Discovering disorder: young people and delinquency
Discovering disorder: young people and delinquency

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Discovering disorder: young people and delinquency

2.5 Activity: Exploring delinquent behaviour

You will now listen to an interview with Professor John Muncie, a criminologist at The Open University, in which he discusses the Cambridge Study in Delinquent Development and its attempts to predict which individuals may become offenders later on in life.

Activity 6

Timing: Suggested time allocation: 40 minutes

Click on the audio player beneath each question to hear Professor John Muncie’s response to that question and note his answer in the box provided. To do this, you don’t necessarily have to write in full sentences: bullet points, lists or brief notes are all acceptable as long as they work for you.

1. In your own words, jot down what John Muncie says about the features and aims of the study.

Download this audio clip.Audio player: Delinquent development 1
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Transcript: Delinquent development 1

Professor John Muncie
The basis of this approach is an important study that began in the early 1960s conducted at the University of Cambridge called ‘The Cambridge Study in Delinquent Development’. It’s important to contextualise this study, because a lot of our information of what the important risk factors for juvenile offending [are] comes from studies such as this. Basically it’s a longitudinal study. It started in the early 1960s with a sample of four hundred and eleven, mainly boys, who were then aged eight, selected from six primary schools in one area of London. In fact there are no girls included at that time and only twelve were from ethnic minorities, so the sample is very much a white, working-class one. Over the next forty or fifty years they were contacted nine times; and what the researchers were trying to find out is which of them have developed what they call a ‘delinquent way of life’, and why some of them had continued that delinquency beyond childhood into a life of crime into adulthood.
End transcript: Delinquent development 1
Delinquent development 1
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Discussion

  • This was a longitudinal study which means it was carried out over a long period of time during which the young people being studied were contacted nine times from their childhood into adulthood.
  • The sample, although consisting of 411 children, was mainly male, white and working class.
  • The study aimed to discover the factors to explain why some children became delinquents.

2. Summarise, in your own words, the findings of the study.

Download this audio clip.Audio player: Delinquent development 2
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Transcript: Delinquent development 2

Professor John Muncie
The survey found that about a fifth of their sample of four hundred and eleven had been convicted of criminal offences as juveniles, and over a third of them had been convicted by the time they were thirty-two. But about a half of all those convictions were attributed to only twenty-three what were then young men. That was less than six per cent of the sample. Based on this six per cent of what they call chronic offenders, they seem to share some common childhood characteristics. So this study, the Cambridge Study, argued that they were more likely to be rated as troublesome, impulsive and dishonest at primary school. They tended to come from poorer, larger families and were more likely to have criminal parents. Based on this data the research tried to identify the most salient individual, family and environment predictors, or if you like risk factors for future criminality.
End transcript: Delinquent development 2
Delinquent development 2
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Discussion

The main findings were:

  • A fifth of the sample had been convicted of criminal offences as juveniles.
  • A third had been convicted by the time they were thirty-two.
  • Six per cent of the sample was labelled chronic offenders who shared some common childhood characteristics.

3. Jot down, in your own words, the individual, family and environmental risk factors the study identifies.

Download this audio clip.Audio player: Delinquent development 3
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Transcript: Delinquent development 3

Professor John Muncie
Over the years of this study the most important individual factors that seem to emerge were low intelligence, personality and impulsiveness. The strongest family factors were criminal and antisocial parents, poor parental supervision and disruptive families. Whereas the most notable environmental factors were association with like-minded friends and peers, living in areas of high deprivation and high-delinquency-rate schools. Now on this basis the Cambridge Study then contended that these chronic offenders could be identified with reasonable accuracy at the age of ten. The importance of this research is that it has been replicated not just in the UK but across many USA cities and also in Scandinavia and Australia. So the argument is that what the risk factor paradigm actually represents is something of a global knowledge. Now it’s interesting to see how this has filtered through into precise policy terms where the strongest influence has been a focus on individual and family factors rather than the environmental ones.
End transcript: Delinquent development 3
Delinquent development 3
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Discussion

  • Individual risk factors were low intelligence, personality and impulsiveness.
  • Family factors were criminal and anti-social parents, poor parenting and a disruptive family life.
  • Environmental factors were associating with similar friends, living in poor areas and attending schools with high delinquency rates.

4. What weaknesses does Professor Muncie highlight with using these risk factors to identify potential young offenders?

Download this audio clip.Audio player: Delinquent development 4
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Transcript: Delinquent development 4

Professor John Muncie
Another core problem with the risk factor paradigm is that it tends to present risks as individualised and also as if they [comprise] uncontroversial facts and truths. What is being revealed is correlations rather than causes. There is a question of whether we can reduce the complex lives of young offenders down to a limited and prescribed menu of factors, again derived from this research, which emanates initially from a fairly narrow psychosocial focus. Such studies tell us what factors are linked to offending, or offending that we know about, but not how and why such factors might actually be linked.What’s also missing, I think, from statistical and quantitative data, which the risk factor analysis is based on, is perceptions about notions of risk from young people themselves or from the practitioners within the youth justice system, which may be completely at odds with what seems to be indicated by quantitative research. So, in other words, it generalises probabilities to specific individuals and, as I’ve said, it may create a high number of false positives: in other words mislabelling and inaccurately identifying particular individuals who are believed to pose a risk in the future. And that then may lead to unwarranted degrees of intrusive intervention in their immediate and in their future lives.
End transcript: Delinquent development 4
Delinquent development 4
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Discussion

  • Professor Muncie argues that out of this list of risk factors it is impossible to know which are the most important and we don’t know how these factors influence each other.
  • Most significantly, although this research shows links between certain risk factors and juvenile delinquency, it doesn’t explain what causes juvenile delinquency.

5. What weaknesses of the Cambridge Study have been identified by further research?

Download this audio clip.Audio player: Delinquent development 5
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Transcript: Delinquent development 5

Professor John Muncie
These forms of risk analysis have become more and more common, particularly since the 1990s, as interest in crime prevention research and how best [to] prevent young offending has hit the top of the political agenda and as a result something of a consensus around notions of family conflict, truancy, irresponsible or lack of parenting, low intelligence and delinquent friends has sort of emerged and in particular has been propagated by the Youth Justice Board for England and Wales. The problem with this type of an analysis, as various people have pointed out, is how we decipher which of those numerous variables are more pertinent with some people and at some times. We still don’t really know which are the most important risk factors. We really don’t know how they interrelate and how they react with one another. And of course the important point to stress is that what risk factor analysis is examining is a series of links or correlations between factors, not necessarily identifying what causes young offending.
End transcript: Delinquent development 5
Delinquent development 5
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Discussion

  • A study in the north-east of England based on interviews showed that risk factors couldn’t explain why some children, who had many of these risk factors, did not offend.
  • Another study in Pittsburgh highlighted the economic status of neighbourhoods as a more important risk factor than individual personality or family background.
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