Perceived Crime and Informal Social Control in the Neighborhood as a Context for Adolescent Behavior: A Risk and Resilience Perspective

By Nash, James K.; Bowen, Gary L. | Social Work Research, September 1999 | Go to article overview

Perceived Crime and Informal Social Control in the Neighborhood as a Context for Adolescent Behavior: A Risk and Resilience Perspective


Nash, James K., Bowen, Gary L., Social Work Research


Greater understanding of adolescent perceptions of peer behavior can contribute to the development of effective interventions targeting adolescent problem behavior. The investigation discussed in this article drew from social disorganization theory to examine the effects of perceived neighborhood informal social control and perceived neighborhood crime on adolescents' perceptions of peers' behavior. The study used a nationally representative sample of 2,099 public middle and high school students. Results are discussed in the context of risk and protective processes that can guide prevention efforts for promoting a more supportive neighborhood environment.

Key words: adolescence; crime; neighborhoods; peers; resilience; risk

A risk and resilience perspective provides a useful roadmap for conducting research on adolescent prosocial and problem behavior. Substantive theory and earlier research direct attention to potential risk and protective factors at the individual, family, school, neighborhood, and broad environmental levels. Building from this knowledge base, studies can be designed to examine the nature of relationships among selected factors at a subset of system levels. Results from these investigations have implications for building theory and for designing and implementing effective interventions (Fraser & Galinsky, 1997).

Using this perspective, the investigation discussed in this article drew on social disorganization theory to identify and examine neighborhood-level risk and protective factors that are hypothesized to influence adolescents' perceptions of prosocial and problem behavior among neighborhood peers. It is important to understand these perceptions and the conditions that influence them, because they represent a key component of the social context that influences and constrains the decisions and behavior of adolescents.

The interpersonal, community, and institutional settings in which adolescents participate strongly influence their values, orientations, and behavior (Bowen & Chapman, 1996; Farrell & Bruce, 1997; Guterman & Cameron, 1997; Hinton-Nelson, Roberts, & Snyder, 1996; Nettles & Pleck, 1993; Williams, Stiffman, & O'Neal, 1998). Structural and normative properties in these settings operate as a "field of forces" (Lewin, 1951) that constrains pure volunteerism through sets of behavioral prescriptions and proscriptions. A critical setting in which adolescent behavior originates and occurs centers on peer groups. Crane (1991) formulated a social contagion model to account for the increased prevalence of adolescent problems in neighborhoods facing serious economic and social obstacles and argued that the chief agent for the spread of problems among adolescents is peer influence. He demonstrated that exposure to high levels of problematic behavior among neighborhood peers increased the risk of engaging in similar behavior.

Of the many social circles in which adolescents participate, peers represent an important comparison point for adolescents in evaluating their own attitudes and behavior (Gillmore, Hawkins, Day, & Catalano, 1992), especially for early adolescents (Steinberg, 1996). Furthermore, adolescents' estimates of the prevalence of high-risk behaviors among peers are predictors of their own likelihood of engaging in the same behaviors (Gerrard, Gibbons, Benthin, & Hessling, 1996; Gibbons, Helweg-Larsen, & Gerrard, 1995).

Although a number of studies have focused on the role of adolescent friendships and peer acceptance on adolescent attitudes and behavior (for example, East et al., 1992; Walters & Bowen, 1997), few studies have examined the perceptions of adolescents about the behavior of their peers in specific contexts, such as in neighborhoods and schools. Even fewer studies have attempted to identify conditions that influence these perceptions. Using a nationally representative sample of 2,099 adolescents, the present investigation examined the perceptions of adolescents about the level of prosocial and problem behavior among peers of about the same age in their neighborhood. …

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