Social process theory is a group of sociological approaches that conceptualize socialization as a continuous process. It includes symbolic interactionism and differential association theory.
According to these approaches, socialization occurs in all aspects and areas of a person’s life.
Social process theory also emphasizes that individuals create their own identities through interactions with other people and their environment. It then focuses on how these interactions shape the development of an individual.
Overview and Definition of Social Process Theory
The theory was founded in part by two 18th-century German sociologists, Max Weber and Georg Simmel.
Both write extensively on the social and economic aspects of modern society and agreed that certain dynamics that comprise a person’s environment have a significant impact on the development of social processes.
They believed understanding these dynamics was imperative to studying human interactions.
Consequently, these ideas branched out into many academic fields, including:
In each of these fields, the theory serves as a valuable tool for understanding the complexities of human behavior and how it is shaped by external forces.
As Simmel (1971) states:
“The fundamental problem which confronts modern social life is the relationship between the individual and the social forces which delimit and shape him.” (p. 34).
These social forces can be construed in many ways; by culture, the people you spend time with, the media you consume, or the neighborhood where you live.
As Weber writes,
“The ‘social process’ is a process of continual adaptation and adjustment between the individual and the environment” (Weber et.al, 1978, p. 39).
This continual adaptation has been described as a constant state of flux, or perpetual reaction to the changing environment around a person.
In the example list below, it is more clearly demonstrated how this theory applies to education, criminal justice, political science, economics, or to any other situation where people interact with one another.
1. Symbolic Interactionism
Symbolic Interactionalism is a social process theory developed by George Herbert Mead (1863–1931) and later revised by Herbert Blumer (1900 –1987).
Developed in the early 20th century by American sociologist George Herbert Mead and later revised and reintroduced by scholars such as Herbert Blumer, this particular amalgamation of social process theory, examines at how people interact with one another through symbols and how these symbols shape our understanding of the world.
These symbols and meanings are socially constructed, meaning they are created by people and accepted by others in the same social context.
An example of symbolic interaction theory is how people use language to communicate. People use language as a symbolic tool to express their feelings, thoughts, and ideas.
Symbols are used to convey meaning and understanding, and they are constantly being created, shared, and interpreted by different people.
This process is what allows people to interact effectively with one another. Aksan et al. (2009) writes:
“Symbolic interaction theory acknowledges the principle of meaning as the center of human behavior. Language provides a meaning to humans by means of symbols. It is symbols that differentiate social relations of humans from the level of communication of animals. Human beings give meaning to symbols and they express these things by means of language. Consequently, symbols form the basis of communication. In other words, symbols are indispensable elements for the formation of any kind of communication act”(p. 903).
2. Differential Association Theory
Differential Association is a social process theory developed by Edwin Sutherland (1883-1950).
Edwin Sutherland proposes that criminal behavior is influenced by the environment of an individual.
It suggests that criminality is a learned behavior, and is acquired by association with peers who engage in criminal activities.
This theory is based on the premise that people learn how to commit crimes in the same way that they learn how to behave appropriately in society. He also suggests that the frequency of interaction is a large factor; the more an individual interacts with people who engage in criminal behavior, the more likely they themselves are likely to commit similar offenses.
For example, if a person is exposed to a group of peers who commit a robbery, they may be more likely to commit a thievery-related crime in the future.
Matsueda (2010) explains that American criminologist, Ronald Akers, incorporated social learning principles into the Sutherland’s theory,
“which posits that crime is initially learned through direct imitation or modeling. Then, the probability of continuing criminal behavior is determined by differential reinforcement, the relative rewards and punishments following the act. Reinforcement can be direct or vicarious, whereby simply observing another’s criminal behavior being reinforced will reinforce one’s own criminal behavior”(p. 7).
Social Process Theory Examples
- Symbolic Interactionalism – Symbolic Interactionalism is a social process theory developed by George Herbert Mead (1863–1931) and later revised by Herbert Blumer (1900 –1987). Symbolic Interactionalism emphasizes the symbolic meanings behind words, gestures, and symbols.
- Differential Association Theory – Differential Association Differential Association is a social process theory developed by Edwin Sutherland (1883-1950). It states that criminal behavior is a learned process, that is directly relevant to a person’s environment and who they interact with on a daily basis.
- Social Roles – You are expected to fulfill certain roles in a group or organization. This role expectation can include leadership positions, being a support system for co-workers, or even being a cooperative team member.
- Group Member Interactions – The social dynamics of a group are directly connected to the interactions between the members of that specific group.
- Collaborative Groupwork – Collaboration, problem solving, and how learned knowledge is retained is a reflection of how students in a class interact with each other.
- Peer Pressure – A person is influenced by the opinions and actions of their peers; they may do something that is uncharacteristic of their normal behavior. Peer pressure can be both a negative and positive phenomenon.
- Group Conformity – A person changes their behavior, appearance, or something else about themselves in order to fit in with a group.
- Groupthink – Individuals in a large group (society, country, etc.) can become so focused on maintaining a level of harmony and agreement that they ignore critical thinking or logic.
- Socialization – Someone learns lifestyle norms and core values from the society they grow up in.
- Compliance – Being compliant, or obedient, to an authority figure is a situation where a person must adapt to a certain environment with a set of rules.
Social Process Theory and Peer Pressure
Social process theory can explain the group dynamics behind peer pressure. This occurs when an individual is influenced by the opinions and behaviors of their peers.
Peer pressure describes how individuals are typically influenced by their peers, and in an effort to fit into that group, will alter their normal way of thinking or pattern of behavior to do so.
While it is often associated with negative influences, and poor behaviors or attitudes, it can also be a beneficial influence, an impetus for positive behaviors, such as helping others or pursuing educational goals.
Other positive examples of peer pressure may include
- challenging your friends to try new activities or hobbies, convincing friends to make healthier lifestyle choices (like eating nutritious foods and working out regularly), or
- motivating others to join volunteer groups to benefit the community.
Alternatively, negative peer pressure can be exemplified by other situations such as:
- pressuring someone into trying dangerous substances, or
- convincing someone to do something dangerous that could put their safety at risk, such as driving recklessly or shoplifting.
Peer pressure can be particularly influential during adolescence when young people are eager for acceptance from their peer groups.
Ciranka & Bos (2021) explain that social pressure arises from at least three distinct processes: copying observed behaviors, aggressive peer pressure, and complying with perceived social standards or norms (p. 2).
Weaknesses of Social Process Theories
Despite their ability to dissect and verify nuanced aspects of human behavior, social process theories also contain some clear limitations and weaknesses.
According to Krohn, Lizotte, & Howell (1993),
“the primary weakness of social process theories is that they are based on social factors only and thus ignore the role of biological and psychodynamic factors that may also contribute to delinquency”(p. 24).
These factors include genetics, hormone balance, and brain chemistry.
Some biological predispositions are thought to contribute to criminality because of their correlation with both psychological and neurological functions (aggression and impulsivity).
Other criticisms of social process theories include the lack of consideration for nuanced individual differences and a lack of sufficient empirical evidence.
Aksan, N., Kısac, B., Aydın, M., & Demirbuken, S. (2009). Symbolic interaction theory. Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, 1(1), 902-904. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.sbspro.2009.01.160
Ciranka, S., & Bos, W. (2021). Social norms in adolescent risk engagement and recommendation. British Journal of Developmental Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1111/bjdp.12369
Krohn, M. D., Lizotte, A. J., & Howell, J. C. (1993). The strengths and weaknesses of delinquent peer influence. In J. C. Howell, B. Krisberg, J. D. Hawkins, & J. J. Wilson (Eds.), Sources of Delinquency (pp. 21-66). Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications
Matsueda, R. (2010). Sutherland, Edwin H. : Differential association theory and differential Social Organization. In Cullen, F. T., & Wilcox, P. K.(Eds.), Encyclopedia of Criminological Theory (1st ed.)(pp. 889-907). SAGE Publications, Inc.
Simmel, G., & Levine, D. N. (1971). On Individuality and Social Forms : Selected Writings. University of Chicago Press EBooks. http://ci.nii.ac.jp/ncid/BA01148747
Weber, M., Roth, G., & Wittich, C. (1978). Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology (2 volume set)(New Ed). University of California Press.