In 1990, Charles Murray derived ideas surrounding the underclass. He suggests that there has been a decline in the socialisation of, in particular, young males, due to the lack of sufficient role models (Newburn, 2007). He later then describes the effect of broken, divorced families. This, according to Murray is one of the main reasons behind young males turning to crime (Newburn, 2007). Language of different classes also affects both education and criminality. Bernstein’s work on restricted and elaborated codes (Lawton, 1968, p.80), suggests that negative labelling can take place within the education system; that those who speak well, or using an elaborated code, will succeed more than those who speak in a poor manner, or with a restricted code. (Gammage, 1982). This then links back to Willis’ work on working class jobs, suggesting that lower educational attainment provides lower income jobs, as a consequence of the negativity of the education system.  


It is clear to see that the effects of socialisation highly influence how a child will operate in later life within society. Both primary and secondary forms of socialisation bring detrimental effects. In terms of family and education, as Knepper (2007) states, “There are, it might be said, three ways of thinking about the connection between education and crime: problems at school, problems around schools, and problems with schools.” This suggests that through the family and education, a child can be highly influenced and, therefore, act upon the way they are treated, and what they have observed. In terms of criminality and the usefulness of socialisation theories, in some aspects, they are indeed effective within society today. Bandura’s Social Learning Theory can still be applied to behavioural issues within society. This means that authorities can intervene in both family and educational situations to prevent poor influences producing negative effects onto a child, and so that the child can become a functioning member of society, and reduce the criminality rates within civilisation.




Brown, H., Corcoran, D. W.J. (1971). Understanding Society: A Foundation Course units 6-9 Socialisation. Bucks: The Open University Press  




Farrington, P., Welsh, B (2008). Saving Children from a Life of Crime : Early Risk Factors and Effective Interventions. Retrieved from




Gammage, P (1982). Children and Schooling. London: George Allen and  Umwin




Harris, J (1998). The Nurture Assumption. London: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc




Hansen, K (2003). Education and the Crime-Age Profile. The British Journal of Criminology, 43(1). Retrieved from




Hopkins Burke, R (2009). An Introduction to Criminological Theory (3rd ed.) Oxon: Routledge.




Knepper, P (2007). Criminology and Social Policy. London: Sage




Lawton, D (1968). Social Class, Education and Language. Retrieved from




Macleod, J (1995). Ain’t No Makin’ It. Oxford: Westview Press




Newburn, T (2007). Criminology. Devon. Willian Publishing




Scott, S. L. (2012). Death of James Bulger. Retrieved from




White, G (1977). Social Processes – Socialisation. London: Longman Group Limited



















Bandura's famous bobo doll experiment

Paul Willis 'Learning to labour'

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