Juvenile Delinquency, Theories of

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The topic of juvenile delinquency is a fertile area for construction of sociological theory. Three major sociological traditions, including structural functionalism, symbolic interactionism, and conflict theory, contribute to the explanation of delinquency. Much of the work in this area seeks to explain why officially recorded delinquency is concentrated in the lower class, or in what is today more often called the underclass. This entry considers the most prominent theories of delinquency under the theoretical rubrics noted above.


Structural-functional theories regard delinquent behavior as the consequence of strains or breakdowns in the social processes that produce conformity. These theories focus on institutions, such as the family and school, that socialize individuals to conform their behavior to values of the surrounding society and on the ways in which these institutions can fail in this task. Wide agreement or consensus is assumed about which behaviors are valued and disvalued in society. The question structural-functional theories try to answer is: Why do many individuals during their adolescence behave in ways that challenge this consensus? That is, why do many adolescents violate behavioral norms that nearly all of us are assumed to hold in common?

Anomie Theory. The roots of functional theory are found in Durkheim's notion of anomie ([1897] 1951). To Durkheim, this term meant an absence of social regulation, or normlessness. Merton (1938, 1957) revived the concept to describe the consequences of a faulty relationship between goals and the legitimate means of attaining them. Merton emphasized two features of social and cultural structure: culturally defined goals (such as monetary success) and the acceptable means (such as education) to their achievement. Merton argued that in our society success goals are widely shared, while the means of or opportunities for attaining them are not.

Merton's theory is used to explain not only why individual adolescents become delinquents but also why some classes are characterized by more delinquency than others. Since members of the lower- or underclass are assumed to be most affected by the disparity between the goals and the means of attaining success, this class is expected to have a higher rate of delinquent behavior. Merton outlined a number of ways individuals adapt when faced with inadequate means of attaining their goals. Among these, innovation revolves substituting illegitimate for legitimate means to goal attainment; it is the resort to this adaptation that is thought to account for much theft among adolescents from the underclass.

Subcultural Theory. Group-based adaptations to the failure to attain success goals involve the delinquent subculture. Cohen (1955) suggests that children of the underclass, and potential members of a delinquent subculture, first experience a failure to achieve when they enter school. When assessed against a "middle-class measuring rod," these children are often found lacking. A result is a growing sense of "status frustration." Underclass children are simply not prepared by their earliest experiences to satisfy middle-class expectations. The delinquent subculture therefore emerges as an alternative set of criteria or values that underclass adolescents can meet.

Cohen argues that these subcultural values represent a complete repudiation of middle-class standards: the delinquent subculture expresses contempt for a middle-class lifestyle by making its opposite a criterion of prestige. The result, according to Cohen, is a delinquent subculture that is "nonutilitarian, malicious, and negativistic"—an inversion, of middle-class values. Yet this is only one possible type of subcultural reaction to the frustration of failure. As we see next, many subcultural responses are elaborated in the theoretical tradition of structural functionalism.

Differential Opportunity Theory. Cloward and Ohlin (1960) argue that to understand the different forms that delinquent and ultimately criminal behavior can take, we must consider the different types of illegitimate opportunities available to those who seek a way out of the underclass and where these opportunities lead. Different types of community settings produce different subcultural responses. Cloward and Ohlin suggest that three types of responses predominate, each one leading to its own respective subculture: a stable criminal subculture, a conflict subculture, and a retreatist subculture.

The stable criminal subculture offers, as its name suggests, the most promising (albeit still illegitimate) prospects for upward economic mobility. According to Cloward and Ohlin, this subculture can emerge only when there is some coordination between those in legitimate and in illegitimate roles—for example, between politicians or police and the underworld. One pictures the old-style political machine, with protection provided for preferred types of illegal enterprise. Only in such circumstances can stable patterns be established, allowing opportunities for advancement from adolescent to adult levels of the criminal underworld. When legitimate and illegitimate opportunity structures are linked in this way, the streets become safe for crime, and reliable upward-mobility routes can emerge for aspiring criminals.

Violence and conflict, on the other hand, disrupt both legitimate and illegitimate enterprise. When both types of enterprises coexist, violence is restrained. However, in the "disorganized slum," where these spheres of activity are not linked, violence can reign uncontrolled. Cloward and Ohlin see these types of communities as producing a conflict subculture. A result of this disorganization is the prevalence of adolescent street gangs and their violent activities, making the streets unsafe for more profitable crime.

The retreatist subculture includes adolescents who fail in their efforts in both the legitimate and illegitimate opportunity structures. These "double failures" are destined for drug abuse and other forms of escape.

Cloward and Ohlin's theory played a role in encouraging the Kennedy and Johnson administrations of the 1960s to organize the American War on Poverty, which attempted to open up legitimate opportunities for youth and minorities in the underclass (see Moynihan 1969). However, another important variant of structural-functional theory argued that the most important cause of delinquency was not a strain between goals and means but rather a relative absence of goals, values, commitments, and other sources of social control.

Social Disorganization Theory. The earliest North American efforts to explain crime and delinquency in terms of social control focused on the absence of social bonds at the community level. Entire neighborhoods were seen as being socially disorganized, as lacking the cohesion and constraint that could prevent crime and delinquency. This work began in the late 1920s, when Clifford Shaw and Henry McKay (1931, 1942) sought to identify areas of Chicago that were experiencing social disorganization. They explored the process that characterized these communities. What they found were indications of what they assumed to be social disorganization—truancy, tuberculosis, infant mortality, mental disorder, economic dependency, adult crime, and juvenile delinquency. In Chicago, the rates of these conditions were highest in the slums near the city center; they diminished in areas farther away from the center. Since these problems were assumed to be contrary to the shared values of area inhabitants, they were taken as indications that these areas were unable to realize the goals of their residents. In other words, they were taken as indicators of social disorganization.

Shaw and McKay also attempted to determine the sorts of community characteristics that were correlated with delinquency so that they could infer from these characteristics what the central components of social disorganization were and how they caused delinquency. Three types of correlates were identified: the economic status of the community, the mobility of community residents, and community heterogeneity. The implication was that poverty, high residential mobility, and ethnic heterogeneity led to a weakening of social bonds or controls and, in turn, to high rates of delinquency. All of this was being said of the neighborhoods Shaw and McKay studied; it was left to later theories to spell out the meaning of weakened neighborhood bonds or controls for individuals.

Control Theory. At the level of individuals, to have neither goals nor means is to be uncommitted and thus uncontrolled. Hirschi (1969) has argued that the absence of control is all that really is required to explain much delinquent behavior. There are other types of controls (besides commitment to conformity) that may also operate: involvement in school and other activities; attachments to friends, school, and family; and belief in various types of values and principles. Hirschi argues that delinquent behavior is inversely related to the presence of these controls. Alternatively, as these controls accumulate, so too does conformity. According to control theory, the more committed, attached, involved, and believing individuals are, the greater is their bond to society. Again, Hirschi's point is that no special strain between goals and means is necessarily required to produce delinquent behavior; all that is required is the elimination of the constraining elements of the social bond.

In each of the theories that we have considered thus far, values or beliefs play some role in causing delinquency. It is argued that the presence of success goals or values without the means to obtain them can produce deviant behavior, as can the absence of these goals or values in the first place. It is an emphasis on these values, and the role of the school and family in transmitting them, that ties the structural-functional theories together.


Symbolic-interactionist theories of delinquency are concerned less with values than with the way in which social meanings and definitions can help produce delinquent behavior. The assumption, of course, is that these meanings and definitions, these symbolic variations, affect behavior. Early versions of symbolic-interactionist theories focused on how adolescents acquired these meanings and definitions from others, especially peers; more recently, theorists have focused on the role of official control agencies, especially the police and courts, in imposing these meanings and definitions on adolescents. The significance of this difference in focus will become apparent as we consider the development of the symbolic-interactionist tradition.

Differential Association Theory. Edwin Sutherland (1939, 1949) anticipated an emphasis of the symbolic-interactionist perspective with his early use of the concept of differential association. This concept referred not only to associations among people but also, and perhaps even more important, to associations among ideas. Sutherland's purpose was to develop a general theory that explained delinquency as well as adult criminality. He argued that people violate laws only when they define such behavior as acceptable and that there is an explicit connection between people and their ideas (that is, definitions). So, for example, delinquent behavior is "learned in association with those who define such behavior favorably and in isolation from those who define it unfavorably," and this behavior occurs when "the weight of the favorable definitions exceeds the weight of the unfavorable definitions."

Although Sutherland intended his theory to be general and explicitly to include the explanation of delinquency, his best-known applications of the theory were in his famous studies of professional theft and white-collar crime. Nonetheless, Sutherland's emphasis on white-collar illegality was important for the study of delinquency because it stressed the ubiquity of criminality, and, as we see next, it helped to mitigate delinquency theory's preoccupation with underclass delinquency.

Neutralization Theory. While most of the theories we have considered to this point portray the delinquent, especially the underclass delinquent, as markedly different from "the rest of us," Sykes and Matza (1957, 1961) follow Sutherland's lead in suggesting that the similarities actually outnumber the differences. Their argument is based in part on the observation that underclass delinquents, like white-collar criminals, usually exhibit guilt or shame when detected violating the law.

Sutherland had argued that individuals become white-collar criminals because they are immersed with their colleagues in a business ideology that defines illegal business practices as acceptable. Sykes and Matza (1957) argue that the delinquent, much like the white-collar criminal, drifts into a deviant lifestyle through a subtle process of justification. "We call these justifications of deviant behavior techniques of neutralization," they write, "and we believe these techniques make up a crucial component of Sutherland's definitions favorable to the violation of law" (p. 667).

Sykes and Matza list four of these neutralization techniques: denial of responsibility (e.g., blaming a bad upbringing), denial of injury (e.g., claiming that the victim deserved it), condemnation of the condemners (e.g., calling their condemnation discriminatory), and an appeal to higher loyalties (e.g., citing loyalty to friends or family as the cause of the behavior). Sykes and Matza's point is that delinquency in the underclass, as elsewhere, is facilitated by this kind of thinking. A question lingered, however: Why are these delinquencies of the underclass more frequently made the subjects of official condemnation?

Labeling Theory. Franklin Tannenbaum (1938) anticipated a theoretical answer to this question. He pointed out that some aspects of juvenile delinquency—the play, adventure, and excitement—are a normal part of teenage street life and that, later in their lives, many nostalgically identify these activities as an important part of their adolescence. But others see such activities as a nuisance or as threatening, so they summon the police.

Tannenbaum's concern is that police intervention begins a process of change in the way the individuals and their activities are perceived. He suggests that there is a gradual shift from defining specific acts as evil to defining the individual as evil. Tannenbaum sees the individual's first contact with the law as the most consequential, referring to this event as a "dramatization of evil" that separates the child from his or her peers for specialized treatment. Tannenbaum goes on to argue that this dramatization may play a greater role in creating the criminal than any other experience. The problem is that individuals thus singled out may begin to think of themselves as the type of people who do such things—that is, as delinquents. From this viewpoint, efforts to reform or deter delinquent behavior create more problems than they solve. "The way out, "Tannenbaum argues, "is through a refusal to dramatize the evil." He implies that the less said or done about delinquency the better.

Sociologists have expanded Tannenbaum's perspective into what is often called a labeling, or societal reactions, theory of delinquency and other kinds of deviance. For example, Lemert (1967) suggests the terms primary deviance and secondary deviance to distinguish between acts that occur before and after the societal response. Acts of primary deviance are those that precede a social or legal response. They may be incidental or even random aspects of an individual's general behavior. The important point is that these initial acts have little impact on the individual's self-concept. Acts of secondary deviance, on the other hand, follow the societal response and involve a transformation of the individual's self-concept, "altering the psychic structure, producing specialized organization of social roles and self-regarding attitudes." From this point on, the individual takes on more and more of the "deviant" aspects of his or her new role (Becker 1963, 1964). The societal response has, from this viewpoint, succeeded only in confirming the individual in a deviant role; for example, by potentially making adolescent delinquents into adult criminals through the punitive reactions of the police, courts, and others.

In the end, symbolic interactionists do not insist that all or even most delinquent behavior is caused by officially imposed labels. Being labeled delinquent is thought, rather, to create special problems for the adolescents involved, often increasing the likelihood that this and related kinds of delinquent behavior will be repeated. The point is that not only the actor but also reactors participate in creating the meanings and definitions that generate-delinquency. The symbolic interactionists note that poor are more likely than the rich to get caught up in this process. This point is further emphasized in conflict theories.


The most distinctive features of conflict theories include attention to the role of power relations and economic contradictions in generating delinquency and reactions to it. For example, conflict theories have focused on the role of dominant societal groups in imposing legal labels on members of subordinate societal groups (Turk 1969). The fact that subcultural groups typically are also subordinate groups ties this work to earlier theoretical traditions discussed above.

An Early Group-Conflict Theory. George Vold (1958) was the first North American sociologist to write explicitly about a group-conflict theory of delinquency. He began with the assumption that criminality involves both human behavior (acts) and the judgments or definitions (laws, customs, or mores) of others as to whether specific behaviors are appropriate and acceptable or inappropriate and disreputable. Of the two components, Vold regarded judgments and definitions as more significant. His salient interest was in how groups impose their value judgments by defining the behaviors of others as illegal.

Vold regarded delinquency as a "minority group" behavior. For example, he argues that "the juvenile gang . . . is nearly always a 'minority group', out of sympathy with and in more or less direct opposition to the rules and regulations of the dominant majority, that is, the established world of adult values and powers" (p. 211). In this struggle, the police are seen as representing and defending the values of the adult world, while the gang seeks the symbolic and material advantages not permitted it under the adult code. At root, Vold argues, the problem is one of intergenerational value conflict, with adults prevailing through their control of the legal process.

A Theory of Legal Bureaucracy. According to this viewpoint, determining which groups in society will experience more delinquency than others may be largely a matter of deciding which laws will be enforced. Chambliss and Seidman (1971) observe that in modern, complex, stratified societies such as our own, we assign the task of resolving such issues to bureaucratically structured agencies such as the police. The result is to mobilize what might be called the primary principle of legal bureaucracy. According to this principle, laws will be enforced when enforcement serves the interests of social control agencies and their officials; and laws will not be enforced when enforcement is likely to cause organizational strain. In other words, the primary principle of legal bureaucracy involves maximizing organizational gains while minimizing organizational strains.

Chambliss and Seidman conclude that a consequence of this principle is to bring into operation a "rule of law," whereby "discretion at every level . . . will be so exercised as to bring mainly those who are politically powerless (e.g., the poor) into the purview of the law" (p. 268). Theoretical work of this kind coincided with important research on the policing of juveniles (e.g., Reiss 1971). According to the conflict theorists, poor minority youth appear disproportionately in our delinquency statistics more because of class bias and police and court prejudice than because of actual behavioral differences.

Recent Structural Theories. Some recent theories of delinquency have combined conflict theory's structural focus on power relations with etiological questions about sources of delinquent behavior as well as reactions to it. Thus Spitzer (1975) begins the formulation of a Marxian theory of delinquency (and deviance more generally) with the observation, "We must not only ask why specific members of the underclass are selected for official processing, but also why they behave as they do" (p. 640).

One effort to answer behavioral questions with insights from conflict theory is an "integrated structural-Marxist theory" proposed by Colvin and Pauly-(1983). This theory integrates elements of control theory and Marxian theory. The theory is comprehensive, and only some of its most striking features can be outlined here. These features include a Marxian focus on working-class parents' experiences of coerciveness in the workplace, which Colvin and Pauly suggest lead to coerciveness in parenting, including parental violence toward children. In turn, Colvin and Pauly argue that such children are more likely to be placed in coercive control structures at school and to enter into alliances with alienated peers. All of these experiences make delinquent behavior more likely, including the violent and instrumental kinds of delinquent behavior that may be precursors of adult criminality.

Power-control theory is another recent structural formulation (Hagan 1989) that attempts to explain large and persistent gender differences in delinquency by taking power relations into account. Power relations in the family are the starting point of this theory. The cornerstone of the theory is the observation that, especially in more patriarchal families, mothers more than fathers are involved in controlling daughters more than sons. A result of this intensified mother–daughter relationship is that daughters become less inclined to take what they perceive as greater risks of involvement in delinquency. Police and other processing agencies act on stereotypes that extend these gender differences in officially recorded delinquency. Power-control theory generally predicts that in more patriarchal families, sons will be subjected to less maternal control, develop stronger preferences for risk taking, be more delinquent, and more often be officially labeled for being so. More recently, this theory has been elaborated to emphasize that in less patriarchal families mothers may become more involved in the control of their sons and this can reduce their sons' involvement in risk taking and delinquency (McCarthy and Hagan 1999).

These structural approaches illustrate an ongoing trend toward theoretical integration in this tradition and elsewhere in the study of delinquency (e.g., Hagan and McCarthy 1997; Messner et al. 1989; Sampson and Wilson 1995; Tittle 1995). These integrations involve theories that are often thought to be in apposition if not opposition to one another. Yet the trend toward integration in delinquency theory has been apparent for more than a decade, and it seems likely to continue.


Despite the richness of sociological theories of delinquency and the emerging sense of convergence among previously competing theoretical traditions, there is a new awareness that delinquency theories remain incomplete in their capacity to explain and sometimes even address basic micro- and macro-level questions. For example, a classic issue that persists despite its recognition is the question of why most delinquents discontinue their delinquency before or during their transition to adulthood. We know that most delinquents "age out" of deliquency, but we have not adequately explained why this happens (Hirschi and Gottfredson 1983). Our theories are much more attentive to why young people become delinquent than to why they stop being so.

A seemingly related but only more recently apparent question involves the decline since the early 1990s in the violent forms of delinquency, such as robbery and homicide, that we are best able to measure and monitor statistically over time. This trend is strikingly apparent as we head toward the millennium (see, e.g., Blumstein and Rosenfeld 1998). None of the prominent sociological theories of delinquency predicted or can easily account for this decline in violent delinquency. Again, our theories have focused more on increases in delinquency than on its decline. Sociological theories of delinquency confront new as well as continuing questions in the new century.

(see also: Crime, Theories of; Criminology; Juvenile Delinquency and Juvenile Crime)


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John Hagan