Companions in Crime: The Social Aspects of Criminal Conduct (Cambridge Studies in Criminology)

Warr, Mark
Cambridge University Press, Cambridge
0521009162 (pb)

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Cover of book Mark Warr’s Companions in Crime: The Social Aspects of Criminal Conduct is a well written account of the social influence of peers on crime and delinquency. Warr provides a comprehensive and advanced sociological treatment of peer influence on delinquent behaviour available today. He integrates research and statistics of juvenile and adolescent group behaviour in an easy to read way. The book brings together ideas that have intrigued criminologists decades ago with ones that hold centre stage today.

The idea of peer influence as a cause of anti-social behaviour has been around since the 1930s, when Edwin Sutherland offered his theory of differential association. Although that theory and similar ones have remained popular and have strong empirical support, more recent theories reject the idea completely. Therefore, Warr surveys the literature on peer influence and reveals that most offenders are embedded in a network of friends and accomplices and describes many possible mechanisms of peer influence.

The book is simple and straightforward, with the chapters reviewing the scientific evidence on adolescence and the role of peers during that complex life period. He then goes on to discuss the group nature of delinquency and the organisation or lack of organisation of delinquent groups.

But, perhaps the most useful and extensive part of the book, considers the possible mechanisms by which peers influence may promote or encourage delinquent behaviour. Warr writes at length about the importance of status, prestige and respect within the adolescent group, and he even informs the audience that status striving in groups ‘seems to be a feature of all primate species’ (p.51). Warr argues that status is a different matter when it comes to a mechanism for delinquent behaviour. Rather than merely generating conformity in behaviour, status threats can give direct provocation for criminal conduct. Among men, challenges to status often call for direct physical confrontation to maintain identity. However, if threats to status can provoke violence, Warr argues that a want to acquire status can also prompt violent behaviour. He uses the work of Short and Stordtbeck (1965) to illustrate that status in adolescent peer groups can often be earned through delinquent behaviour. Warr explains that this is because delinquent behaviour often exhibits the qualities that male’s prize – daring, spontaneity, toughness and leadership – qualities that are valued under other circumstances by the larger culture itself. However, Warr says that it is the role of ridicule, loyalty and status together that causes delinquent behaviour in groups. For example, ridicule poses a threat to their claim for membership and can undermine whatever rank they currently enjoy in that group and which also interacts with status. Those with greater status in the group have more to lose and may take more extreme measure to avoid or thwart ridicule. The last two chapters look at the relative influence of two powerful institutions in adolescents lives – parents and peers – and considers whether peer influence can explain some of the most persistent and controversial features of criminal behaviour, with Warr suggesting some further avenues for research on peer influence.

Warr’s explanations for peer influence range from the most general to the very specific (fear of ridicule, status striving and so on). Although what Warr has written is very comprehensive, there are a few areas where he has not written about, which may have been useful in his efforts to understand antisocial conduct among adolescents. The main downfall is the same problem that plagues sociology in general which is bio phobia. A disciplines integration with its more fundamental science has been the royal road to its progress, for example, environmental science is a multidisciplinary academic field that integrates biology, information sciences, physics among other disciplines to study the environment. Without such integration sociological theories of crime and delinquency will be ever more lifeless and viewed against the backdrop of theories proposed by scientists and theorists outside of the discipline, for example, psychology and genetics. However, if these disciplines were combined together a better insight to antisocial conduct amongst adolescents may be possible.

However, as he acknowledges in the penultimate page in the book that behaviour, genetics, evolutionary psychology are breathing down the neck of sociological criminology, which he describes as ‘disorientating and even threatening’ (p.139) to the majority of the current criminologists.

Warr provides a broad theoretical position and assess decades’ of literature, his intellectual command is not only impressive but a joy to read. His book is comprehensive, balanced and compelling and provides an important contribution to criminological theory.

Jessica Streeter
Independent Researcher