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Developmental Theories of Crime and Delinquency.

DEVELOPMENTAL THEORIES OF CRIME AND DELINQUENCY. Edited by Terence P. Thornberry. (New Brunswick and London [UK]: Transaction Publishers, 1997. 359 pp. 44.95 [pounds sterling] hb)

This is Volume 7 of a series entitled `Advances in Criminological Theory'. This volume, as the title indicates, is concerned with attempts to explain patterns of involvement in offending and delinquency in terms of developmental changes in the course of individuals' lives. As such, the collection contains original essays by some of the leading theorists in this field: Terence Thornberry, Robert Agnew, Terrie Moffitt, Robert Sampson, John Laub and Marc Le Blanc to name a few.

Starting with Thornberry's introductory essay, each contribution is thought-provoking. Thornberry's essay notes the importance of developmental theories in explaining the age-crime curve and the weakness of non-developmental theories: they cannot account for change in dimensions of offending; they do not distinguish between persistent and temporary offenders; they cannot fully establish the precursors of offending; nor can they state the personal consequences of offending; and finally they do not build upon what we already know about the developmental changes that occur during an individual's life. With this in mind, Thornberry writes that `the leitmotif connecting all of the chapters in this volume is the argument that the explanatory power of many, if not all, traditional theories of crime and delinquency can be enhanced by explicitly considering developmental and life course concepts and perspectives' (p. 5).

The first chapter (by Terrie Moffitt) is an attempt to explain why some people engage in antisocial behaviour for (relatively) brief periods of their lives (around adolescence), while much smaller numbers engage in such behaviour for far longer periods of their lives. The explanations for these two offending trajectories lie in the tendency for the adolescent-limited offenders to `mimic' the life course of persistent offenders during their mid to late teens. This mimicking--developed from observational work on monkeys (p. 25)--is the result of the adolescent-limited groups' desire to become sexually experienced.

The second chapter--concerning life course contingencies and written by Rand Conger and Ronald Simons--presents a social learning theory explanation for the development of antisocial behaviour, which borrows from theories of reinforcement. In this chapter, the authors place a great influence upon environmental factors in shaping reinforcement. This is to say that the environment in which a child grows up influences the child's behaviour through reinforcing some behaviours and punishing others. The amount of time spent in any environment is (partly) dependent upon the rewarding/punishing features of that environment relative to other environments. Thus the amount of time a child spends in an environment will have an impact on its probability of engagement in delinquent activities.

Robert Agnew's chapter deals with his own and others' attempts to employ developmental insights in strain theories of delinquency. Robert Agnew has done much in the last decade to breathe life (back) into strain theory after its mauling during the 1960s and 1970s. This paper both sharpens Agnew's focus and extends its breadth. Never again will strain theory be accused of being unable to account for the decline in crime with increasing age.

The fourth chapter is by Robert Sampson and John Laub, and deals with their on-going analysis of the data set originally developed by Sheldon and Eleanor Glueck. In this chapter--which must be read in terms of their earlier work--they turn their attentions to a concept they title `cumulative disadvantage'. Against the backdrop of social control and labelling theories, they argue that this concept can be used to account for the stability of some people's offending behaviour. `Cumulative disadvantage' works through four key institutions: the family; the school; one's peers and the response of state institutions. Their theorizing obviously owes much to the work of Thornberry himself, and his efforts at establishing an interactional theory of offending.

In turn building upon Sampson and Laub, Ross Matseuda and Karen Heimer's chapter focuses on symbolic interactionism and developmental theories of crime. They argue that by incorporating symbolic interactionist perspectives into Sampson and Laub's framework they can provide a greater understanding of the meaning and content of culture; outline the dynamics of an immediate situation and better understand the relationship between the life course and social interaction.

Marc Le Blanc's chapter focuses on his continuing work to develop a Generic Control theory. This chapter attempts to develop a control theory which operates at three levels--criminal phenomena, the criminal and criminality. Interwoven among these levels are the issues of the extent to which communities and individuals can control criminal events. This is a terrifically ambitious chapter and will, I am sure, serve as a source of inspiration and debate for some considerable time.

John Hagan's chapter deals with one particular genre of crime--street crime. Hagan starts his essay with a damning resume of current sociological criminology--which he chastises for ignoring recent changes in the social and political culture of the USA. Shifts in the labour market, family formations and public spending have created a groundswell which leaves many classical theories impotent. Furthermore, these changes represent a wider process of `capital dis-investment'. Ultimately, this dis-investment creates subcultural innovations, most commonly among minority communities. Such shifts in cultural capital create fertile conditions for the development of vice industries and deviance service centres where informal economies surrounding narcotics, prostitution and gambling develop. Such ventures ensnare the local youth, who, once involved, find escape from such situations blocked by their own criminal records, poor school performances and the lack of alternative forms of employment. In effect, Hagan has outlined a developmental subcultural theory which links individuals with the communities in which they live and grow up.

The last chapter, by Kenneth Adams, focuses on the `Developmental Aspects of Adult Crime' and, in particular, desistance. Adams's chapter is very thorough: developments in biological, cognitive, moral, intellectual and personality domains are all reviewed, as too are life events and socialization, although it must be said that the papers and monographs referred to relate to technical issues rather than empirical findings on desistance and its co-variates.

This collection of essays is first class. Each chapter is written by an expert--or experts--in the field and each certainly drives forward criminological theorizing on patterns of offending and human development. Perhaps the only missing element from the collection is a dissenting voice to add a sense of balance to the proceedings.

There is one further aspect which I encountered again and again in this collection that I feel compelled to comment upon. In numerous passages in the chapters I found evidence to support the theoretical work of Anthony Giddens. Given the recent interest in Giddens's approach to explanations in social studies (which Giddens refers to as structuration theory) and which has started to be employed in criminology by Anthony Bottoms and his co-workers (Bottoms 1993; Bottoms and Wiles 1992; Sparks et al. 1996) and others (Walklate 1996; Farrall and Bowling, forthcoming), it is useful to spend some time outlining how these insights can improve criminological theorizing.

Giddens's premise is that classical theorizing, which posits a distinction between `agents' and `structures' is mistaken: rather the two are bound up in the very reproduction of the other. This line of reasoning, which is not without it's critics, may well have important applications in the advancement of criminological theorizing. Take for example the following passage, from Terrie Moffit's chapter:

Problem children are likely to have problem parents. The intergenerational transmission of severe antisocial behaviour has been carefully documented in a study of three generations ... [p. 18]

And again:

... children who are most in need of remedial schooling and professional therapy will have parents who may be least able to provide it because the parents' low cognitive abilities set limits on their own educational and occupational success... [p. 19]

On a wider scale John Hagan (using the very Giddensesque term of `embeddedness'), notes how involvement in income-producing crime and in turn involvement in the criminal justice system keep some young people out of school and force them to give up non-criminal goals (p. 302). Hence the once enabling aspects of involvement in petty crime (finances, social status, adulthood) slowly come to act as constraining in that they block once open paths and limit the individual to low status, low wage jobs with limited stability. Hagan refers to Paul Willis's Learning to Labour (1977) and quotes Joan Moore (1991: 42) who writes that `... the very culture of defiance at best dooms the boys to get jobs just like their fathers hold...'. In short the environment in which one grows up influences who one routinely encounters, which endeavours one becomes involved in and ultimately what one becomes.

There is nothing that I found in this book (and I read all 359 pages of it) which suggested to me that the further use of Giddens's insights is either unwarranted or wrong. That none of the authors (all from the US I believe) referred to either Giddens's work or explicitly used ideas similar to his, speaks volumes for contemporary US criminological theorizing. While all of the chapters are extremely well written and immensely thought provoking to read, and whilst the book abounds with insights into criminological thinking and methodological innovations (e.g. the use of pagers to record more accurately self-reported emotions among children, p. 121), I felt that there was a general lack of theorizing at a more abstract level--a level which this book could easily have achieved and to which it would have made a strong contribution.

I would recommend this book to anyone engaged in research in patterns of offending (be it from a developmental perspective or not). It is a very worthwhile book, packed with state-of-the-art essays with sound lines of reasoning and which will drive forward criminological thinking in this area like no book before it.


BOTTOMS, A. (1993), `Recent Criminological and Social Theory', in D. P. Farrington, R. J. Sampson and Wikstrom, P.-O, eds., Integrating Individual and Ecological Aspects of Crime. Stockholm: National Council of Crime Prevention.

BOTTOMS, A. and WILES, P. (1992), `Explanations of Crime and Place' in D.J. Evans, N. R. Fyfe and D. T. Herbert, eds., Crime, Policing and Place. London: Routledge.

FARRALL, S. and BOWLING, B. (forthcoming), `Structuration, Human Development and Desistance From Crime', British Journal of Criminology.

MOORE, J. (1992), Going Down to the Barrio: Homeboys and Homegirls in Change. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

SPARKS, R., BOTTOMS, A. and HAY, W. (1996), Prisons and The Problem of Order, Clarendon Studies in Criminology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

WALKLATE, S. (1996), `Can There Be A Feminist Victimology?' in P. Davies et al., eds., Understanding Victimisation. Gateshead: Northumbria Social Science Press.

WILLIS, P. (1977), Learning to Labour. Aldershot: Gower.

Stephen Farrall University of Oxford
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Farrall, Stephen
Publication:British Journal of Criminology
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1998
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