Monday, January 17, 2011

Sociology and the criminal mind ignored

“A priori” dead ends

In the study “Dropout and Delinquency” (Sweeten, Bushway & Paternoster, 2009) on the relationship between school attendance and delinquency, the authors argued that the researcher’s role is “to generate meaningful a priori theoretical predictions”. Theories are not developed from observation, but essentially from imagination, projecting possible explanations to be measured. Survey results are then used to either lend weight to or disprove these theoretical predictions.

In their research, Sweeten, Bushway and Paternoster requested that respondents classify their reasons for dropping out using one of the following categories: school reasons, such as expulsion, suspension, poor performance or social difficulties; personal reasons, such as getting married or pregnant, or having conflicting responsibilities at home; economic reasons, such as being offered a job, entering the military, or having financial difficulties; or other unclassified reasons. This range of reasons was developed using popular sociological theories on the influence of stress and social control.

The challenge of taking an a priori approach is sometimes embarrassingly clear. Only “unclassified reasons” for leaving school appeared to have a criminogenic effect, suggesting that the researchers were unable to anticipate any valid causal explanations for the behavior of their subjects. They concluded that “concern about the event of dropout may be misplaced. Instead, attention must be focused on the process that leads to dropout and criminal involvement” – ignoring that this was precisely the subject of their own study.


Of course there is a challenge with all surveys in attempting to understand human behavior. Individuals may not themselves be fully aware of the reasons for what they do, or they may give dishonest reasons to prevent personal embarrassment. There is a great uncertainty, therefore, about what is really going on in the mind of the subjects.

Yet some theories do not regard this as a limitation. A juvenile delinquent may have developed unsuccessful approaches to dealing with stress or responding to authority, but these cannot be captured in a questionnaire. What can be captured is whether he is receiving failing grades. If you believe that individuals are programmed to behave as they do by their environment, then his thoughts and motivations are of marginal importance. We only need to study a person’s behavior and how it is affected by various stimuli, according to this perspective. It is the grades that then lead him to drop out of school, and the resulting poverty that leads him to crime. Even when the evidence fails to validate the theory, the underlying cues to a person’s behavior – his thoughts and beliefs – remain ignored.

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