The purpose of this research paper was to elucidate the importance of peers and peer networks for understanding adolescent delinquency and crime. The network framework described in this research paper emphasizes the social connections among adolescents that goes considerably beyond prior research, which has viewed individuals as essentially separate from their social structure.
II. Friendship Networks
Peer relations have long been central to the study of delinquency, and for good reason. Adolescents spend much time with their friends, attribute great importance to them, and are more strongly influenced by them during this period of the life course than at any other time. During adolescence, friends become the primary role models, and adolescents are particularly vulnerable to peer dynamics. Thus, it is not surprising that one of the most consistent and robust findings in the criminology literature is that adolescents with delinquent peers are more likely to be delinquent/criminal themselves. This finding dates back to the 1930s with Shaw and McKay’s (1942) discovery that more than 80% of juveniles appearing before court had peer accomplices. More recent studies have found that the relationship of peer delinquency to self-report delinquency is more important than that of any other independent variable, regardless of whether the focus is on status offenses, minor property crimes, violence crimes, or substance use.
Although prior research establishes that adolescents are likely to behave in a manner consistent with their friends, it has only recently begun to incorporate the network structure of friendship relations into empirical models. By ignoring the underlying social structure of friendship patterns, prior research has failed to adequately measure peer delinquency and to incorporate the structure in which peer processes operate. Therefore, one aim of this research paper is to illustrate how a network perspective can provide a particularly useful lens through which to better understand the importance of peers for adolescent involvement in crime and delinquency. The following sections discuss the importance of friendship networks in adolescence.
II. Friendship Networks
Ethnographic studies of adolescents in school settings provide important information on the role of friendship networks during adolescence. These studies reveal that being with friends is a very important aspect of school life for most students and that relational problems with peers are particularly distressing to adolescents. Part of the importance attributed to friendships derives from structural changes that occur in the school environment during the transition from elementary to junior and senior high school. After this transition, adolescents are confronted with a large and more diverse population of students, and one’s status in this new setting is often based on being known by peers. Subsequently, many students speak of the need to expand their personal networks to avoid becoming lost and isolated in new school settings.
The importance of finding a position within larger friendship networks suggests that adolescents are particularly susceptible to peer influence during these transition years, including behavioral constraints that may pull them toward or away from problem behavior. This concern over locating position within the school hierarchy and gaining a sense of belonging among their peers leads students to adopt a variety of strategies to enhance peer solidarity. For instance, girls may use gossip to direct and constrain behavior among peers, and boys may enforce masculinity norms such that behaviors emphasizing aggressiveness, dominance, and toughness are encouraged. These findings suggest that friendship networks and peers exert considerable influence over behavior during the adolescent years, including delinquency.
Despite the large body of research examining the importance of peers and peer behavior for delinquency, the contribution of peer relations to delinquency remains controversial, with different theories suggesting different reasons for the association between friends’ and an individual’s behavior. Next, theoretical explanations for the peer–delinquency association are summarized.