Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1996

 

Delinquency and Crime: Current Theories

J. David Hawkins (editor)
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
1996
ISBN 0 521 47894 4 (pb); 0 521 47322 5 (hb)
16.95 (pb); 45.00 (hb)
xvii + 330 pp.

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A familiar criticism of criminology is that it is atheoretical, empiricist and 'administrative' in orientation. So great is this sin that the sociology of deviance has latterly been pronounced 'dead' (Sumner, 1994). More positively, the journal Theoretical Criminology has recently been founded and several current texts import feminist and postmodern analysis from sociology. Before assessing whether the present book redresses the theoretical imbalance we should enter caveats about criminology's theoretical poverty. First, the problem is particularly British. Continental European criminology is not marked by theoretical aridity. North American criminology has a robust theoretical tradition, if one largely stuck in the days of positivism. It has neither neglected the mainstream of sociological theory or the hard core of psychological pathology theory, increasingly acknowledges Marxian and Foucauldian approaches and harbours sociobiology, virtually unknown elsewhere. Second, criminology is a long-established social science and criminologists may shun theory from sheer embarrassment at the rubbish that has been written in its name over the years.

It is necessary to say all this because Hawkins' book is, with one exception, American- authored and follows a tradition in which theory is applied empirically and its analytical purchase established according to the conventions of scientific method. If you are looking for a postmodern read, forget Hawkins. One must add that the kind of criminology Hawkins et al. do, for all the merits of its traditional approach, does not account for very impressive amounts of variance when it comes to explaining crime. Such criminology has still not found the aetiological Holy Grail but, unlike more radical approaches, its proponents at least know precisely how short of a complete explanation they are.

We are told that the book transcends strain, cultural deviance, social control, differential association and learning theory by offering antisocial peer socialization, interactional theory, behaviour genetics and 'community determinants', as if these were new. They aren't, and that's the point: once theory guides inquiry into applied work, theory has to be adjusted, principally by constructive borrowing. If the theoretical 'answers' are familiar, so are the questions. The agenda is aetiological: does persistence of crime in family generations indicate an inherited trait or a failure of socialization? Is the role of delinquent peers causal? How do social and individual factors interact? The approaches are radically different though. Bursik and Grasmick suggest that an 'end-to-end integration' of micro- and macro-level theories best explains the evidence that social ecology - at neighbourhood level - affects recidivism. Rowe argues that ecology is but one force, with economy and culture, that reinforces two adaptations, one emphasizing 'procreation and crime' and the other 'parenting and non-crime'. Not content with separating the social world into just two groups, Rowe maintains that these styles have become encoded as genetically-produced differences in criminal behaviour. Perhaps Rowe needs to re-read the Darwin versus Lamarck debate, but if you wondered what sociobiology offers then here's your chance. I found Rowe an odd and alarming choice for the final chapter. Indeed the lack of an editorial closing discussion is only one place where I looked for more active editing.

Like Farrington in the Cambridge delinquency study, Loeber conceptualizes crime as but part of a wider complex of anti-social behaviour over the life course. The relationship between these behaviours is interestingly handled. Elliott and Menard's chapter better belongs in the journals - it is a retort to the argument that peer effects are mere covariation, not causal in delinquent aetiology. The best chapter is easily Farrington's. Whatever one thinks of the 'antisocial complex' idea, this is a scrupulous treatment and takes full account of social processes. Alone among the chapters this would make a useful recommendation for student reading. Catalano and Hawkins seek to integrate risk factors in a developmental theory to identify intervention points. Thornberry uses longitudinal panel data to illustrate an interactional theory which acknowledges the recursive effect of life-events, so that a 'reciprocal' element is added to the developmental. That the interaction of factors is not simply additive is a theme Bursick and Grasmick also develop in profiling a multi-causal theory specified to particular offences.

Hawkins et al. offer a book focused on delinquency but with significant longitudinal, life-course themes, a book which finds no incomparability between theoretical development and empirical test, and a book promising a synthesis of the sociological and behavioural but which emphasizes the latter. This is certainly not a textbook, more an applied research annual reporting to a specialist audience. It will persuade few that criminology is putting its theoretical house in order.

Nigel G. Fielding
University of Surrey

Reference

SUMNER, C. (1994) The Sociology of Deviance: An Obituary. Buckingham: Open University Press

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1996