Societal Access Routes and Developmental Pathways: Putting Social Structure and Young People's Voice into the Analysis of Pathways into and out of Crime

Article excerpt

Central to pathways research is the analysis of the social processes involved in human action and the influences that have shaping qualities. At the heart of these social processes are human beings who exercise agency and help construct themselves and their environments. Shaping influences include changing social structures; political ideologies and policy innovations; and changes taking place in the cultural sphere of social life. In studying the actions of individuals within changing social environments it is important to make a distinction between individual developmental pathways and societal access mutes. Access routes appear in different forms to different people in terms of accessibility and attractiveness. Understanding this perceptual dimension requires listening to the voices of children and young people. This is illustrated by reference to the work of the United Kingdom (UK) Economic & Social Research Council (ESRC) research network, Pathways Into and Out of Crime, which shows how culture, structure and policy influence young people's everyday lives and decisions. It also shows that what young people really value is not programs but a supportive relationship with a nonjudgmental adult who is able to help them negotiate their way through difficult circumstances. The focus of prevention efforts should be on changing social arrangements to create opportunities and systems that facilitate the formation of such supportive structures.


The starting point for this article is our belief that western societies could do better in improving the developmental pathways of children and young people if more attention were paid to understanding and changing social arrangements that limit opportunities for participation in mainstream institutions. We propose, as a tool for thinking about how this might be done, the development of a sharper analytical distinction between the concepts of individual developmental pathways and social pathways or societal access routes (concepts also discussed by Jacqueline Goodnow, 2006; and Jeanette Lawrence, 2006). These concepts tend to intertwine in the literature, and it is often unclear whether change at the individual or at some structural level is being referred to (or whether both are meant in some sense). While the two concepts are indeed closely related, our contention is that longitudinal and prevention research has emphasised the study of individual pathways and behaviours to the detriment of research on social, cultural and political processes and the concomitant changes in social contexts that bear so directly on the lives of children and young people. Improvement in the wellbeing of individuals is always the bottom line, but sustainable individual change is underpinned by structural or cultural change that opens up new routes to social participation and hence new possibilities for individual development.

We also propose that our understanding of these processes could be greatly improved if we listened more to what children and young people have to tell us about their experiences of developmental pathways. Such an approach is not new to social science (James & Prout, 1997) or to certain areas of criminology (France, in press) but within research on pathways and prevention the voices and perspectives of children and young people have not been prominent. An approach that values their contribution would help us understand more about those broader societal access routes and the influences they have on the choices of young people and the opportunities open to them.

Writing in 2005, David Farrington has summarised some current theoretical debates in developmental and life course criminology. These include the extent to which antisocial behaviour exhibits continuity from childhood into adulthood, or is characterised by change and unpredictability; the usefulness of underlying constructs like antisocial propensity; the extent to which it is useful to attempt to distinguish types of offenders; and the importance of life events in influencing the life course, including offending behaviours. …