Academic journal article
By Sullivan, Richard; Wilson, Marcia Fenner
Adolescence , Vol. 30, No. 117
The literature describing various approaches to the prevention, control, and treatment of delinquency can be differentiated according to the theories of causation which shaped them; that is, the focus of intervention differs according to the theoretical view of the causes of delinquency. At various times, these theories have emphasized physiological and psychological characteristics of the individual or the structure of the family within the broader social structure itself or within an integrated complex of factors which includes community characteristics.
Over several decades, numerous investigators have found statistically significant relationships between crime and certain inherited and biologically identifiable characteristics such as skull formation, body type, chromosomal abnormalities, and glandular or neurological anomalies (Klein, 1971). One by one these single variable explanations were dropped because they failed to explain the diversity of causal pathways and outcomes among juvenile delinquents.
A contemporary view, including that of the present researchers, favors the concept of an integrated complex of causal factors within which individual, familial, and social structural factors may exert variable influence on a case by case basis. This is a more challenging approach, requiring more rigorous and comprehensive assessment and intervention, but it avoids the limitations and pitfalls of single variable explanations. This article reviews the various approaches which have dominated the field over the last few decades and presents current thinking about the multiple factors which must be considered in research on delinquency; it then concludes with a methodological proposal which may facilitate the systematic consideration of these factors.
Individual and Family Theories
Psychology has been contributing to delinquency research throughout the past century. According to Binder and Binder (1983), the earliest period of exploration emphasized individual psychological characteristics of delinquents, with particular emphasis on intelligence (Goddard, 1915; Burt, 1925; Hathaway & Monachesi, 1957; Conger, 1966). Goddard began by arguing that mental deficiency was the major cause of delinquency. Later developments amended that view to distinguish between deficits in intelligence and specific maladaptive accommodations to learning disabilities. Perlmutter (1987), for example, postulated that delinquent behavior results from the learning disabled student's attempts to compensate for academic failure and frustration.
Social learning theory has contributed the view that social skills deficits are possible causes of delinquent behavior. Long and Sherer (1984) suggest that delinquents behave maladaptively while seeking to attain conventional goals because they lacks the requisite skills to act appropriately.
Besides intellectual and social skills deficits, personality characteristics are often noted as factors. Spergel (1966) describes the root cause of delinquency as a weak ego arising from ineffective or destructive family relationships. These youths are therefore unable to trust and establish productive relationships with adults. They experience low self-esteem, personal conflict, and a high level of anxiety. "Delinquent or predelinquent behavior is ordinarily regarded as neurotic, the effort of a defective ego to 'strike back' at society, i.e., adults and peers, for personal failures. Delinquency is relevant strictly to the individual and the group and the community are only back-drops or peripheral forces contributing to the problem" (Spergel, 1966, p. 55). This perspective turned to the family for an explanation of the conflict.
For some time, researchers and practitioners have assigned a critical role to the family in the development or prevention of delinquency (Tolan, Cromwell, & Brusswell, 1986). based on the tenets of socialization theory, this perspective emphasizes the family's role in helping children adjust to the demands and opportunities of their social environment. …