Life Course Criminology

V. Developmental/Life Course Theory

As discussed in the previous section, criminology has witnessed a considerable degree of knowledge infused into its theorizing from other social science and related disciplines. This recent growth in interdisciplinary thought has likely had the largest effect on the origins of DLC theories. The following discussion reviews of some of criminology’s most recognizable DLC theories, with particular attention paid to those that have received a considerable amount of empirical research.

Similar to Moffitt’s (1993) developmental taxonomy, Patterson and Yoerger’s (1999) theory is also based on a two-group offending model: early-onset offenders and late-onset offenders. As Patterson and Yoerger discussed, poor and inept parenting practices lead to ineffective early childhood socialization, which allows for the development of oppositional/defiant behavior and early-onset offending. Furthermore, this ineffective socialization also causes these youth to be involved with deviant peers, which thereby magnifies their probability and intensity of offending. Patterson and Yoerger went on to suggest that early-onset offenders tend to be aggressive and defiant in their interactions with others and come to be rejected by conventional peers. Thus, these early-onset offenders tend to “find” one another and thereby form their own deviant peer groups, which places them at a high risk for chronic offending and continued offending over the life course.

In contrast, Patterson and Yoerger (1999) suggested that the late-onset offender group is not composed of individuals who suffer from poor and ineffective socialization; instead, the main cause of their offending is their interaction with deviant peers. Considering that the peer social context of adolescence is one of general support/acceptance for deviance, these late-onset offenders engage in delinquency during middle to late adolescence. However, because these youth did not enter into this developmental period suffering from ineffective childhood socialization they are able to confine their offending to this development period and go on to lead prosocial and productive adult lives. Several empirical studies have tested this theory and for the most part have supported the underlying assumptions of Patterson and Yoerger’s theory (see Simons, Johnson, Conger, & Elder, 1998; Simons, Wu, Conger, & Lorenz, 1994).

Loeber and his colleagues (Loeber, Farrington, Stouthamer-Loeber, Moffitt, & Caspi, 1998; Loeber, Wei, Stouthamer-Loeber, Huizinga, & Thornberry, 1999) have proposed a three-pathway model for describing the developmental progression of chronic offending. The first, the overt pathway, is believed to begin with minor acts of aggression, followed by physical fighting that ultimately escalates to violence. The second pathway, called the covert pathway, consists of a sequence of minor deviant behaviors followed by property damage and then escalates to more serious types of offending. The final pathway, the authority-conflict pathway, observed before age 12, consists of a sequence of stubborn behaviors, including defiance and authority avoidance (e.g., running away). Although according to Loeber et al.’s theoretical model individuals’ developmental progression of delinquency can cross over the three pathways, the most frequent offenders are expected to be overrepresented among those in multiple pathways, particularly youth who exhibit overt and covert behavior problems.

With attention to the three pathways just described, it is important to mention that a key assumption of Loeber et al.’s (1998, 1999) theoretical model is that behavior takes place in an orderly, not random, fashion. Stated differently, an individual’s pathway of offending is expected to progress through the lower-order steps before passing through the higher-order steps. Preliminary support for Loeber et al.’s pathway model was identified in the youngest sample of the PittsburghYouth Study and applied better to boys who persisted in delinquency compared with those who experimented in delinquency (Loeber et al., 1998). Furthermore, more recent replications of the pathway model have been provided in the three “Causes and Correlates Study” sites (Denver, Colorado; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and Rochester, New York), although the findings were replicated only for Steps 2 and higher in the overt and covert pathways only (Loeber et al., 1999; although see Nagin & Tremblay, 1999).

One last DLC theory reviewed in this research paper is that of Sampson and Laub’s (1993) age-graded theory of informal social control. This theory can best be described with attention to what Sampson and Laub characterized as a series of building blocks. The first building block focuses on the intervening role of informal family and school social bonds. The second building block focuses on the continuity of antisocial behavior that begins early in a child’s development and extends throughout adulthood. They also recognized that particular life events and social ties in adulthood can alter an individual’s behavioral trajectory, and this viewpoint is central to their third building block: the importance of adult social bonds. They proposed that social bonds developed in adulthood (employment, marriage) can explain involvement/lack of involvement in crime regardless of any underlying individual criminal propensity. In addition, they emphasized that it is not only the mere exposure of individuals to these bonds that is critical but also the quality and intensity of these bonds. Drawing on the work of Elder (1985), Sampson and Laub also hypothesized that different adaptations to key life events can affect an individual’s trajectory, and crucial turning points such as divorce or death of a loved one can redirect life trajectories.

In comparison, cumulative continuity (Moffitt, 1993) integrated with the concept of state dependence (for a review, see Nagin & Paternoster, 2000) refers to the idea that involvement in delinquency has an incremental effect on the interpersonal social bonds formed in adulthood (i.e., labor force attachment, marital cohesion). For instance, an arrest and subsequent incarceration in adolescence may lead the youth to drop out of school. This practice would logically affect his future job prospects and thus result in his failure to develop strong adulthood bonds to the labor force, which inevitably increases the likelihood of his involvement in crime (Tittle, 1988).

It is important to mention here that Sampson and Laub (1997) extended their age-graded theory of informal social control to incorporate a developmental conceptualization of labeling theory. Sampson and Laub suggested that involvement in delinquency has a “systematic attenuating effect on the social and institutional bonds linking adults to society (e.g., labor force attachment, marital cohesion)” (p. 144). Therefore, the relationship between delinquency and future criminal involvement is indirect in that delinquent participation leads to school failure, incarceration, and the development of weak bonds to the labor market, of which all of these factors are significantly associated with future criminal activity. Furthermore, for Sampson and Laub, this cycle occurs because severe sanctions label and stigmatize offenders, which thereby limits offenders’ opportunity for involvement in a conventional lifestyle and participation in mechanisms of informal social control (e.g., legitimate employment). One early test of this theoretical model did in fact provide some preliminary support for Sampson and Laub’s assumptions in that, compared with delinquents with a shorter incarceration history, boys who were incarcerated for a longer time had trouble securing stable jobs as they entered young adulthood (Sampson & Laub, 1997).

Although the DLC theories just reviewed are distinct from one another, they certainly share some common theoretical ground. Having said this, there is a clear divide. For example, Sampson and Laub’s (1997) theory is dynamic general theory but allows for the possibility that key local life circumstances can alter an individual’s criminal trajectory. In comparison, DLC theories such as Moffitt’s (1993), Patterson and Yoerger (1999), and Loeber et al.’s (1998, 1999) assume not that causality is general but rather that there are different causal processes that explain different offender types. Furthermore, Moffitt’s adolescent-limited offender and Patterson and Yoerger’s late-onset offender typologies are described as a state-dependent effect, whereas the causes of their life-course-persistent offender and early-onset offender counterpart typologies appear to emphasize persistent heterogeneity. Nevertheless, although this difference is important, most of the research has tended to favor taking the theoretical middle ground when studying crime (see Paternoster, Dean, Piquero, Mazerolle, & Brame, 1997), which suggests that explanations of persistent heterogeneity and state dependence are not necessarily incompatible or mutually inconsistent at all times.