Violent Criminal Behavior over the Life Course: A Review of the Longitudinal and Comparative Research

Article excerpt

In this paper we review the existing longitudinal research on violent criminal behavior. Although interested in comparative research on this topic, we found that virtually all of the longitudinal studies comprised individuals from Western societies. The primary issue we examine concerns the extent to which there are universal patterns of violent behavior over the life course. Based on the available evidence, our best guess is that universal patterns do not exist. It cannot be answered definitively, however, to what extent sociocultural variations in violence reflect differences in opportunity structures or differences in developmental trajectories and transitions over the life course. In order to address these issues, specific recommendations for future research, both within countries and cross-nationally, are presented and discussed.

Thirty years ago, Sheldon Glueck (1964, p. 304) pointed out the need for a "Comparative Criminology - a project designed to uncover etiologic universals operative as causal agents irrespective of cultural differences among different countries" (emphasis in original). 1 Despite Glueck's recommendation, most extant criminological research overlooks a comparative perspective. Indeed, the recently released National Academy Report, Understanding and Preventing Violence (Reiss & Roth, 1993), does not discuss in any detail similarities and differences in violence between countries exhibiting cultural variation.

A similar situation exists in research on human development. For example, Munroe, Munroe, and Whiting (1981, p. ix) note that "findings... are presented as relevant to the human race." Furthermore, Munroe and colleagues (1981) argue that many variables are assumed to be normative and universal so that their unique contextual effect is not recognized. In a similar vein, Rogoff and Morelli (1989, p. 343) contend that without cross-cultural research, "very basic assumptions regarding developmental goals, the skills that are learned, and the contexts of development" are not examined. As a result, "the generality of theories of development that have been based on Western children" is not known (p. 344).

In this paper, we restate the concerns of Sheldon Glueck and other researchers by arguing for more comparative research in the study of crime, especially violent criminal behavior. Moreover, we are especially interested in longitudinal research from a comparative perspective. Longitudinal research is required in order to identify the developmental patterns of aggression and violence over the life course.2 This research strategy also allows us to assess the extent to which these developmental patterns are universal and to investigate the role of sociocultural context in these unfolding processes.

The purpose of this paper is to review the existing longitudinal research on violent behavior including whenever appropriate research relating to aggressive behavior. Our primary focus is on long-term longitudinal studies; i.e., those studies that have followed individuals from childhood and adolescence to adulthood. Although we will review the extant comparative research on this topic, virtually all of the longitudinal research studies we found comprised individuals from Western societies. As articulated by Sheldon Glueck above, the key issue remains: Are there universal patterns of violent behavior over the life course? Interestingly, Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990, pp. 174-175) argue that "cultural variability is not important in the causation of crime... and that a single theory of crime can encompass the reality of cross-cultural differences in crime rates." Moreover, Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990, p. 179) state that "culture-dependent" correlates of crime primarily reflect differences in opportunity structures. Given Gottfredson and Hirschi's statements, the examination of potentially unique sociocultural effects in longitudinal research seems especially timely.


In general, a developmental perspective focuses on intraindividual behavioral changes from birth until death. …