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Social Control, Serious Delinquency, and Risky Behavior

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Delinquency and crime have always been an interesting topic of professional analysis. Unfortunately, for many years, the study of social control and its relation to crime had been limited to male populations. In their study, Booth, Farrell and Varano (2008) sought to re-evaluate the impacts of various social control patterns on male and female delinquency. Despite the relevance of the research findings, their generalizability is questionable; even more problematic is the fact that social control theory by itself has a strong male component and may present considerable difficulties when used to explain female delinquency and crime.

The theory tested by Booth et al. (2008) is that of social control. According to the researchers, the history of social control can be traced to 1969 when Hirschi published his study to confirm the conceptual connection between individual behaviors and conventional social institutions (Booth et al., 2008). In simple terms, Hirschi wanted to understand why individuals were willing to conform or deviate from the norms and values prescribed by the social institutions (Walklate, 2007). The chief difference between social control theory and earlier theories of crime is that it holds society, not persons, accountable for individual delinquency and crime. The basic assumption of the theory is that individuals maintaining strong positive social bonds will be much more likely to comply with the norms and standards of behavior, while those with weak social bonds will be more likely to engage in delinquency and crime (Booth et al., 2008).

Earlier studies offer a wealth of information about the importance of social control in delinquency and crime. More often than not, earlier researchers focused on parental attachment. However, with time, the scholars came to believe that the relationship between social control and delinquency was much more complex than had been originally conceptualized. For instance, gender emerged as an essential factor moderating the impacts of social control on risky behaviors and crime. At present, social control theory is actively used to analyze the patterns of juvenile delinquency (Booth et al., 2008).

Booth et al. (2008) did not propose any hypothesis; nor did they specify any research question. Nevertheless, the scientists stated that the primary objective of their study was to explore various dimensions of social control and whether they could have differential impacts on adolescent boys and girls in terms of their delinquency and risky behaviors. The goal of the study was to see if there had been any gendered effect of social control on the indicated above notions. Again, as mentioned before, social control theory was chosen as the basic theoretical framework as it is claimed to fit perfectly well in the analysis of adolescent delinquency and risky behaviors (Booth et al., 2008).

One of the distinguishing features of the study in question is that Booth et al. (2008) provide a detailed description of the dependent, independent, and control variables. The authors of the research used two dependent variables of delinquency and risky behaviors: (a) serious delinquency was measured by a three-item additive scale, whereas (b) risky behaviors were represented and measured with the help of an additive scale that mainly covered substance abuse and related behaviors (Booth et al., 2008).

The independent variables used on this study included attachment and involvement, school climate, and community disorder. The researchers used a three-component scale to measure parental attachment while involvement was represented by a set of four different variables, namely, school unsporting activities, sport activities, community nonsport activities, and church involvement. School climate was operationalized through six different dimensions, which measured disrespect, backstabbing, intervening in school problems, emotional disinvestment, approximate commitment, and beliefs. Each of those measures had a different scale and was measured independently. For example, backstabbing was represented as a three-indicator variable to measure the quality of relationships among students (Booth et al., 2008). Booth et al. (2008) also included measures of school disorder, both serious and minor, with the former including sexual harassment and assault, gang violence and pressure to become gang members and the latter being mainly about perceived levels of drinking during parties, verbal insults and the use of drugs, etc. Community disorder was used as a separate independent variable and operationalized via five measures, including vandalism, serious community disorder, and parties (Booth et al., 2008).

The scholars also included demographic control variables (Booth et al., 2008). Gender became a nominal-level control variable. Race served as a binary variable. Measures of school stress were also used to control their impacts on delinquency and risky behaviors. The school stress variable was operationalized in a manner very similar to strain, using the dimensions of academic achievement and expectations (Booth et al., 2008).

The researchers did not provide any detailed description of the sample procedures. The only information provided is that the participants in the experiment included upper-middle-class students from a high school located in Patriot, a pseudonym used for a town in New England with a little more than 30,000 residents. The sample included 1,366 students (680 males and 686 females). The demographic structure of the sample was representative of the town, in which the study was conducted (Booth et al., 2008).

The generalizability of the study raises many questions. On the one hand, that the sample was representative of the town’s population suggests that the findings can hardly be generalized to another town or population. On the other hand, the generalizability of social control theory by itself is associated with difficulties. Booth et al. (2008) write that Hirschi’s theory can be readily generalized to all social strata, but the theory’s strong male component should also be considered. Vito and Maahs (2011) claim that, almost all theories of crime to explore the male offending phenomenon were created by male scholars, which means they may not be easily applied to explain female delinquency and risky behaviors. Still, Booth et al. (2008) have made a good attempt to reconsider the role of gender in adolescent delinquency and risky behaviors through the prism of social control theory.

The data were collected via a school-wide anonymous survey administered to students in 2004 with the goal of measuring the scope of students’ risky behaviors (Booth et al., 2008). According to Booth et al. (2008), the survey was anonymous and voluntary, but whether or not the respondents provided any informed consent to take part in the study remains unclear. The benefits of the survey method are obvious: it is cheap and enables to cover large sample populations. The main drawback of the viewed method is that the researchers cannot control the objectivity and truthfulness of respondents’ answers and reactions. For instance, the researchers cannot control the scope of personal bias in respondents’ judgments of perceives aggressiveness and disorder in the school climate.    

The results showed that, contrary to earlier expectations, parental attachment played a minor role in delinquency and risky behaviors among adolescents. Still, parental attachment did have a potential to cut male delinquency and did not exert any influence on female delinquency. At the same time, it is the relationship between involvement in pro-social activities and delinquency that was found to be statistically significant. School climate appeared to be a strong predictor of both analyzed in the article notions. Nonsport activities and church involvement exhibited a remarkable potential to reduce delinquency among male adolescents, not female, which also means that girls’ involvement in nontraditional gender activities can provide a strong protection against delinquency (Booth et al., 2008).

I believe that the results of the research give a very strong basis for the future study of gender variables and the way they moderate the relationship between social control and crime. However, I also think that the overall applicability of social control to the analysis of gender patterns in delinquency and crime needs more detailed attention. Nevertheless, the results of the study have profound implications for the current understanding of crime and delinquency and suggest that the patterns of female and male delinquency should be considered as two separate categories. It is through the inclusion of gender in the list of crime variables that policymakers can make the existing measures of crime prevention more effective. 

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