Campus & Community

Adolescent criminal behavior partly a matter of choice

3 min read

Refraining from or engaging in violence not just a matter of poverty and community

Community violence and poverty are not the only aspects of neighborhoods that predict adolescent crime, according to Harvard University sociologist Patrick Sharkey. In a study released in the latest issue of the American Sociological Review, Sharkey finds that community organization, familial relations, and personal attributes all shape an adolescent’s decision to engage in or refrain from violence.

“For too long we’ve looked at kids in violent neighborhoods as passive objects,” says Sharkey, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Sociology and Social Policy. “In reality, youths and those around them play central roles in carving out an environment that is conducive to their own goals and ambitions. Our current understanding of the role environment plays in predicting delinquent behavior offers an incomplete explanation of the problem. One path forward in understanding the connection between neighborhoods and individual violence is by focusing on what it is about the neighborhood that influences the choices that adolescents make as they engage in everyday life.”

Central to his analysis of adolescent delinquency is the concept of “street efficacy.” According to Sharkey, street efficacy is the perceived ability to avoid violent confrontations and be safe in one’s neighborhood. To measure street efficacy, Sharkey used data from the Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods, a large-scale, interdisciplinary study of the intersection of family and community factors in adolescent development directed by researchers across several institutions, including the Harvard School of Public Health and the Department of Sociology in Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Using this information, he determined what factors predict adolescent street efficacy, and how well efficacy predicts future violence.

Analyzing data on Chicago neighborhoods as well as individual questionnaires, Sharkey found that adolescents who had confidence in their ability to avoid violence were less likely to commit acts of violence and associate with delinquent peers.

“Many factors affect an individual’s street efficacy,” said Sharkey. “Personal attributes such as developed verbal skills certainly play a part, but factors outside of the individual and outside of the home, such as community organization and exposure to violence, also play a large role in influencing adolescents’ confidence about whether they can find ways to take part in public life while avoiding violence. In turn, the way that adolescents think about their own ability to avoid violence has an important influence on the types of social networks they develop and on their own violent behavior.”

According to the study, individuals who live in communities where residents retreat from public life had lower street efficacy than those where residents supported and monitored local youth, intervening to enforce behavioral norms. In addition to community factors, Sharkey attributes street efficacy to familial factors. Adolescents in families with greater financial and social resources are likely to have higher levels of street efficacy. The influence of role models within a family also contributes to street efficacy. For example, adolescents who witness family members engage in violent or criminal activity are less likely to believe that they can avoid violence in their own lives.

Funding for the data used in the study was provided by the John D. and Catherine MacArthur Foundation, the National Institute of Justice, and the National Institute of Mental Health.