The Contribution of Self-Concept in the Etiology of Adolescent Delinquent

By Levy, Kenneth St. C. | Adolescence, Fall 1997 | Go to article overview
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The Contribution of Self-Concept in the Etiology of Adolescent Delinquent


Levy, Kenneth St. C., Adolescence


In the 1950s and 1960s, self-concept started being viewed as an important factor in the etiology of delinquency, with major theories being developed by Lemert (1951), Cohen (1955), and Reckless (1961). More recent theories with a "self" perspective have been proposed by Kaplan (1975), Braithwaite (1989), and Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990).

Lemert (1951) was concerned with the effect of social controls on delinquency. He looked at the consequences of arrest by police, court appearances, and confinement to an institution on remand or after sentence. He theorized that such actions label individuals, leading to acceptance of the fact that they are delinquent, which affects self-concept and behavior. Lemert also believed that contact with the juvenile justice system entrenches the delinquent self-concept in the young person's mind.

Cohen (1955) proposed that delinquency is an attempt to acquire status. He claimed the "strain" on those who could not gain access to society's desirable values or goals would result in lower self-concept, ostensibly because of the conflict experienced in the roles required of them by parents, teachers, and peers. Engaging in delinquent behavior would, according to Cohen, be consistent with subcultural norms and result in their acquiring a particular status, thereby giving consistency to and enhancing self-concept. His theory of delinquent gangs was based on these ideas also.

Reckless (1961) argued for a theory of socialization control, which combines sociological and psychological approaches to self-concept and delinquency. He suggested the development of self-control, together with positive self-concept, "ego strength" (e.g., delay of gratification), and tolerance for frustration, helps to guard against inclinations toward delinquency (Wells, 1978). Reckless's theory emphasizes psychological development (rather than socialization or interactions) and the role of inhibition (rather than motivation).

More recently, Kaplan has focused on esteem enhancement. The main tenet of his theory is that negative self-concept underpins delinquency; delinquency is merely a balancing response to self-concept deficiencies. Avoiding or rectifying negative self-concept is a primary motive of human beings, and engaging in antisocial behavior is a response that improves self-concept for some youths (Kaplan, 1975, 1977, 1978, 1980). The theory also provides for key self-evaluation factors for adolescents, in particular student performance, peer relationships, and family relationships. Self-concept has been shown to influence each of these, as well as the likelihood of delinquent behavior (Wells & Rankin 1983). This theory recognizes self-concept as the regulator of delinquency, rather than treating it as a cause or result of such behavior.

In control theory, the work of Reckless (1967) has been further developed by Hirschi (1969), who has argued that criminal behavior is exhibited when the degree of self-control is not sufficiently strong to reject the temptations of immediate rewards. In particular, the fundamental criterion that prevents delinquency is social bonding, particularly attachment to school and family (Wiatrowski et al., 1981; Matsueda, 1982). Hirschi's work has been amplified in a more detailed clinical analysis (Gottfredson & Hirschi, 1990). Findings indicated that those with low self-control tend to engage in activities that bring quick satisfaction of desires.

Braithwaite's "reintegrative shaming" borrows from a number of existing criminological theories, including labeling theory, control theory, and learning theory. Braithwaite (1989) has contended that punishment imposed on the delinquent leads to a cycle of shame, guilt, and expulsion, instead of a more effective cycle of shame, guilt, and reconstruction. This theory proposes a model that focuses on the interaction between individuals and society and highlights the effect on self-concept.

Personal Adjustment and Implications for Delinquency

The relationship between self-concept and personal psychological adjustment for adolescents is complex and strongly influential in determining behavior.

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