Dana L Haynie. 21st Century Criminology: A Reference Handbook. Editor: J Mitchell Miller. Sage Publications, 2009.
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 chapter 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Despite the large body of research documenting the role of peer influence in adolescent delinquency, research on the role of delinquent peers has been limited in three important ways. First, past research has used a less than precise definition of the friendship group in which normative influence is believed to occur. Most studies in the criminology literature examining the effect of peer influence on delinquency have simply asked adolescents to think about their friends in general and to report whether their friends have participated in a particular illegal behavior or set of illegal behaviors. As a result of this strategy, it is unclear who was included in adolescents’ definition of “friends.” For instance, the number of friends considered is unknown. In addition, no information on prosocial individuals (i.e., friends who abstain from crime/delinquency) has been collected.
Second, problematic measures of peer influence have been used. For the most part, past research has relied on adolescents’ perceptions of friends’ behavior. Therefore, the standard approach to measuring peer delinquency contains a same-source bias that substantially inflates similarity in behavior between peers. In almost all criminological studies, information about friends comes from adolescents’ descriptions of the behavior of their friends instead of from those friends’ reports of their own behavior. Such measures inflate the similarity in behavior between adolescents and their peers, because people tend to project their own attitudes and behavior onto their friends, a phenomenon social psychologists refer to as assumed similarity or projection. Although such findings have led several scholars to caution against the use of adolescents’ reports about peers, there has been limited recognition of this problem in research on crime and deviance. Such findings show that there is some truth in Gottfredson and Hirschi’s (1990) argument that adolescents’ reports of their peers’ delinquency “may merely be another measure of self-reported delinquency” (p. 157).
Third, prior research has neglected to consider the role of the structural properties of friendship relations. By overlooking the structure of friendship networks, past research has assumed that everyone in the friendship network is affected by friends’ behavior similarly. This is an oversimplification of network processes because it overlooks the adolescent’s position within the network (e.g., central vs. peripheral), the cohesiveness of the network (i.e., the interconnections among network members), and the adolescent’s prestige (e.g., popularity) within the network. These structural characteristics shape the degree to which adolescents are influenced by group dynamics.
Fortunately, recent work on social networks and network analyses has begun to make its way into the work of researchers interested in understanding peer processes as they relate to adolescent crime and delinquency. Much of this recent work has been spurred by the availability of a new novel data set, The Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (hereafter, Add Health), which allows researchers to overcome the limitations just described (for use of the Add Health data, see, e.g., Haynie, 2002). The advantage of these data is that they can be used to incorporate a social network perspective to elaborate on the normative influence process believed to generate peer similarity among friends. Specifically, a network perspective is guided by the assumption that the behaviors exhibited by network members, as well as the structure of the network, have important consequences for understanding subsequent behavior. In the context of delinquency, this suggests that exposure to proor anti-delinquent behaviors will depend upon the structure of the network, the adolescent’s position within the network, and the behaviors exhibited in the network
In addition, and in contrast to past measurement strategies, a network perspective offers a more desirable measurement strategy whereby the friendship network is carefully mapped out, responses about behaviors come directly from the friends’ perspectives, and network homogeneity and structure are considered. The beginning point of network studies involves asking adolescents both to describe their own behavior and to identify their friends. The second step involves locating and interviewing the friends, with the friends describing their own behavior and then identifying their friends, and so on. In a best-case scenario, all adolescents and friends in the population of adolescents provide this information. This allows for the links among friends to be established for the purposes of constructing analytical friendship networks with identifiable structural properties and allows researchers to measure friends’ behavior based on the actual responses of friends themselves.
Add Health Data
Part of the reason the effects of friendship networks on adolescents’ delinquency has received less attention than it deserves is that the necessary data have not been available. Understanding social networks’ influence on adolescent delinquency requires detailed data on the structure of friendship networks within a school, for many different schools. Until recently, the only data that approached these stringent requirements came from Coleman’s (1961) landmark study of social relationship among high school students in the 1960s. Fortunately, more recent data are now available.
Add Health is a nationally representative sample of adolescents in Grades 7 through 12 located within randomly selected schools in the United States in 1995-1996. The innovative design of this sample, in particular its emphasis on the effects of multiple contexts of adolescents’ lives, allows for an examination of the causes of adolescent health and health behavior (including delinquency) that goes considerably beyond prior research.
Adolescents were included in the Add Health study on the basis of a sampling design that stratified schools by region, urbanicity, school type, ethnic mix, and size. This is important because, when used properly, these data allow findings to be generalized to all adolescents enrolled and attending middle and senior high schools in the United States. In addition, the data are longitudinal and currently consist of three waves of data: an initial in-school questionnaire followed by three in-home surveys conducted in 1995, 1996, and 2002.
Information collected in the in-school questionnaire is the critical component of the study for network analyses, because this is where the friendship networks of schoolage adolescents are measured. In the initial in-school survey administered in 1994-1995, all students attending school on the day of the self-administered questionnaire in each of 132 high schools and middle schools were surveyed. This sample is the basis for the construction of the measures of friendship network characteristics. To tie all of the students together in the schools, researchers asked each student who filled out the in-school questionnaire to nominate up to 5 of his or her closest female and 5 of his or her closest male friends (for a maximum of 10 friends). They identified their friends by name from school rosters and entered a corresponding identification number. Because each student in the school was interviewed, global networks (i.e., school networks connecting all students in the school) were re-created. The behaviors of friends nominated by the adolescent, as well as those friends who nominated the adolescent, were matched to the adolescent’s record, allowing a unique opportunity to assess the actual effect of friends’ behaviors.
Friendship networks can be defined in various ways using the Add Health data. For instance, it is possible to define the network as consisting of those adolescents who reciprocate the friendship nomination (i.e., the friendship network contains only adolescents whose friendship ties sent to others are reciprocated), as containing only those nominations sent to others (i.e., including only those friends that the adolescent nominates), as containing only those nominations received from others (i.e., including as friends those adolescents in the school who nominated the adolescent as a friend), or as including both ties sent and received (i.e., defining the friendship network as including all of those friends the adolescent nominated as well as those adolescents in the school who nominated the adolescent in the school). In addition to examining characteristics of the adolescent’s friendship network (including behavior, demographics, and structure), these data make it possible to measure characteristics of the overall school network in which the adolescent’s friendship network is located.
Following the in-school questionnaire, in-home surveys were administered to a smaller sample of adolescents selected from school rosters and involved a longer series of questions, including items concerning more serious delinquency involvement. By the time of the third wave of data collection, the sample was approaching young adulthood (i.e., between the ages of 18 and 26). Unfortunately, network information for all students was available only during the initial in-school questionnaire. However, for a small number of schools, network data are available for two points in time. Because of Add Health’s interest in social networks, there were 12 schools from which all enrolled students were selected for the in-home interviews (instead of a random sample). The 12 schools (2 very large schools and 10 small schools) have various characteristics, including location in rural and urban areas, designation as public and private schools, and differing degrees of ethnic heterogeneity. In this saturated sample, all adolescents in these schools were interviewed in depth in their homes. In addition to answering a series of questions relating to involvement in serious delinquency, students in these schools also nominated their closest friends at two points in time (during the first and second in-home interviews). These data, therefore, provide a unique opportunity to study the effect of peer influence processes over time. More information on the Add Health data design can be found at the following Web site: http://www.cpc.unc.edu/projects/addhealth/design.
Although much is known about the relationships between delinquency and friends’ behavior, only a few studies present detailed information on friendship characteristics among delinquent adolescents. Warr (1996) examined specific features of delinquent subgroups, such as group organization and the instigator role within groups, and determined that the structure of the group, not an individual’s attributes, affects which individual instigates delinquency. Results from his study also indicate that groups are more specialized in terms of delinquency involvement than individuals tend to be, so that most delinquent offenders belong to multiple groups, with each group specializing in a smaller range of offenses. This latter finding also highlights the multifaceted nature of peer groups; individuals in school settings can be members of many different friendship groups and face differing degrees of constraint depending on whether the behavior, norms, and values of the group coincide or diverge. This is consistent with Dunphy’s (1963) finding that most adolescents do not belong to a single, densely knit, isolated friendship group but instead are affiliated with many loosely bounded friendship groups with varying degrees of cohesion and permeability.
Although delinquency is largely a group behavior, there is evidence that some offenses are more likely to occur in groups than others. For instance, offenses including the use of alcohol and marijuana and vandalism are more likely to be committed in groups compared with offenses such as assault and shoplifting, which are among the offenses least likely to be committed in groups (Warr, 1996).
The nature of friendship relations in delinquent versus nondelinquent networks has also been developed in two influential studies. Giordano, Cernkovich, and Pugh (1986) found that various dimensions of friendship relations do not differ markedly between delinquent and nondelinquent adolescents. Both delinquent and nondelinquent youth report similar levels of attachment, intimacy, and contact with friends. Kandel and Davies (1991) also found few differences in the quality of friendship relationships among adolescents who did and did not use illicit drugs.
Despite original emphasis on the importance of exposure to definitions or attitudes favorable to law violation, prior research has consistently indicated that attitude transference is not the primary mechanism through which friends influence one another; instead, adolescents appear more influenced by the behaviors of friends than they are by friends’ attitudes toward crime (Warr & Stafford, 1991). Consistent with social learning explanations of peer influence, these findings suggest that imitation of friends’ behavior and direct reinforcement of behavior by friends are most important (Akers, 1985).
Even though the studies just described are important for considering the role of peer relationships for adolescent delinquency, they were not able to draw on detailed social network data to ask more varied questions about the role of friendship networks. To do this, work using the detailed friendship networks available in the Add Health data has begun.
Recent work by Haynie illustrates some of the beginning questions that researchers interested in adolescent delinquency can address using network data available from Add Health. A popular issue in the field of criminology has been trying to understand whether adolescents select into delinquent peer groups on the basis of their own behavior (as Gottfredson & Hirschi, 1990, suggested), supporting the common adage that birds of a feather flock together. If this idea is true, then friendship networks should exhibit predominately delinquent or nondelinquent behavior. This, therefore, raises the question: Do adolescents have homogeneous networks in terms of the delinquency of their friends?
Using friendship network information available in the Add Health and a dichotomous measure of delinquency (1 = yes, adolescent engaged in some delinquency during the past year; 0 = no delinquency reported), Haynie (2002) found that adolescents are located in rather heterogeneous networks in terms of the display of delinquent behavior; that is, the most common pattern is for adolescents to have both delinquent and nondelinquent friends in their friendship networks. Specifically, she found that 56% of adolescents are in a mixed network, with both delinquent and nondelinquent peers; 28% are in an entirely delinquent network; and 16% are in an entirely nondelinquent network.
These findings suggest that peer networks are much more heterogeneous in terms of exposure to delinquent friends. Although there is some evidence that delinquents cluster together, most adolescents in schools have both delinquent and nondelinquent friends in their networks of close acquaintances. This is an important finding that is at odds with Gottfredson and Hirschi’s (1990) assertion that self-selection is entirely responsible for the peer-delinquency association, because the assumption is that there are clearly delineated delinquent or nondelinquent networks that adolescents choose to join. Instead, most adolescents are exposed to both delinquent and nondelinquent patterns, and the ratio of these patterns influences behavior. When friendship networks contain access to both delinquent and nondelinquent friends, the network may be less effective in providing clear behavioral guidelines, cohesive norms, and consistent values regarding behavioral expectations.
A second common question concerns whether peer delinquency influences subsequent behavior or instead results from selection processes or the tendency for adolescents to project their own behaviors onto the peers whom they think of as their friends. The Add Health data provide a unique opportunity to address this question, because, as discussed earlier, the methodological structure permits the careful definition of friendship networks. With this approach, results based on the Add Health data suggest that peer delinquency is associated with an adolescent’s subsequent delinquency, controlling for prior delinquency; however, the effect is much smaller than that estimated by prior research that did not incorporate a network method and perspectives (Haynie & Osgood, 2005). This finding suggests that relying on adolescents’ perceptions of friends’ behavior does introduce substantial same-source bias that inflates the correlation between friends’ and adolescents’ behavior.
Third, recent work has been able to ask whether network characteristics condition the strength of the peer—delinquency association. In addition to measures of network behaviors, Add Health data allow for assessment of the structure of peer networks and the location of an adolescent’s position within the friendship network. Three network characteristics in particular appear to shape the degree of influence operating in a friendship network: (1) the density of ties within the network indicating how cohesive the network is, (2) the centrality of the adolescent’s position in the network, and (3) the popularity of the adolescent within the network. Specifically, it is expected that peer delinquency will have a stronger influence on an adolescent’s behavior when the friendship network is very dense (i.e., the adolescent’s friends are friends with one another), when the adolescent is located in a central position (vs. a peripheral position at the edge of the network), or when the adolescent has high prestige in the network (i.e., when he or she is very popular and receives many friendship nominations from others in the school). Findings based on the Add Health data suggest that this is indeed the case. In particular, network density emerges as an important component of the peer-delinquency association, with very cohesive networks promoting greater influence than networks that are less cohesive (Haynie, 2001).
If delinquency is largely a group phenomenon, then what would we expect to find in regard to delinquent behavior for adolescents who are isolated from peers? This is the interesting question that Kreager (2004) tackled using Add Health data. Theories reviewed earlier in this chapter suggest competing hypotheses about these isolated individuals. According to socialization theories (differential association and social learning), isolated adolescents will have limited access to delinquent role models and, as a result, are expected to engage in low or no amount of delinquency. In contrast, social control theory would expect that the lack of attachment to friends would result in individuals who are more inclined to act on their delinquent impulses. Kreager’s results indicate that although isolation from peer friendships is a rare event (less than 5% of the sample were friendless), its relationship to delinquency is more nuanced than socialization or social control theories would predict. Isolates who do not report peer trouble have very low levels of delinquency; however, isolates who also report peer conflict are likely to report higher levels of delinquency. Therefore, the effect of peer isolation on delinquency depends on whether adolescents report peer conflict.
In addition to facilitating examination of the peer—delinquency association, the Add Health data allow researchers to examine network behaviors and network structures as important mediating variables in explaining outcomes of interest (e.g., delinquency). For instance, in the criminology literature, there has been a common finding that girls who experience pubertal development earlier than their peers are at increased risk of engaging in subsequent delinquent behavior. One reason for this increased risk is the differing peer networks in which more developed versus less developed females find themselves. In particular, research using the Add Health data has found that females who experience pubertal development earlier than their peers do have higher levels of delinquency 1 year later, but this is because these girls are at heightened risk of being involved in romantic relationships and because their friends are engaging in risky behaviors (Haynie, 2003). This suggests that peer networks serve as a mechanism that differently place certain groups of adolescents at heightened risk of problem behaviors.
This chapter highlights some of the research questions that have addressed the relationship between peer networks and delinquency, but it is also important to consider future research directions that need to be explored further.
Although this chapter has emphasized the important context of adolescent friendships, future research would benefit greatly by incorporating multiple dimensions of potential influence. In particular, the delinquency involvement of other key individuals in youths’ networks, such as romantic partners, siblings, parents, and neighbors, may add to our understanding of influence processes. Because research has highlighted the importance of competing prosocial and deviant friendships that make up the bulk of adolescents’ friendships, it likely that other influential persons beyond friends could tilt the ratio of definitions favorable versus unfavorable to delinquency involvement. Incorporating these multiple contexts of adolescents’ lives into future analyses would also increase our understanding of the relative risk factors that adolescents face and potentially provide avenues toward reducing these risk factors.
Comparing the strength of influence across relational contexts also can provide unique insight into adolescents’ overall susceptibility to delinquent patters. One example of research that incorporated romantic partner behavior is that by Haynie, Giordano, Manning, and Longmore (2005), which shows that romantic partners’ delinquency exerts a unique effect on adolescents’ delinquency, over and beyond that of friends’ delinquency and control variables. In addition, recent work has compared the influence of “best friends” to that of youth considered “close friends” (Weerman & Smeenk, 2005). Taking this further, it would be interesting to also consider influence deriving from that of the overall school network in which adolescents are enmeshed. Along these lines, future research could identify the most popular students in the school to determine whether their behavior is especially influential for other individuals located in the school (who may or may not be tied to the most popular students).
Future research should also consider whether and how peer influence varies across demographic groups, such as by gender and race. On the basis of studies of homophily in friendship choice and evidence that race is one of the most important characteristics that influences which friendships form, we might expect to find that African American youth are more likely to be found in mixed networks where definitions toward delinquency are less clearcut. In terms of susceptibility to delinquency by race, prior evidence suggests mixed findings. In terms of gender, research suggests that although girls place more emphasis on close friendships incorporating intimacy and closeness than do boys, there is some evidence that boys are more susceptible to peer influence (Giordano et al., 1986). Other research suggests that gender differences in peer influence depend on the sex composition of the friendship network (Haynie, Steffensmeier, & Bell, 2007).
Another avenue for future research involves incorporating the school and neighborhood context to better understand how social environments make unique contributions to the levels and severity of delinquency found among individuals and in their networks. Neighborhood and school environments are especially likely to determine the exposure adolescents have to prosocial or delinquent others. In addition, school factors such as school size, school disciplinary practices, school climate, school resources, and school policies such as tracking are likely to produce environments more or less conducive to delinquency and/or to place delinquent youth in closer proximity to other delinquent youth. This information would allow researchers to ask whether delinquent behavior among friends is more likely to occur in disadvantaged or disorganized schools, for example.
In addition, researchers may be interested in whether and how characteristics of the overall global school network (e.g., the density of ties, the racial heterogeneity of ties) influence levels of delinquency in the school. For instance, this type of information can be used to identify school characteristics that are most likely to suppress delinquency and/or violent behavior in the school, reduce the transmission of delinquent behavior, and/or decrease opportunities for high-risk youth to cluster together. In sum, future research should pay more explicit attention to the ways that neighborhoods and schools shape adolescent friendship networks, which in turn provide the contexts in which peer influences appear to flourish.
Future research should begin to examine how friendship networks and behavior change over time in school contexts. For example, researchers should consider the question of what predicts the dissolution of friendship ties over time. According to socialization theories, an individual’s behavior is shaped by the group norms to which youth are exposed. In the case of friendships, what happens when the behavior in question is not displayed by all members of the group? The normative influence process could sway the group’s behavior in favor of or against the behavior in question. Perhaps there is a tipping point at which it becomes more likely for the group to adapt the behavior in question or members who are not displaying the behavior to select out of the group (i.e., the tie is dissolved). These are interesting questions that could be addressed using longitudinal network data available.
Finally, future research needs to attempt to identify the mechanisms responsible for transmitting peer behavior to individuals. Although socialization theories suggest a variety of mechanisms that are potentially responsible, research has yet to clearly identify the specific ways that networks influence behavior. For instance, does the effect of peers on subsequent behavior result from social capital generated in the group, the modeling of group processes, increased opportunities for delinquency, deterrence factors, or a mixture of these mechanisms? Precise identification of the mechanism underlying behavioral similarity may require a different methodological approach.
The purpose of this chapter was to elucidate the importance of peers and peer networks for understanding adolescent delinquency and crime. The network framework described in this chapter emphasizes the social connections among adolescents that goes considerably beyond prior research, which has viewed individuals as essentially separate from their social structure. Instead, the purpose here was to demonstrate the need for a network reformulation of the peer—delinquency association that incorporates characteristics of the friendship network in which adolescents are enmeshed.
As this chapter illustrates, not all adolescents are influenced to the same degree by their peer associations and, when the patterning of relationships between adolescents provides more opportunities for interactions among members (e.g., when the friendship network contains a higher proportion of delinquent youth or the network is very cohesive), peer delinquency plays a larger role in the adolescent’s own delinquency behavior. This positioning in the peer network provides different opportunities for peer interaction, resulting in varying exposure to delinquent behavioral models, communication of delinquent norms, access to information on delinquent opportunities, and opportunities for rewards or deterrents to delinquency.
Because research using network methods and data has found that the average adolescent is exposed to both delinquent and nondelinquent friends and that adolescents’ own delinquency level is associated with the proportion of delinquent friends in the network, any intervention policies that bring delinquent youth together for targeted intervention may have unintended negative consequences. For instance, these policies are likely to exacerbate problem behavior if social influence occurs and deviancy training takes place in these settings (see, e.g., Dishion, Spracklen, Andrews, & Patterson, 1996). Although network studies of adolescents are more costly to implement, the findings emerging from such research suggest that interventions are more likely to succeed (i.e., to reduce problem behaviors) if they are able to minimize exposure to delinquent peers.
In addition, identifying adolescents most at risk of being influenced by peer dynamics and/or transmitting delinquent behavior to others can be useful information for policies aimed at reducing delinquent behaviors, because they can help to identify where school resources may have the greatest impact. For instance, it may be important not only to target delinquent peer networks but also to focus on the delinquent peer networks in which density is high or in which adolescents are located in central positions.
In sum, the approach of identifying and examining peer social networks provides a coherent and promising framework for investigating a variety of ways that peers shape and influence adolescent involvement in delinquency and crime. This conclusion is consistent with the current emphasis on the significance of social contexts (e.g., neighborhood, school) and suggests that an important context with important implications for adolescents’ behavior is the peer networks in which youth are embedded.