Interwoven Trajectories of Delinquent Peer Networks and Delinquent Behavior: Testing Interactional Theory

Terence P. Thornberry, University at Albany
Shawn D. Bushway, University of Maryland at College Park

There are substantial changes in delinquent careers over the course of adolescence. Some people who are frequent offenders during early adolescence slow down considerably or desist entirely by late adolescence. Others who are relative prosocial during early adolescence initiate offending at later ages, often reaching very high levels of offending by early adulthood. Understanding the social forces that lead to these behavioral changes is a fundametally important criminological topic. Life-course approaches to crime, for example, interactional theory, posit that these behavioral changes are less likely to be explained by stable characteristics or early risk factors and more likely to be explained by developmental variables that also unfold with age. Specifically, interactional theory emphasizes the causal importance of peer associations during adolescence. We hypothesize that increasing delinquent peer associations will be followed by increasing trajectories of offending, while disengagement from delinquent peer networks will be followed by decreasing trajectories. Previous work in this area examined the correlation between period to period changes in peer relationships and period to period changes in offending. Also it focused almost exclusively on investigation the escalation of offending, ignoring the counter-trend of de-escalation or desistance. In this paper we take a different analytic approach, linking long term patterns of peer relationships with long term offending trajectories. We also systematically investigate the role of delinquent peers in explaining -both escalation and de-escalation. The advantages and disadvantages of this new approach are explored within the context of interactional theory.

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Updated 05/20/2006