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Review of the Roots of Youth Violence: Literature Reviews

Volume 5, Chapter 13:

Integrated Life Course Theories12

Integrated theories of crime represent an attempt to bridge the ideological differences that exist among various older theories of crime by integrating variables from disparate theoretical approaches. An integrated approach recognizes that crime is a complex, multidimensional phenomenon with multiple causes. By integrating a variety of ecological, socialization, psychological, biological, and economic factors into a coherent structure, such theories overcome the shortcomings of older theories that may be criticized on the grounds of reductionism. That is, many older theories of crime argue that one causal variable is predominantly important as a cause of crime. A problem with such an approach is that not all persons exposed to that variable (for example, poverty) commit crime. Integrated theories recognize that multiple social and individual factors interact to result in the eventual behaviour of individuals, and that we must consider the constellation of factors in an individual’s life in order to understand his or her behaviour.

Employing an integrated approach within a life course perspective further recognizes that the factors that may have a causal influence on crime rates may change over the life course. As such, factors that may be important in influencing criminal activity or the desistence from criminal activity in youth and young adulthood may differ from those that are important in adulthood. Integrated life course theories challenge the notion that criminality is stable over the life course, and are concerned with the factors that induce the onset of criminal behaviour and the cessation of such behaviour. Additionally, different theories within this tradition argue that the onset of criminal behaviour may occur earlier or later in life, depending on which factors impact on the individual. Similarly, desistance may occur in youth or adulthood. This section of the report will focus on outlining the two major approaches to integrated life course theories of crime: firstly that of multi-factor theories, which include the social development model and Elliott’s integrated theory, and secondly, life course theories, which include Farrington’s theory of delinquent development, Moffitt’s theory of delinquency, interactional theory, and Sampson and Laub’s age-graded theory.

Multi-Factor Thoeries

The Social Development Model

Multi-factor theories integrate a range of variables into a cohesive explanation of criminality. The first of these to be discussed is the social development model (Hawkins and Weis, 1985; Catalano and Hawkins, 1996; Hawkins and Catalano, 1987). The social development model developed by Catalano and Hawkins examines delinquency as the result of acquired anti-social and pro-social behaviours brought on by certain risk and protective factors. These factors encompass a wide range of biological, psychological, and social variables considered in previous theory and research. Most notably, the social development model synthesizes control, social learning, and differential association theory, while acknowledging other associated factors not accounted for by these theories, such as position in the social structure, acquired skills, and constitutional (biological) factors. In addition, the theory more adequately accounts for interactional effects between variables not generally acknowledged by previous theories.

The social development model hypothesizes that during the elementary school developmental period, children learn patterns of behaviour, whether pro-social or antisocial, primarily from the socializing units of the family and school, with peers and neighbourhood influences playing an increasing role as children progress through the elementary school years.

According to the social development model, children are socialized through processes involving four constructs: (1) perceived opportunities for involvement in activities and interactions with others, (2) the degree of involvement in activities and interactions, (3) the skills to participate in this involvement and interaction, and (4) the reinforcement they perceive from this involvement and interaction. These constructs are hypothesized to be ordered causally, with more perceived opportunities for involvement leading to more actual involvement, which in turn leads to more rewards and recognition. Skills are also hypothesized to affect the amount of reward and recognition a child receives. When these socializing processes are consistent, a social bond of attachment and commitment develops between the individual and the socializing unit. Once established, the social bond inhibits behaviours inconsistent with the beliefs held and behaviours practised by the socialization unit through establishment of an individual’s stake in conforming to the norms, values, and behaviours of the socializing unit to which he or she is bonded. It is hypothesized that the behaviour of the individual will be pro-social or anti-social, depending on the predominant behaviours, norms, and values held by those individuals or institutions to which the individual is bonded.

In sum, the social development model provides an integrative, developmental, and interactive perspective on the nature and causes of delinquency. Whereas theoretical “traditions” have emerged among the various perspectives on delinquency, resulting in opposing camps dedicated solely to a particular framework from which to study, the social development model offers an avenue for integrative exploration.

The usefulness of the social development model has been demonstrated by its ability to explain variations in delinquency, violence and drinking in late adolescence (Ayers et al., 1999; Catalano et al., 1996; Herrenkohl et al., 2001; Huang et al., 2001), as well as problem behaviour among elementary-school-age children (Catalano et al., 1999). It has also been used to guide interventions that have demonstrated effects on positive youth development and preventing problem behaviour (Haggerty et al., 1998; Hawkins et al., 1999; Kosterman et al., 1997).

Elliott’s Integrated Theory

The second multi-factor theory that will be examined is Elliott’s integrated theory (Elliott, Ageton and Canter, 1979). This theory combines the principles of strain, control and social learning theories into a single theoretical framework. This theory specifies a causal pathway in which strain leads to the weakening of social bonds with conventional others and institutions, leading to greater association with deviant peers and the subsequent learning of anti-social and delinquent values. Specifically, adolescents who live in socially disorganized neighbourhoods or who are improperly socialized have an increased risk of perceiving strain. The perceptions of strain can lead to the weakening of bonds with conventional groups, activities and norms. Such weakened bonds, in conjunction with high levels of strain, lead to the rejection of conventional values and encourage youths to seek out deviant peer groups. Such deviant associations create the environment for the social learning and reinforcement of anti-social values and behaviour. This essentially increases delinquent and criminal behaviour.

Life Course Theories:

Life course theories represent an integrated approach to explaining criminality, and accept that multiple social, personal, economic, and other factors influence crime. Life course theories further argue that in order to understand criminality, one must consider these multiple causal factors over the life course, and that different factors may be more or less important at varying stages within the life course and may serve to initiate, reinforce, or even reduce criminal activity. As people make important transitions in their lives, from childhood to adolescence, from adolescence to adulthood, from unmarried to married, or from unemployed to employed for example, the nature of their social interactions change, and so too does the importance of various causal influences on criminality. As a consequence, levels of criminal activity also change. This section will focus on the following life course theories of criminality: Moffitt’s theory of delinquency, Farrington’s theory of delinquent development, interactional theory, and Sampson and Laub’s age-graded theory.

Moffitt’s Theory of Delinquency

Moffitt (1993) proposes that there are two primary hypothetical prototypes that explain delinquent behaviour and the onset of criminality: life-course-persistent offenders, whose anti-social behaviour begins in childhood and continues to worsen thereafter, and adolescence-limited offenders, whose anti-social behaviour begins in adolescence and desists in young adulthood. Life-course-persistent anti-socials are few, persistent, and pathological, whereas adolescent-limited anti-socials are common, relatively temporary, and near normative. This developmental typology hypothesizes that childhood-onset and adolescent-onset conduct problems have different etiologies.

This theory argues that life-course-persistent anti-social behaviour originates early in life, when the difficult behaviour of a high-risk young child is exacerbated by a high-risk environment. According to the theory, the child’s risk emerges from inherited or acquired neuropsychological variation, initially manifested in subtle cognitive deficits, difficult temperament, or hyperactivity. The environment’s risk comprises factors such as inadequate parenting, disrupted family bonds and poverty. The environmental risk domain expands beyond the family, as the child ages, to include poor relations with people such as peers and teachers, and later, with partners and employers. Over the first two decades of development, transactions between individual and environment gradually construct a disordered personality with hallmark features of physical aggression and antisocial behaviour persisting to mid-life. Moffitt argues that the personality characteristics associated with life-course-persistent anti-social behaviour, such as aggression, may have been more adaptive for males compared with females in the evolutionary environment of humans. As such, more males than females possess such personality characteristics, putting them at greater risk than females of serious criminality.

In contrast, adolescent-limited anti-social behaviour emerges with puberty, when otherwise healthy youths experience dysphoria during the relatively roleless years between their biological maturation and their access to mature privileges and responsibilities, a period called “the maturity gap.” While adolescents are in this gap, it is virtually normative for them to find the life-course-persistent anti-socials’ delinquent lifestyle appealing, and to mimic it as a way to demonstrate autonomy from parents, win affiliation with peers, and hasten social maturation. However, because their pre-delinquent development was normal and healthy, most young people who become adolescent-limited delinquents are able to desist from crime once they age into real adult roles, turning gradually to a more conventional lifestyle. This recovery may be delayed if the adolescent-limited delinquent encounter “snares,” such as a criminal record, incarceration, addiction, truncated education, or other such factors that may hinder the transition to a conventional lifestyle.

In summary, Moffitt argues that there are two distinct developmental pathways to delinquency: life-course-persistent anti-social development and adolescent-limited antisocial development. Moffitt estimates the prevalence of life-course-persistent anti-socials at five per cent, though they account for a much larger proportion of delinquent acts and criminality. The genesis of this pattern of anti-social behaviour resides in neuropsychological defects, poor parenting, lower IQ, and heritable personality traits such as negative emotionality and impulsivity. This represents pathological behaviour, is lifelong, and may be treatment resistant. In contrast, adolescence-limited delinquency (the majority of adolescents) is non-pathological, and can be attributed to learning (imitation of the life-course-persistents) and to a maturity gap between biological and social age. Moffitt demonstrates how such imitated behaviour is adaptive to the social and historical context of adolescent development. This model additionally accounts for the often-noted decline in anti-social behaviour, in the majority of adolescents, once they attain adulthood. Drawing on evolutionary psychology, this model also accounts for gender disparities in crime.

Farrington’s Theory of Delinquent Development

Farrington’s theory of delinquent development derived from research conducted as part of a Cambridge study of delinquent development, which followed the offending careers of 411 London boys born in 1953. This study used self-report and interview data, as well as psychological testing, and collected data from the subjects at eight times over a 24-year period, beginning when subjects were eight years old. This study, in agreement with previously developed life course theories, found the existence of chronic offenders, the continuity of offending, and the presence of early onset leading to persistent criminality. Farrington found that the chronic criminal is typically male, and is born into low-income large families, which have parents and siblings with criminal records or prior offending and in which parents are likely to be separated or divorced. It was found that parenting was an important factor predicting future criminality. The future criminal receives poor parental supervision, including the use of harsh or erratic punishment. The signs of later criminal behaviour were manifest as early as age eight, when such persons already exhibited anti-social behaviour, including dishonesty and aggressiveness. At school, such individuals had low educational achievement and were described as restless, troublesome, hyperactive, impulsive, and truant. It was also found that the chronic offender associated with friends who also exhibited anti-social behaviour. The study also found that the typical offender provided the same kind of deprived and disrupted family life for his own children, and thus the social conditions and experiences that produce delinquency are transmitted from one generation to the next.

An important aspect of Farrington’s research is that it identified factors that predicted discontinuity from criminal offending. That is, there are individuals who have a background that puts them at risk of criminal behaviour, and yet they manage to either remain non-offenders, or begin a criminal career but successfully desist after a while. Factors that protect at-risk youth from even beginning a criminal career include a shy personality, a non-deviant family, and being highly regarded by the mother. Other factors were found to influence successful desistance from criminality. These include having a relatively good job and being married, except where the person’s spouse is also engaged in criminal activity. Residential relocation was also found to influence desistance, since relocation allowed for the severing of ties and associations with co-offenders.

At the theoretical level, Farrington’s research contributes a number of ideas to understanding the genesis, maintenance and desistance from criminal behaviour. These are as follows: 1) Childhood factors predict a continuity of adolescent and adult antisocial and criminal behaviour; 2) economic deprivation, poor parenting, an anti-social or criminal family, and personalities marked by impulsivity, hyperactivity, and attention deficit all increase the risk of anti-social behaviour in children; 3) adolescents are motivated to engage in criminogenic behaviour because of the desire for material goods, excitement and status with peers; 4) effective childrearing and consistent discipline, coupled with close parental supervision, reduces the risk of childhood and subsequent delinquent and anti-social behaviour; and 5) in adulthood, having a good job, being married, and residential relocation can encourage desistance from criminality.

Interactional Theory

Interactional theory is another integrated life course theory of criminality, and was developed by Thornberry (1987) and Thornberry and Krohn (2005). There are three fundamental aspects of interactional theory. The first is that the theory takes a life course perspective. By this, the authors mean that they view delinquency involvement as something that unfolds over time; for most people, it has an onset, a duration and, for most offenders, a termination. Explaining this behaviour at various ages requires linking anti-social behaviour patterns to other trajectories in life, such as family, school and work experiences. Interactional theory predicts a mixture of causes that differ depending on one’s age and reflect successes or failures in previous developmental stages. Interactional theory asserts that at differing ages, different influences become more important for the person concerned. During childhood and early adolescence, attachment to the family is the single most important determinant of whether a youth will adjust to conventional society and be shielded from delinquency. By mid-adolescence, the family is replaced by the world of friends, school and youth culture. In adulthood, a person’s behavioural choices are shaped by his or her place in conventional society and his or her own family. The second premise of the theory is that delinquency and “many of its causes often become involved in mutually reinforcing causal loops as delinquent careers unfold” (Thornberry and Krohn, 2005: 188). In other words, delinquency and its causes interact with each other, often resulting in greater or lesser levels of offending. For instance, ineffective parenting may lead to delinquency involvement, which, in turn, may result in parental responses that further increase the occurrence of delinquent behaviours. The third key premise of the theory is that the multiple causes of delinquency vary in their magnitude across persons due to the presence of “offsetting assets” or protective factors. This concept asserts that as the magnitude of the causal force increases, the person’s involvement in crime becomes more likely and increases in severity.

In addition to the three main premises, interactional theory includes other assertions and hypotheses. For instance, early involvement in anti-social behaviour is the result of what is described as “the intense coupling of structural, individual, and parental influences, that is, when the causal force associated with childhood antisocial behavior is near a maximum” (Thornberry and Krohn, 2005: 190). Additionally, the theory asserts that childhood onset of delinquency is strongly associated with growing up in families and neighbourhoods characterized by poverty and disorganization. Reminiscent of Moffitt (1993) discussed earlier, the theory also asserts that age-appropriate or normative onset of offending appears to be a reflection of increased peer influences, decreased parental supervision, and associations with peers who want to demonstrate rebellion against adult authority. Finally, “late starters,” defined as those who begin frequent offending at ages beyond the modal onset years of adolescence, are hypothesized to have lower intelligence and academic competence, but they were not affected by these traits earlier because they had a supportive family and school environment.

Sampson and Laub’s Age-Graded Theory of Informal Social Control

Sampson and Laub’s age-graded theory of informal social control is the final integrated life course theory that will be examined in this section of the report (Sampson and Laub, 1992, 1993, 1997; Laub and Sampson, 1993). Sampson and Laub assume that crime and other forms of deviance result, in part, from weak or broken bonds to society. In this way, attention is given to the influence of informal social controls on involvement in delinquent behaviour, much as it is in traditional social control theory. Rooted in the life course developmental perspective, Sampson and Laub’s theory reminds us that the relevant institutions of informal social control vary by age. For example, during adolescence, social bonds to family, peers and the school are important.

A key notion drawn from developmental theory is that of cumulative continuity of disadvantage, which describes a process whereby the negative consequences of problem behaviour constrain future opportunities for healthy development and contribute to the stability of anti-social behaviour over time. According to age-graded informal social control theory, the cumulative continuity of disadvantage can serve to attenuate conventional bonds to society. Sampson and Laub argue that the onset of a criminal career occurs early in life, but assert that even with an established criminal career, delinquency and criminal behaviour can be interrupted during the life course. They refer to the points of interruption or the cessation of criminogenic behaviour as turning points. Turning points that allow adults to desist from crime include marriage and the development of a career. Marriage and a career are examples of events that, Sampson and Laub argue, create social capital. This represents an investment in conventional values and society and inhibits criminal behaviour.

Sampson and Laub’s (1993) theory is not simply traditional social control theory recast in a developmental perspective. The most notable difference between social control theory and age-graded informal social control theory is that the latter acknowledges the role of both state dependence (e.g., social control processes) and population heterogeneity (e.g., self-control) in the continuity of delinquent behaviour. According to Laub and Sampson (1993), “[t]he cumulative continuity of disadvantage is...not only a result of stable individual differences in criminal propensity, but a dynamic process whereby childhood antisocial behavior and adolescent delinquency foster adult crime through the severance of adult social bonds” (306). Thus, these authors described a mixed theory in which the relationship between past and present offending is only partially mediated by informal social control variables. A persistent direct effect of population heterogeneity is also hypothesized by the theory.

Although not intended to be gender-specific in scope, Sampson and Laub’s (1993) theory implicitly addresses the role of gender in delinquency and crime over the life course. In stark contrast to Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990), Sampson and Laub (1993) heavily emphasized social processes (i.e., the attenuation of bonds to conventional society) in the continuity of deviant behaviour. It is here that research on gender differences in elements of the social bond has relevance. Specifically, different social processes may be involved in the crime and delinquency of boys as compared with girls. For example, girls’ delinquency may be controlled indirectly through, among other mechanisms, emotional bonds to the family. By contrast, boys’ delinquency may be controlled more directly through parental monitoring and supervision. Moreover, attachments to delinquent peers may play an especially important role in the delinquent behaviour of boys.

Policy Implications

Integrated life course theories of criminality offer a number of policy implications. Most of the theories reviewed agree that the signs of stable and persistent criminality occur in early childhood and can be readily identified. These signs involve at-risk personalities (exhibiting aggressiveness, hyperactivity, attention deficit, etc.) and at-risk environments (characterized, for example, by disorganized neighbourhoods, inconsistent and inadequate parenting, etc.) At-risk personalities, by themselves, do not necessarily lead to stable and persistent criminality in adulthood, according to life course theories. Instead, it is the conjunction of at-risk personalities and environments that is necessary for adult criminality. This implies that at-risk youth can be identified early in life, and steps can be taken to manipulate the environment such that environmental risk is reduced and does not exacerbate the effect of an at-risk personality. Indeed, with the right environmental influences, such as consistent parental discipline and supervision, an at-risk personality in childhood will not lead to adult criminality.

Integrated life course theories agree that among the many environmental risk factors that children face, inadequate parenting is one of the most important. Parenting skills are rarely, if ever, addressed via education curricula or other means. Life course theories suggest that training in parenting skills should reduce criminality. Perhaps such training may be carried out in schools, such that as many young adults as possible are educated about the importance of parenting and informed about parenting practices that reduce delinquency and future criminality.

Moffitt’s theory, reminiscent of labelling theory, sensitizes us to the fact that the majority of adolescent offenders are adolescent-limited anti-socials who will eventually naturally desist from delinquency on their own. Moffitt argues, however, that once such adolescents engage in delinquent activity, they may encounter “snares” that may actually make their eventual desistance more difficult. Such snares include a criminal record, incarceration, addiction and a truncated education. Legal policies that are sensitive to the possibility of snares can be employed to ensure that youths do not become tracked into a criminal lifestyle because of such snares.

Integrated life course theories, unlike older theories of crime, sensitize us to the fact that multiple factors may result in delinquency and crime, and indicate that the importance of each factor may vary depending on the stage of development of the individual concerned. At a broader level, this sensitizes us to the need for research to become more flexible in the use and integration of varying theoretical models and variables. Modern statistical techniques allow for the modelling of the influence of multiple causal influences over time as causes of delinquency and criminality. Research should strive to understand the interaction and role of different influences on the development process and their relation to criminality. Such understanding will indicate which variables can be manipulated, and during which age ranges, to have a maximal effect on the reduction of delinquency and crime.


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12 This section was prepared with the assistance of Randy Seepersad, PhD candidate, Centre of Criminology, University of Toronto.


Volume 1. Findings, Analysis and Conclusions

Volume 2. Executive Summary

Volume 3. Community Perspectives Report

Volume 4. Research Papers

Volume 5. Literature Reviews