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Constant debates over the role of peer association and delinquency has stimulated research on whether there exists a causal or temporal opening. A major bone of contention between control and learning theories is the nature of causal ordering of delinquent behavior and involvement with delinquent peers. The control theory posits that delinquency comes before peer association but the learning theories posit otherwise(Burfeind & Bartusch 2005). A third view posits that there exists a bi-directional explanation especially after the initial onset of both delinquent behavior and exposure to peer associations. Drawing from a wide berth of research on the age and peer interactive linkages, as well as employing data from the National Youth Survey(NYS), the researchers sought to examine the interactive relationships existent between age and peer associations with specific reference to the differential effect of these peer associations across age groups and substance abuse related offenses.
Several research productions attest to the presence of a direct and precise linkage among age, peer association and delinquency. However, the paucity of data on the specificity of offending on age and peer associations on delinquency still persists. For this reason this research sought to identify the interactive relationship between age/ peer interactions with regard to a specific type of offending: drug offending among youth samples drawn from the National Youth Survey (NYS).
Due to the controversies around the assumption that the influence of peer association on delinquency is constant across the age groups, some researchers have developed trajectories of youths and youthful offending and the risk and protective factors associated with such trajectories. Though, not even these analyses are conclusive in the sense that there are no specific theories that provide with specificity the age varying impacts of delinquent peer associations. Most studies focusing on age typically persist in the analysis of which precedes the other; peer association or delinquency without offering any explanation on the variations of peer influence with age.
The Thornberry’s interactional theory(1987), is one of the few theories that offer an explicit explanation on the age varying effect of peer association. Basically, this theory opines that the influence of associating with delinquent friends should increase during the mid-adolescence period and decline gradually thereafter. The reasoning used to formulate the theory is a derivative of the social learning theory that cite the centrality of peer networks on an individual’s identity during the adolescence period which then reduce as individual’s start to develop crucial commitments to various conventional activities and institutions like education, family, and career. This implies that the influence of delinquent peer associations is much more pronounced during the transition from childhood to the adolescence stage.
The risk of a complete reliance on such an approach is the exclusion of indices of various offenses such as drug offending and the misgeneralization of findings drawn from studies concentrating on specific offenses. Such inferences even if they apply for a specific offense may well be incorrect with reagrd to a different offense. To satisfy the paucity of research on the nature of the influence of offenses on the peer/age/delinquency interaction Mears & Field’s(2002), hypothesized that First, there will be an interactive relationship between age and peer associations and delinquent behavior with an increase in peer association exhibiting greater influence among the older adults. Second, the interactive relationship between age and delinquent peer associations will be strongest for substance abuse related offenses, with increases in delinquent peer associations having a greater positive effect among older youths.
The use of data from the ongoing longitudinal study of delinquency on a multistage probability sampling of households in the United States, was driven by the reliability and validity of such date due to the methodological attentiveness that is usually given to the NYS. The dependent variables in the study included ten specific self reported offenses(cheating, damaging property, using marijuana, stealing items worth less than $ 5, hitting someone, burglary, stealing items worth $ 50, getting drunk and using prescription drugs) plus an offense index formulated from these offenses.
The index was created by standardizing the individual offense counts to have a mean of zero with a standard deviation of one, after which the counts were summed up. Standardization of individual offenses was done to ensure that the offenses with very high variances like marijuana did not overly impact on the resultant index.
The independent category included measures of delinquent peer associations and measures of age. The study employed eight constituted eight age categories, each of which had a dummy variable, with the age of thirteen years being used as the reference age category in the multivariate analyses. There was an even distribution of youths across age categories, with the 19 year old age category considerably less proportionately represented. Dummy variables were preferable to continuous measures of age since they enabled the capture of potential non linearities in the interactive association between delinquent peers and age.
The study demonstrated that the age/peer interactions was more evident in substance abuse offense; for instance more in using marijuana and alcohol abuse but comparatively less in using prescription drugs, offense index, burglary and selling illegal drugs. Therefore, with regard to the second hypothesis, the clear evidence attested to the presence of a positive association for drug related offending. For cases where drug related offenses, there was increased delinquent peer associations that exerted a comparatively greater impact in the older groups. In the absence of a drug related offense, as in the case of non drug users, the influence on delinquency was not consistent among older age groups. The only exception to this inconsistent increase is in the case of burglary where the expected patterns of associations resurfaced. With reference to the offense index which also reflected an interactive effect, the positive effect could be attributable to the four drug offenses which contributed to the offense index.
These qualitative differences in peer associations with specificity to different types of offenses are supported with the interactional theory. There is specific evidence suggesting that increase in exposure to delinquent peers exerts a unique influence on the inclination of the older age groups to engage in drug related offending. This scenario can be explained with the fact that substance related offenses are usually embedded in peer networks that define delinquent behaviors. These networks may alternatively exert a causal effect on substance related offending.
Focusing on the theoretical accounts of specific offenses, especially in anticipating a basis for offense specific causal models of delinquency, the results from this study considerably obscures the possibility that a reliable relationship can be obtained for disaggregated offense categories. It further obscures the possibility that even though such a relationship exists, it may not necessarily or strongly apply for the specific offenses that constitute these categories. However, even if we argue that there is some specialization in delinquency or that youths pursue relatively clear types of offending, the changing of structure, nature and influence of peer associations(as explained with respect to the increase in delinquency among the older age groups), specific theoretical accounts of specific offenses may still remain obscured.
Therefore, future research should primarily focus on the analysis of age/peer interaction and their influence on delinquency with specificity to an offense, rather than types of offending patterns. Further studies should also engage in the precise exploration of the initial development of delinquent peer associations as well as their sustenance or change over a period of time and or age structures and exactly how these associations contribute to varying levels of delinquent offending. Further research on the type and quality of peer bonding associations, the transformation of such bonds over time, the effect of such transformations on patterns of offending at different ages, would undoubtedly stimulate further academic interest.
To surmise, Mears and Field’s (2002) have presented a research undertaking that improves our understanding of the previously scattered relationships between age, delinquent peer associations and delinquency. Based on a suave understanding on these interactive linkages, the authors have built a more reliable interrelationship between age/peer associations and delinquent behavior. Acting partly as an autobiographic source, the research is littered with pertinent and relevant data that provided conclusions supportive of the positive interrelationships. What is more interesting is the influence of specific types of offenses on the interrelationship. As a further tribute, the authors deeply delve into the causes of delinquency.