The two dominant perspectives on the causes of delinquent behavior are Hirschi’s (1969) social control theory and Sutherland’s (1947) differential association theory. Other theories that speak to the issue of peer delinquency include Gottfredson and Hirschi’s (1990) general theory of crime and Osgood and colleagues’ opportunity theory (Osgood, Wilson, O’Malley, Bachman, & Johnston, 1996). Although these theories offer useful explanations for understanding the importance of peer relations for delinquency, a social network perspective can offer additional insight through which to understand the role of friendship networks for delinquent behavior.
A. Social Control Theory
Hirschi’s (1969) social control theory of delinquency is based largely on the notion of social integration and the idea that individuals form bonds to society that prevent them from acting on their delinquent impulses. In terms of friendship networks, social control theory posits that the more bonds an adolescent has through friendship ties, which carry a connotation of attachment, the less delinquent the adolescent will be.
One of the more problematic aspects of social control theory involves its neglect of the context in which the social bonds occur. Although research has established that in most cases social bonds through attachment are associated with a reduction in delinquency, these social bonds are not likely to reduce delinquency when adolescents are attached to delinquent friends. When an adolescent has delinquent friends, being attached to these friends is likely to direct behavior toward, not away from, delinquent behavior. Despite Hirschi’s (1969) denial of the importance of delinquent peers, it is these delinquent associates who are implicated in the transmission of delinquency and to whom differential association theory attaches primary importance.
B. Differential Association Theory
Sutherland’s (1947) differential association theory is based on the premise that delinquency is learned through intimate social relations with individuals whereby attitudes or “definitions” favorable to law violation are acquired. Not only are adolescents’ attachments to peers important for delinquency involvement, but also, and more important, the context or norms of the friendship group determine whether attachment to friends results in conventional or delinquent behavior. According to Sutherland, the social transmission of delinquency occurs within the friendship network through the transference of attitudes about the appropriateness of delinquent behavior.
Whereas Sutherland’s (1947) theory emphasizes the attitudes of peers in the transmission of delinquency, Akers’s (1985) extension to differential reinforcement theory suggests that the adoption of delinquent behavior occurs through imitation of peers’ behavior or through the observation of its consequences, either positive or negative. The important point made by these socialization theories, including differential association and social learning theories, is that delinquent behavior is learned through intimate personal relations, with friends serving as an important mechanism in adolescence by which delinquent behavior is observed and passed on.
C. Opportunity Theory
A third theory that is useful for understanding how peer networks influence adolescent behavior was offered by Osgood and colleagues (1996) in their opportunity theory. This position argues that situations conducive to delinquency are especially prevalent during time spent in unstructured socializing with peers in the absence of authority figures. This is because the presence of peers makes delinquent acts easier and more rewarding, the absence of authority figures reduces the potential for social control responses to delinquency, and the lack of structure leaves times available for delinquency. From this perspective, peer relations are not connected to delinquency by the type of friends that one chooses. Instead, what matters is the amount of time spent with peers engaged in a common type of activity. Friendship networks, according to this perspective, are important because they provide opportunities for adolescents to engage in delinquent behavior. Whether the friends are delinquent themselves is less important than the amount of time spent in unstructured activities with friends away from authority figures.
An alternative perspective on the association between friends’ delinquency and a adolescent’s delinquency was offered by Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990) in their general theory of crime. The basic premise here is that peers have no influence on delinquency; instead, stable characteristics of individuals determine how adolescents cluster together and therefore account for individual participation in delinquency (i.e., the idea that birds of a feather flock together). In particular, Gottfredson and Hirschi argued that adolescents’ level of self-control (i.e., the ability to control impulsive behavior) determines whether adolescents self-select into delinquent or prosocial friendship networks. Because self-control is believed to be strongly associated with delinquent behavior, this position suggests that delinquent behavior precedes selection of delinquent friends (i.e., delinquent adolescents select other delinquent adolescents to be friend). At issue here is what comes first, an adolescent’s delinquency or the delinquency of his or her friends.
A more nuanced position suggests that both socialization (i.e., peer influence) and selection (i.e., adolescents select friends similar to themselves) contribute to the similarity found between friends’ and an adolescent’s behavior. The theories of both Elliott and colleagues (Elliott, Ageton, & Canter, 1979) and Thornberry (1987) imply that delinquent peer groups and normative influence are reciprocally related, with both processes at work. Therefore, adolescents are likely to befriend others similar to themselves, and once friendships are formed, behavior is likely to be reinforced and shaped to be consistent with group norms.
E. Social Network Perspective
Although social control theory pays limited attention to the context in which social bonds occur, its focus on the constraining influence of social integration is consistent with a social network perspective. Being integrated within a friendship network in which adolescents are likely to report high attachment and time spent with peers either facilitates or discourages delinquency involvement depending on the norms, values, and behaviors evident in the network. Consistent with Eder and Enke’s (1991) finding that although adolescents often discount a peer’s evaluation, but never a group evaluation, is the notion that embeddedness within a social structure, such as a friendship network, acquires additional influence because it creates expectations for behavior while reinforcing the social norms and beliefs of the network. This idea of embeddedness also ties nicely into Sutherland’s (1947) theory of differential association, because being enmeshed in a peer network provides access to expectations, norms, and sanctions that either support or discourage delinquent behavior. Because peer friendships are of central importance during adolescence, and considering that one of the most important developmental goals during this period is ensuring peer acceptance, peer networks should be especially effective at directing and constraining individual members’ behavior.
Although a network perspective offers a particularly useful tool for understanding how peer networks can influence behavior, research has until recently neglected to incorporate a network perspective to understand the role of peer relations in adolescent delinquency.As the next section illustrates, this has led to a limited understanding of the role of peers for understanding adolescent delinquency.