Melissa A Menasco. 21st Century Anthropology: A Reference Handbook. Editor: H James Birx. Volume 2. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Reference, 2010.

What is juvenile delinquency? In common parlance, there is an understanding of juvenile delinquency as meaning adolescents breaking the law or participating in mischievous behavior. Defining juveniles as being under the age of 18 years is the general rule of thumb because, in the current legal system, upon reaching this age individuals can be tried as adults, serve in the military, and, in some states, consume alcohol.

One may ask why juvenile delinquency is viewed as a separate construct from adult deviant behavior. The answer to this legitimate question is derived historically from societal attitudes about children (Aries, 1962). Only after the Victorian Age were children seen as emotionally and intellectually developing human beings. During the Victorian Age, children were simply viewed as little adults. They were not regarded as having a world of their own. Their reality was that of their elders. With the industrial revolution and the social reforms that followed (child labor laws, mandatory educational requirements, etc.), children were viewed as a group to be protected. From this attitude concerning the welfare of children sprang the juvenile justice system. The role of the juvenile justice system was to rehabilitate wayward youth. The idea of parens patriae, the court acting as the parent, became the foundation for the juvenile justice system. Unlike the adult criminal justice system, which was a penal system demanding restitution and levying penalties for breaking the law, the juvenile justice system was seen as a means to reform adolescents who, through no fault of their own, had fallen victim to deviant ways, through either bad friends or lack of parental guidance. Driving the juvenile justice system was the philosophy that the young could be rehabilitated.

It is this view of adolescence that persists to this day, at least to a limited degree. While there is the inevitable ebb and flow of societal reaction to juvenile crime, the underlying attitudes about society’s perceptions of childhood emotional and psychological development affect how society assesses juvenile crime.

Historical Perspective

Upon birth, it was customary for children during the Middle Ages to be presented to their fathers, who either accepted them into the family or rejected them. If they were not accepted into the family, then they would be left to churches or orphanages. Reasons for not being accepted could be deformity or disease (Aries, 1962).

As soon as they were physically capable, children were expected to take on adult occupations. Society did not acknowledge the existence of childhood as we know it today. As soon as they were old enough to train or apprentice, children would, depending upon their economic class, prepare for their given occupation.

Social status would determine whether schooling was in a young man’s future. For boys of landholding families, a monastery school might be called for with eventual knighthood. Girls from landholding families might be taught rudimentary household finances in order to run their future husband’s homes. For boys of poorer families, education would entail farming or learning their father’s trade such as masonry, and for the girls, these occupations would include housekeeping and domestic trades such as needlework.

From today’s perspective, children were treated severely. Instead of the warm and nurturing family that we cherish as the hallmark of the environment for a child, friendly, safe place to raise children, children were raised by wet nurses. Children were typically separated from their parents from their earliest years.

In terms of discipline, infractions were treated with physical beatings. To the parent of the Middle Ages, the idea of giving a child a period of “time-out” would be a concept difficult to comprehend. An infraction would be handled with immediacy and swiftness, as well as blunt force. This perspective developed for a number of reasons. First, parents saw corporal punishment as a means of preparing their offspring to survive the inevitable harshness of adulthood. Second, with the emphasis on the oldest male child in terms of inheritance, there left little room for the other children in terms of their parents’ attention. Finally, the high mortality rates of children led to a more detached and impersonal relationship between parent and child, although this commonly held belief has been questioned in recent years (Hanawalt, 1993).

This is not to say that children did not commit criminal activity during the Middle Ages, but rather that the concept of juvenile delinquent was not part of the vocabulary during this period of time. If a transgression occurred, then punishment was meted out regardless of child or adult status.

With the passage of the Middle Ages came the dawn of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment produced the writings of Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and John Locke, as well as a change in the family. Schools were established in many of the larger cities and children had the opportunity to learn some of the basic academic subjects. The status of children improved considerably during the Enlightenment as alternative forms of punishment replaced corporal punishment.

In England, chancery courts were founded primarily to protect property rights; however, these courts also were charged with looking after orphans. The Latin phrase parens patriae originated with these courts; that is, children were under the protection of the king and it was the right of the king to take care of his people, especially the children. This term became the basis for the court’s intervention in the lives of the families under the crown’s authority and, in time, came to mean the right of the state to act in the best interest of the child.

In early American life, children’s lot was not so different from that of their peers in Europe. If they worked as apprentices, then they had to deal with abusive masters. If they worked in factories, as many did during the turn of the 19th century, then they were working alongside their parents. Furthermore, while discipline may have been considered harsh by today’s standards, few cases of child abuse were reported to the courts.

Children who were accused of crimes were sentenced in court alongside adult criminals. And their punishment was commensurate with their crime. Youthful status would not necessarily be taken into account when administering sentences.

By the turn of the 20th century, there was an air of reform in America. This reform movement was the basis for the idea that children had a special place in society. This movement promoted the realization that children, who were working alongside adults in factories and were being punished as adults, should not be treated with the same harshness as their laboring adult counterparts. The leaders of this movement, or child savers as they were known, argued that children should be sent to school, should not be working long hours in factories, and should not be subjected to the sentences of adult criminals (Salerno, 1991). With this, the child savers pushed for a separate juvenile justice system. It is from the efforts of these reformers that our modern-day juvenile justice system was born (Fox, 1970). The idea of parens patriae, or the government stepping in to care for wayward youth, was again called into action. The juvenile justice system, unlike the criminal justice system that was one of punishment, was one designed to focus on the best interests of the child.

The inherent philosophy of the juvenile justice system, as originally envisioned by its founders, is one of rehabilitation and treatment, not of retribution. It is from this understanding of the juvenile justice system that the term juvenile delinquency comes. Juvenile delinquents were those youths who had committed crimes and were now under the jurisdiction of the state. Under the juvenile justice system and parens patriae, the state was charged with rehabilitating. Juvenile delinquency is thus a fairly modern concept, as it is closely tied to the concept of childhood and adolescence in the 20th century.

Reflection of Societal Values

Delinquency as portrayed in the cinema is another interesting means of assessing our society’s views of adolescent misbehavior. Beginning with Marlon Brando’s portrayal of the rebel teen in the 1950s movie The Wild One (1953), there followed a host of movies showing teenagers suffering the angst of preadulthood. The Hollywood version of these movies is especially interesting because it depicts the times, the breaking away of these youths from their familial ties, and the struggles that they faced in doing so.

According to Daniel Biltereyst (as cited in Shary & Seibel, 2007), movies such as The Wild One (1953), Blackboard Jungle (1955), and Rebel Without a Cause (1955), so-called juvenile delinquency movies, caused a great deal of public debate because they brought the topics of drugs, sex, and crime to the forefront of the public square. The discussion centered upon whether the viewing of these movies promotes delinquent attitudes and therefore delinquency. In essence, the debate that arose around these movies was based on an argument regarding the social values of the era. These movies were created in the post–World War II era. The 1950s was a period of rebirth of sorts for America. The GIs had returned victorious and were assuming their roles both in the family and in the corporate world. This was the period when the baby boomers were born. Social roles were well-defined. Rosy the Riveter, who had worked tirelessly during the war years, now put down her tools to stay home and take care of her family so that her GI Joe husband would have a job. A good wife was someone who stayed home and took care of her family, and a good husband was someone who went to work every day and provided for his family. Children were to obey their parents by going to school and avoiding trouble.

What these movies signified was an undercurrent of discontent to the façade of happiness that was the American dream. For some who opposed the showing of these movies, these movies challenged the social norms that they had come to accept as fundamental to their way of life. For others who were necessarily afraid of the challenge, this was a negative reinforcement for impressionable adolescents at the time.


Male Theories

Many theories have been proposed to explain delinquent behavior. Since males commit the majority of crimes (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2008), most of the theories are directed toward explaining male delinquency. For the most part, it was assumed that theories applied to both males and females in spite of the fact that research studies focused primarily on males due to their higher delinquency rates. However, with the increase in female delinquency (U.S. Department of Justice, 2008), there has been an acknowledgment that the causes of female delinquency may be different than the causes for male delinquency. This is reflected in the Office of Juvenile Justice research-supported agenda. A research team known as the Girls Study Group has been given the task of looking into female delinquency.

In addition to the differences between male and female delinquency theories, the question of whether delinquents are born or created—that is, a nature versus nurture perspective—is one that continues to be debated. Some theories propose that there is a biological basis for delinquent behavior, while other theories propose that delinquent behavior is learned, while still others propose that delinquent behavior is a psychological problem.

Suggestions of biological causality have their earliest roots with the work of Cesare Lombroso (Lombroso & Ferrero, 1895/1980). Lombroso studied the physical makeup of convicted criminals and noted their physical characteristics. Greatly influenced by the work of Charles Darwin, Lombroso concluded that some men were “born criminals” and is credited with use of the term atavism. Criminals were evolutionary throwbacks, according to Lombroso, and hence atavistic in nature. Some of the traits that Lombroso reported were low foreheads, broad noses, enormous jaws, acute sight, and tattoos. The criminals had an inordinate number of tattoos, he reasoned, because they were insensitive to the pain associated with administering them.

While his theories of criminality are, for the most part, no longer accepted, it is important to note that those scientists who now study biological criminology trace their scientific lineage to his line of research.

The major theories of juvenile delinquency for males fall under three major categories: social structure, social process, and social conflict. Suffice it to say that this is not meant to be an exhaustive list of theories, but rather an introduction to the highlights in these areas.

Social Structure Theories

Social structure theories are so named because they attribute the causes for delinquent behavior to the structure of society (i.e., place, identity, and socioeconomic factors). Social structuralists suggest that environmental factors influence delinquent behaviors. These theories do not necessarily say that individuals lack choice as to their delinquent behaviors, but, instead, propose that the choices that are offered to them are in many ways limited due to race, class, or gender. While there are a plethora of researchers who deserve credit for their contributions to this line of theoretical reasoning, some factors deserve mention in particular: social disorganization, strain, and cultural deviance.

One of the earliest theories of delinquency is that of social disorganization. The idea of social disorganization theory has its introduction in the work of W. I. Thomas and Florian Znaniecki (1927). These early sociologists studied the immigrant Polish population in Chicago in the early 1900s. They noticed that the crime rates of this immigrant population were higher than rates for those who lived in the surrounding areas of Chicago and proposed that the cultural transmission of values was somehow disrupted by the immigration process. They referred to this disruption as social disorganization. Their proposal was an important first step toward understanding criminal behavior in terms of place.

Robert K. Merton proposed strain theory in his 1967 book, Social Theory and Social Structure. In his work, he proposed that dysfunctional behavior (i.e., criminality) was due to societal pressure—or the strains of society on the individual. Merton explained that American society was particularly susceptible to societal strains because of the cultural norms to attain economic success. American society stresses attainment of the American dream—a large home, expensive car, designer clothes, and, in general, acquisition of material wealth. He further explained that individuals respond to the pursuit of the American dream in different ways, and he classified them into typologies.

Cultural deviance theories (Miller, 1958; Sellin, 1938; Thrasher, 1927) propose that criminal behavior is caused by different cultural norms of various groups in society. It is the differences among group definitions of behavior that generate delinquent behaviors.

Social Process Theories

Social process theories, also known as interactionist theories, support the notion that delinquency occurs as a result of behaviors learned through the individual’s interactions with society. The nature of the individual’s interactions delineates the perspective of each of these theories. The theorists who support the social learning model of delinquency believe that delinquent behavior is a learned behavior. Unlike the structuralists who believe that societal influences promote and, indeed, incite criminal behavior, social process theorists attribute behavior to association with others who influence and teach values. Primary theories that promote this perspective are differential association, social bond theory, labeling, and dramaturgy.

Edwin Sutherland and Donald Cressey (1978) first proposed the theory of differential association. The crux of this theory is based on the premise that criminal acts are learned. Sutherland and Cressey proposed a list of nine propositions to describe the nature of criminal behavior. At the heart of this theoretical perspective is the idea that all human behavior is learned and criminal behavior is simply another learned behavior. In spite of societal messages regarding acceptable behavior, they believed that crime occurred because individuals learned or were more strongly influenced toward these negative behaviors.

Social control theory, as originally proposed by Travis Hirschi in 1969, claimed that the reason for juvenile delinquency was the weak social bond that the individual formed with society. Rather than ask the question of why delinquency occurred, Hirschi asked why most individuals conformed to the rules of society. He answered this question by stating that it was the individual’s bond to society that prevented deviant behavior. This social bond was comprised of four elements: (1) attachment, (2) commitment, (3) involvement, and (4) belief.

Attachment as defined by Hirschi referred to the direct and indirect control that parents and teachers exercised over adolescents. Indirect control is the influence that parents or authority figures have over the decisions of the adolescent when not physically present. Within this context, the adolescent reflects upon the opinion of the parental figure and refrains from participating in deviant activity. The stronger the indirect control, the less likely the adolescent will transgress societal norms. The weaker the indirect control, the more likely the individual will commit the act. Commitment, according to Hirschi, refers to future goals. He believed that individuals striving to attain college degrees, obtain good jobs, and marry would be less likely to participate in activities jeopardizing their success. Hence, commitment toward personal goals would decrease the likelihood of delinquency. Hirschi also thought that involvement in extracurricular activities would decrease the likelihood of delinquency, as this would minimize the opportunity to commit crimes.

Belief, for Hirschi, refers to the acceptance and support of social norms. Adolescents who agree with societal standards of right and wrong are less likely to commit delinquent acts. Conversely, if they reject the norms, then they are more likely to become involved in delinquent activity. Each of these four elements contributed to building the social bond and, according to Hirschi, if any single element was not present, then it would weaken the individual’s bond to society, thus increasing the likelihood of engaging in delinquent activities.

In its earliest formation and presentation, labeling theory is associated with Frank Tannenbaum (1938); it is identification that occurs once an individual has passed through the criminal justice system. Rather than identifying the act as evil, society identifies the individual as evil until there is little or no differentiation between the act and the individual. Tannenbaum referred to this process as the “dramatization of evil.” The idea of tagging individuals as criminals is, then, the introduction of the idea that individuals identify with and become the criminal that society has defined.

Labeling theory is most closely identified with Howard Becker, who, in his 1963 book Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance, described how the process of identification as a deviant occurs. From his perspective, deviants are defined by the dominant culture and are considered outsiders. They are outsiders because they do not conform to group rules. These rules are defined by the group, and therefore, according to Becker, the social group has defined deviancy. From this perspective, acts are not deviant in and of themselves; acts are defined as deviant by the social group. In his work, Becker attempted to describe the transformative process of being identified as deviant.

The social process theory proposed by Erving Goffman was of the dramaturgical perspective. In his 1958 book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Goffman suggests that all individuals play multiple social roles. Similar to an actor in a play, a man might possibly have a role of husband, father, son, construction worker, and volunteer. All of these roles must be kept in balance with respect to other players; for the individual, this means proper impression management. Impression management, as defined by Goffman, serves to define the stage for the players and, ultimately, to decide whose issues become the dominant ones.

Social Conflict Theories

The final group of theoretical perspectives is that of social conflict. These theories challenge the perspectives of the social process and structuralist positions. They claim that, in fact, the very definitions of these sociological approaches are problematic to defining delinquency. These theories trace their heritage to Karl Marx (Tucker, 1978) and propose that those in power made the laws and it is from this position that deviant behavior is defined. While each theory looks at the idea of the power structure differently, at the crux of their commonality is the premise that those who make the laws decide who is deviant. Radical (Chambliss & Seidman, 1971; Quinney, 1974), feminist (Adler, 1975; Simon, 1975b), and social constructionist (Henry & Milovanovic, 1995) models are examples of this belief system.

Female Theories

Since males commit the majority of delinquent acts, delinquency research has traditionally been focused on males, with the assumption being that delinquency theories applied to both males and females. Yet, researchers understood that the focus of concern was male offenders. In addition, the paucity of female delinquents was found to be an obstacle to the collection of meaningful research data. Females were simply not committing as many crimes as males and the official statistics reflected their lower numbers. Yet, within the last 30 years, with the overall rates of delinquency in decline, there has been an increase in the rate of female delinquency. Males still commit a majority of the crimes as listed in the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Uniform Crime Reports (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2008), but it is noticeable that female delinquency has been increasing.

A number of issues arise with regard to these observations. First, there are more delinquent males than females. This subject alone has been the focus of debate and ongoing discussion. One of the ongoing debates in various theoretical frameworks is whether delinquents are born or socialized to behave as delinquents. This section will provide an overview of the research attempting to explain the differences between male and female delinquency. Second, males and females engage in different types of delinquent behavior. Girls, for example, run away from home at a rate far greater than boys, while boys commit the majority of violent crimes. This section then discusses the differences between the delinquent behavior of males and females, as well as the trends in delinquency based on current official statistics.

Theories of delinquency have discussed societal-norm violation in terms of male deviancy because of the evidence that juvenile crime is overwhelmingly male dominated. One of the questions that arise is whether the theoretical framework for any theory of deviancy is applicable to female delinquency. The unspoken assumption of researchers is that a general theory of deviancy applies to both males and females with the emphasis on males. Since female delinquency has always been very low in comparison to male delinquency, females were simply ignored in the theoretical framework. Their numbers were just too small to test the validity of a theoretical approach. With the increasing delinquency rate of girls during the last 30 years, there has been an accompanying interest in explanations for female delinquency. The following section is a historical review of the theoretical paradigms proposed for female delinquency.

Masculinity Theory

In his 1895 book The Female Offender, Cesare Lombroso proposed that female criminals were biologically and psychologically similar to males. Unlike non-criminal females, Lombroso argued, the female criminal had excessive body hair, wrinkles, and an abnormal cranium. He argued that girls committed fewer delinquent acts than boys for a variety of reasons: their maternal nature, their sexual frigidity, and their low intelligence (Lombroso & Ferrero, 1895/1980). Noting that males were more delinquent than females, Lombroso attributed this fact to the uniformity among females. The female criminal was an anomaly among females.

Lombroso’s work influenced subsequent explanations of the biological nature of female criminality. Cyril Burt, in 1925, wrote that female delinquency was linked with menstruation. In his 1950 work, The Criminality of Women, Otto Pollak continued Burt’s work by discussing pregnancy and menopause in addition to menstruation as links with female criminal behavior.

Chivalry Theory

In addition to offering a biological link to female criminality, Pollak (1950) claimed that female deviancy occurs more often than reported. According to Pollak, women were naturally more inclined toward deceit and concealment. His argument was based on the biological differences in the sexes. Since men are unable to hide their sexual arousal but, by their physiology, women can, he deduced that by their very nature women were capable of deceitful behavior. He further reasoned that culturally, women were encouraged to behave in a socially proscribed manner. These socially proscribed manners included feigning behaviors that made it easier for them to commit crimes.

In addition to cultural expectations, the inequality of the sexes also affects the underreporting of female crime. By their nature, he reasoned, males wish to protect females. This desire to protect females, or chivalry, is consequential to the treatment of females when they are adjudicated in the criminal justice system. With men dominating law enforcement, it is of no surprise that police are reluctant to arrest females, lawyers are reluctant to prosecute females, and judges are reluctant to sentence females. Pollak (1950) attributed this reluctance to chivalry. Females did not actually commit fewer crimes, he reasoned, they simply were treated less harshly than their male counterparts. Furthermore, the types of crimes that females committed were directly related to the roles that society proscribed. These roles made it easier for women to commit and conceal their crimes. As substantiation for his theory, Pollak noted that in their primary role as homemakers, women had easy access to victims of violent crime (i.e., their family members). Child abuse was given as an obvious example of a crime that might escape detection by law enforcement officials. Another crime Pollak identified was stealing. Since the typical shopper is a woman, he reasoned that the store displays were designed to entice women. These displays created desires to attain material goods. If women were unable to satisfy these needs, then they would be induced to commit crimes.

While a good deal of Pollak’s original argument has been discarded, the central premise of the chivalry theory— the differential treatment of females in the criminal justice system due to inequalities between the sexes—remains a topic of debate among researchers. Proponents of the chivalry theory argue that law enforcement agencies are more lenient toward female offenders. As an example, when comparing similar crimes, female sentencing has been found to be less severe than for males (Reckless, 1955). The idea that females are central to the nuclear family and their removal from that environment threatens to disrupt not only the family, but also society by leaving children without their mothers, is a key concept underlying the chivalry theory.

As a direct test of the chivalry theory, Corley, Cernkovich, and Giordano (1989) conducted a sociological study to determine if a difference exists between the treatment of delinquent males and females within the family, at school, and in the judicial system. If the chivalry theory is true, they reasoned, penalties for delinquent behavior should be unequal with boys receiving more serious penalties. They found that within the family, both boys and girls were similarly disciplined, primarily through grounding. However, girls indicated parents would be more likely to react negatively to certain behaviors. Within the school setting, they found that males were suspended more often than the females because their offenses were more serious than the females’. Furthermore, when males and females committed similar crimes, it appeared that school officials were reluctant to suspend females. Within the criminal justice system, they found that males were more likely to have contact with the system than females. Males committed more serious crimes than the females as well. However, they did not find support of the chivalry theory within the court system. The factor that was most relevant to imposed sentences was severity of the crime. They could not find support for sex, race, or age influencing the imposition of sanctions by the courts. While finding limited support for the chivalry theory with respect to the family and school, Corley et al. (1989) found no support for it in the judicial system.

Psychological Theory

From a biosocial and psychological perspective, the reasons for female delinquency are attributed to physical and emotional traits. Theorists in this tradition believe that biology, psychological factors, and the social environment are all factors influencing delinquency. Some of the more prominent ideas promoted by these theorists are precocious sexuality, hormonal differences between males and females, premenstrual syndrome, and aggression.

Precocious sexuality as explained by Glueck and Glueck (1934) linked the early onset of physical maturity with female delinquent behavior. Delinquent girls were viewed as more sexually promiscuous, and their sexual activity was an indicator of their inability to follow societal norms. In a supporting view, Buchanan, Eccles, and Becker (1992) found an association with early onset of puberty and female delinquency. It has also been proposed that girls who mature at a younger age may attract older, adolescent boys who are influential factors in the behavior of these girls. In another sociological study, Caspi, Lyman, Moffitt, and Silva (1993) found that as girls matured, the delinquency gap between the early and late bloomers declined. The importance of the precocious sexuality approach is the recognition that female delinquency is not easily traced to a single biological explanation. If there is a biological basis for nonnormative behavior, then these theorists recognize that it operates within the context of the social and psychological spheres.

Theorists who advocate the hormonal differences between males and females believe that male hormones, or androgens, are responsible for more aggressive male behavior. Walter Gove (1985) found that androgens reduced the effects of environmental stimuli on the brain, which in turn explained the need for males to seek increased levels of stimulation such as that acquired from committing crimes. According to this theoretical approach, lower androgen levels in females explain the lower rates of female criminal behavior. Those females who have higher androgen levels, according to these theorists, will exhibit more male traits, such as aggression, and thus will be more likely to engage in criminal activity.

While relatively rare, female violence has been associated with the premenstrual syndrome (Fishbein, 1971). Fishbein’s study of incarcerated females found that a significant number of crimes were committed in the premenstrual phase. In addition, a small number of women appear to be more susceptible to hostility and anxiety due to hormonal fluctuations during the menstrual cycle. However, Fishbein points out that most of these women who are susceptible to hormonal fluctuations do not engage in criminal activity. While her study remains significant, there has been conflicting evidence regarding premenstrual syndrome and criminal activity (Harry & Balcer, 1987; Horney, 1978), primarily due to methodological considerations. These researchers question the causal ordering of premenstrual syndrome and criminal activity. From their perspective, it is unclear whether criminal activity and the stress of such activity induces the onset of menstruation.

Another theoretical approach with biosocial origins is the idea that males are inherently more aggressive than females (Ellis, 1988). This aggression, according to some psychologists, exists before socialization occurs; that is, it is innate. As evidence, they cite male aggression across all societies (Maccoby & Jacklin, 1974). One explanation given for the difference between male and female aggression is the difference between the male and female reproductive systems. According to this reasoning, males pursue multiple sex partners as a means of increasing their progeny, while females focus on the selection of a partner who will provide the resources necessary to protect and care for their young (Ellis, 1988). Critics point out that aggressive behavior is not exclusively limited to males, and under certain circumstances, females exhibit aggressive behavior (Frodi, Maccauley, & Thome, 1977).

Socialization Theory

From the socialization perspective of female delinquency, sex matters. By studying the differing lifestyles of males and females, socialization theorists hope to find the relationship between females and delinquency. Under this theoretical framework, girls are monitored more closely than boys. Girls’ parents are more mindful of girls’ misbehaviors than those of boys. Adults treat boys with greater leniency because of expectations that boys are brash and greater risk takers than girls (Farrington, 1992b). Since the primary adult figures in children’s lives are their parents, this perspective places a good deal of emphasis on the quality of children’s home life. Children from troubled families, including broken homes, or those who lack supervision are at greater risk for delinquency.

As early as 1927, W. I. Thomas noted that female delinquency was linked with the desire for material wealth and excitement. According to Thomas, girls from lower socioeconomic classes had not been schooled with appropriate middle-class values and, in their desire for wealth and thrills, were forced to engage in sexual activity as a means of acquiring material possessions. A reflection of its times, Thomas’s assessment of female delinquency was based on an economic, moral, and social differential between the classes.

In The Adolescent Girl in Conflict (1966), Gisela Konopka pointed out that love deprivation and isolation were the basis for female delinquency. According to Konopka, an important aspect of the maturation process for adolescent girls is the need for acceptance by males. If the adolescent girl is unable to develop these relationships with family and friends, then she may turn to sexual relationships as a means of satisfying her need for male approval. Pursuing sexual relationships with males would then lead to disapproval of her behavior by both family and community. This disapproval, in turn, would serve to increase her feelings of isolation from family and friends. Konopka posited that girls who lived in fatherless homes were especially disadvantaged because they had no means to develop the basis of a healthy relationship with a male figure.

Vedder and Somerville (1970) attributed female delinquency to family pressures. They found that 75% of institutionalized females had family problems. In their work The Delinquent Girl, they note the impact of unfair social practices on girls, as well as the effects of living in a male-dominated culture. Vedder and Somerville’s work proposes that female delinquency originates in the family and, more specifically, with regard to gender role definitions.

Subsequent work of socialization theorists continues to link female delinquency with a troubled home life. In their study of incarcerated girls, Belknap, Holsinger, and Dunn (1997) report that delinquent girls spoke about physical and sexual abuse, as well as degrading and embarrassing social situations. Citing an association with abuse within the home and female delinquency, Chesney-Lind (1987) notes that many of these girls end up running away from home only to become victims of the system that set out to protect them.

Liberal Feminist Theory

The liberal feminist perspective of female criminality argues that economics and sex-role differences are stronger predictors of delinquency than socialization. Liberal feminists such as Rita Simon and Freda Adler argue that socialization alone cannot account for the differences in criminal behavior between the sexes. In her book Sisters in Crime (1975), Freda Adler stated that females commit fewer crimes than males because of their limited access to opportunities. By their nature, sex roles are restrictive for women, but as women enter the ranks of male-dominated professions, she predicted, the crime rate for females would begin to increase to match that of males. From the liberal feminist perspective, there is no difference between the sexes in terms of causality of criminal behavior. Rates of criminal behavior would begin to converge as more women gained access to traditionally male-dominated positions.

Rita Simon asserted that as women gained more economic and social power, they would be more likely to engage in male-dominated crimes (Simon, 1975a). Her prediction is supported by the increase in the female crime rate over the past 25 years. In fact, while male delinquency rates still far exceed those of females, the patterns of crimes between the sexes are more similar than different. Critics of the liberal feminist position argue that the increase of female delinquency may be attributed to the attitudes of law enforcement agencies toward the female offender. Perhaps the arrest rates are rising, they argue, due to a change in police attitudes toward female offenders.

Radical Feminist Theory

Similar to the liberal feminist tradition, the radical feminist position argues that female delinquency is structural in nature. Drawing from a Marxist perspective, it sees the capitalist society as creating an unequal distribution of power with males dominating females. James Messerschmidt (1993) has developed a theoretical model that explains inequities between the sexes as a consequence of power in the patriarchal capitalist system. Female delinquency is created by male exploitation of females, whether through abuse, harassment, or undue influence.

In his power-control theory, John Hagan proposes that differences between the sexes are generated by class differences (Hagan, Gillis, & Simpson, 1985; Hagan, Simpson, & Gillis, 1987). These class differences influence family life. Hagan et al. (1985; 1987) therefore propose that the traits associated with positions within organizations—such as executive, middle management, or staff—are reflected in the family structure. Defining families as paternalistic (i.e., father as breadwinner with stay-at-home mother) or egalitarian (i.e., father and mother have similar positions in the workplace), Hagan et al. argue that the type of family structure influences the family management style. Paternalistic parents give their sons more freedom while limiting their daughters’ freedom, thus explaining fewer female delinquents in these types of families. Egalitarian families, while giving their sons and daughters greater freedom, experience similar delinquency rates between brothers and sisters. Egalitarian families are more likely to be found among the upper class, since the parents are by definition managers in the workplace. Paternalistic families are more likely to be found in the lower classes, again due to the definitions that Hagan et al. have developed; that is, there is a single wage earner in the family, usually the father. While Hagan et al. have found support for their theory, critics argue that differences in delinquent behavior in terms of social class are problematic to delinquency theory. As an example, they propose that upper-class youths are greater risk takers and are more likely to engage in petty delinquency than lower-class youths.

Types of Male and Female Delinquency

While girls have traditionally engaged in delinquent acts less frequently than boys, there has been a steady increase in the delinquency rates of girls over the last 30 years. Boys still engage in criminal activity at a far greater rate than girls, but girls are closing the gap between the sexes. The Uniform Crime Reports (UCR; Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2008), a compilation of crime statistics from over 10,000 law enforcement agencies as reported to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), confirms that, overall, boys are arrested more than twice as often as girls (U.S. Department of Justice, 2008). The statistics reported by the UCR show that the arrests for girls in 1967 constituted 13% of all juvenile index-crime arrests, and they now constitute approximately 29% (U.S. Department of Justice, 2008). Of particular note are the increased arrest rates of female over male delinquency for aggravated assault (99% vs. 14%), simple assault (258% vs. 99%), and weapons law violations (125% vs. 7%) over the period of 1980 through 2002. Drug abuse violations increased at a comparable rate (42% vs. 47%) for both sexes.

Regarding types of offenses, boys are far more likely to be arrested for violent crimes and serious property offenses. Boys are 5 times more likely to commit violent crimes, including homicide, forcible rape, robbery, and aggravated assault, than are girls. For serious index property crimes, including burglary, motor vehicle theft, and arson, boys are more than twice as likely to be arrested as are girls. Overwhelmingly, boys are arrested more often than girls for drug-law violations. Other offenses, such as stolen property, vandalism, weapons offenses, and “other assaults,” are also typically associated with higher arrest rates for boys (Chesney-Lind & Shelden, 2004).

Types of offenses for which girls are typically arrested include running away from home and prostitution (Chesney-Lind & Shelden, 2004). Over half (60%) of the arrests for running away from home are girls. Girls are far more likely to be arrested for status offenses, which in addition to running away from home include truancy, curfew violation, incorrigibility, and loitering. The 2002 UCR reports that running away from home and curfew/loitering account for 18.2% of all girls’ arrests and only 6.5% of boys’ arrests. The 2002 UCR reports that 71% of all juvenile property crime-index arrests were larceny-theft, with the most common violation being shoplifting. Girls accounted for 39% of larceny-theft. Overall, the juvenile arrest rate for property crime-index offenses was the lowest since the 1960s with an increase in the arrest rates of girls over the same period of time (U.S. Department of Justice, 2008).

The UCR is not a perfect mechanism for tracking the commission of crimes because it is dependent upon crimes reported to law enforcement agencies. It is a means of gauging general trends in criminal activity, and, if anything, the UCR statistics reflect an underreporting of criminal activity. Nonetheless, the UCR provides valuable information regarding the categorization of crimes that are committed in the United States. Furthermore, it can be argued that the accuracy of the UCR increases with the seriousness of the crime. More serious violations, such as murder and rape, are more likely to be reported to law enforcement agencies than less serious infractions, such as vagrancy.

Furthermore, the information gleaned from the UCR describes several key factors regarding male and female delinquency. First, male delinquents continue to overwhelmingly commit the greatest number of juvenile offenses, with more than twice as many arrests (U.S. Department of Justice, 2008). Males commit most of the violent crimes and females commit the most status offenses (running away and curfew violation). Second, as mentioned, there has been a steady increase in the rates of female delinquency over the past 30 years. Third, when ranking the most common delinquent behaviors, male and female delinquents exhibit similar patterns of criminal behavior. The leading offenses for both male and female delinquency are the categories of larceny-theft, forgery and counterfeiting, and other assaults not included in the violent crime index.

Smith and Visher (1980) conducted an empirical review of studies comparing sex and involvement in crime from 1940 through 1975. In their review, they gathered information such as self-report questionnaires and official reports of arrest, class, age, race, offense type, level of family intactness, and level of urbanization. Their review of 44 studies found the gap narrowing between male and female deviancy in general, and delinquency in particular, depending upon type of offense. In terms of minor offenses, males and females exhibited similar propensity levels while the more serious criminal behaviors continued to be dominated by males. Of particular interest was their finding that African American male and female involvement in criminal activity appears to be converging, while European Americans do not exhibit a similar convergence. They posit that this result is consistent with stratification research; for example, African American females have experienced advancements in educational and occupational attainment relative to African American males at a faster pace than their European American female counterparts in relation to European American males. In other words, African American women have advanced faster than European American women, thus lessening the gap between the sexes and creating a similar propensity toward crime. Finally, they note a convergence of self-report with official data samples in reporting less serious deviant behavior and acknowledge that attitudes of official law enforcement agencies toward more serious offenses may impact agency responses.

Although this study was conducted 25 years ago, the trends of female and male delinquency have continued to the present. Boys continue to participate in the most serious offenses, but girls, by their increasing rates of participation in delinquent acts, have narrowed the gap that existed between the less serious forms of delinquent behavior.

Cross-Cultural Delinquency

One of the most interesting aspects of studying delinquency is that of cross-cultural comparisons. Up until this point, the discussion has focused on American delinquency, which is unique in its development. But, as has been previously discussed, social structure is fundamental to the perspectives of adolescence and, consequently, to the idea of delinquency within that culture.

Does delinquency exist across all cultures? And, most important, if not, why not? This examination cannot possibly hope to cover all cultural groups, but, instead, it will attempt to provide a brief description of a culture that had witnessed virtually no delinquency but, over time, has seen a metamorphosis of its youth toward deviant behaviors.

In order to answer the question as to whether delinquency exists in all cultures, it is important to recall the original premise of this discussion. Delinquency exists in societies where there are concepts of adolescence. If there are no concepts of adolescence, then the concept of delinquency has no point of reference. If the social structure embraces childhood with an initiation into immediate adulthood, then an adolescence is not conceivable. Children move immediately into their adult roles, meaning that they take on the responsibilities and tasks that their elders have prepared them for. Delinquency, and the attitudes associated with it, is an extension of childhood roles that are eliminated in a culture that initiates children into adult roles. This is not to infer that deviant activity does not occur upon initiation into adulthood, but, rather, that any deviant activity is treated as a social infraction at an adult level. In these contexts, there is no concept of special treatment for adolescents. Upon initiation into adulthood, there is an acceptance of the rights and responsibilities associated with this newly attained status.

How to compare delinquency between different societies becomes problematic for a number of reasons. First, there is a necessary agreement as to the definition of delinquency. Delinquent behavior in one society may not be considered delinquent behavior for another social group. The idea of delinquent behavior assumes a stage within human development that may be a foreign concept in another social setting. Second, criminal behavior in one society may be acceptable behavior in another society. An example of this would be some of the tribes of India who have taught their young to steal as a matter of survival (Cavan & Cavan, 1968).

There are enough variations in differing societies that this piece will attempt a brief comparison of two social groups. In order to contrast the differences between these two groups, a preindustrial society compared with an industrial society will provide an illustration of how delinquency differs in each society. There are, of course, differing cultural norms that will affect attitudes toward delinquency. In addition, while examining the preindustrial society and its transition into an industrial state, there will be the opportunity to describe changing societal patterns of behavior and their effect on the behavior of youth within that culture.

Cavan and Cavan (1968) studied the closed society of the Eskimos as an example of a social group that, at one time, had virtually no delinquency but has now witnessed the introduction of delinquency to their culture. Eskimos are differing ethnic groups of nomadic peoples who live in the regions of Alaska, Siberia, Greenland, and northern Canada. The idea of delinquency was virtually unknown to the Eskimos until the introduction of European explorers and settlers.

By looking at Eskimos as an example before the arrival of the Europeans, there is a marked difference in the family and its approach to delinquency (Cavan & Cavan, 1968). Prior to the arrival of the Europeans, the Eskimos lived in tightly knit family groups wandering in hunting groups in search of food. Their travels roughly followed their search for food: caribou, seal, and walrus. Their culture had little or no delinquency. Families shared single-room huts in the winter and, in the summer, they would spread out in other dwellings within a general area. To live in one room during the course of the winter months, with no control over an unruly adolescent, could be a problem not only for the family, but also for the entire community. Hence, keeping a tight rein over troublesome youth in such tight household circumstances was essential.

Furthermore, the Eskimos lived in a patriarchal society and the father immediately attended to any transgression. In this society, women were subservient to men and wife lending was customary, relating to lack of children and sexual tension. In addition, according to Cavan and Cavan (1968), these arrangements were agreed to without any problem by the women. Children were kept in close proximity to their mothers and, in fact, were watched by the extended family. In addition, the Eskimos had no social classes. Everything in their society was geared toward survival, and cooperation was essential in order to meet that end.

The greatest problem would appear to be living in close quarters for many months of the year. Yet, this was handled by the separation of each nuclear family unit, during the summer months, from the main group in order to go its separate ways. According to Cavan and Cavan (1968), the simple need to survive, the care of mothers for their children, the authority of the father, and cooperativeness of the family unit as a whole met their overall goals: All contributed to the lack of delinquent attitudes. It is interesting to note that upon the introduction of the European settlers, delinquent attitudes and problems began to creep into the Eskimo culture. As long as the culture remained closed to the outside world, it appeared to be able to keep delinquency at bay. It was when Eskimos came into contact with the outside world that issues of delinquency, such as alcohol consumption and sexual promiscuity, became problematic.

With the introduction of the European immigrants came missionaries and ideas outside of the Eskimo culture. The Christian missionaries discouraged the practice of wife lending, which had been common practice among the Eskimos. Coincidental with the changes that the Europeans brought to the Eskimos came changes to the Eskimo way of life. The missionaries sought to establish a moral system of beliefs, which the Eskimos absorbed into their system. While accepting the beliefs of the missionaries in addition to their own belief system, the Eskimos found that their way of life was slowly changing.

This transition brought with it a myriad host of difficulties—another culture in which the young were curious and by which they were easily influenced, as well as the realization that there were goods beyond the necessities for survival that could be acquired. In the past, the Eskimo family had been concerned with survival, and now there was the opportunity to obtain supplies to make life easier. While it is easy to place blame for the appearance of deviant behaviors in the Eskimo culture on the European settlers and their introduction of material goods, a few cautionary reminders are appropriate: Nonconformity in the Eskimo culture was not tolerated because of the close living conditions; dealing with those who deviated from societal norms was immediate, and children were initiated into adulthood, meaning that no juvenile culture existed, thus eliminating delinquency.

Future Directions

The development of preventive strategies will necessarily follow from an understanding of delinquency’s root causes. If social structure is a key factor in the development of juvenile delinquency, then prevention will entail addressing issues regarding place, identity, or socioeconomic status. For example, if poverty is considered a significant causative factor, then taking steps such as providing jobs, job training, and perhaps additional welfare benefits becomes an important social concern. By eliminating poverty, society will thus work toward eliminating the deviant behaviors that exist as a result of socioeconomic status. If, on the other hand, gender is viewed as contributing to the majority of delinquent behaviors, then a closer look at the roles that are encouraged in society becomes an important factor.

Since males commit more delinquent acts than females, a preventive measure would entail focusing upon males. As an example of ethnicity- and gender-based solutions, midnight basketball was promoted in the 1990s as a means of decreasing incidents of delinquency (Hartmann, 2001). Its primary intent was to keep adolescents off the streets at night by keeping them occupied, and its target group was inner-city, African American males. Initially seen as a means of addressing crime in the inner city, this program came under intense criticism by its opponents for being racist, as it was directed toward a single ethnic group, and ineffective, as there was a lack of supporting evidence for minimizing delinquency.

From its inception, our juvenile justice system has viewed juvenile delinquency as a problem that, at its heart, is one of redemption and restoration. Our society views the young as easily influenced, adaptable, and with many years of productive life ahead of them. Unlike the criminal justice system with its primary purpose as retribution, there is a separate juvenile justice system with an entirely different purpose of rehabilitation, although arguably this has changed over recent years toward a more retributive system. As society has witnessed many horrific crimes, such as the school shootings of Columbine and Virginia Tech, there has come to be a growing concern that perhaps youth should be treated as adults. By moving these youth to adult courts, society has, in effect, made a decision to move away from the rehabilitation model and into that of retribution. This movement toward a retributive model is illustrated by the changes in the laws that have lowered the age under which juveniles can be transferred to adult courts, the addition of crimes for which underage youth can be charged, and the modification of prior-record provisions (DeFrances & Strom, 1997). Under these circumstances, society has determined that the seriousness of the crime demands that justice be served regardless of the age of the perpetrator. There are those in the juvenile justice system who would argue that although juveniles may understand the serious nature of their act, they do not have full and clear comprehension as to the meaning of their criminal act.

There is a real need for anthropologists to pursue cross-cultural research in delinquency. There are two primary reasons to pursue this line of research: (1) to provide a better understanding of the transmission of cultural norms including delinquency from one culture to another, and (2) to study delinquency as defined by differing social groups. The benefits would include lowering delinquency rates through an understanding of its causes, increasing the understanding of cultural definitions related to norm violation, and finally providing credible research to influence social policy.