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Theoretical Conception


The Structural Dynamic Model, evolved for the follow-up study Crime in the modern City (CRIMOC), consists of three levels of longitudinal analysis. Besides an individual level with attitudinal and behavioural components, it distinguishes the two social levels of social structure and (formal) social control. The model thus follows one of the constitutive distinctions of modern criminology: the distinction between criminal behaviour and the criminalisation of criminal behaviour.



Since such a multilevel research design tries to reflect complexity and fast change in modern societies for the explanation of conformity and delinquency, one can draw only partly upon traditional criminological theories, like Anomy-, Learning-, Control or Labelling-Theory. These classical action theories usually reflect only one aspect or one level of the crime causation process. For a consistent observation of certain social styles of action as well as their formal social control, it appears promising to also take – besides theories of action – systems theory into account (Luhmann 1995). And, regarding the temporal development, the reciprocal as well as self-referential relations between and within these different analytical levels should be considered.

On the individual level we draw upon assumptions from the Theory of Planned Behaviour (Ajzen 1991) and the Coping Theory (Lazarus and Folkman 1984) to explain the psychological regulation of external problem constellations. The impact of formal social control is not only considered as direct (self-fulfilling prophecy) or indirect (structural) labelling effects (Lemert 1951; Becker 1963), but also with respect to reinforcing or moderating processes through particular control styles and reactions of the immediate social environment (Paternoster and Iovanni 1989). In addition, the importance of self-referential judicial decision making processes for delinquent (career) developments may be analysed from the perspective of systems theory. Since the following empirical analysis is focused on the socio-structural impact, we will also restrict the theoretical discussion on this socio-etiological aspect of the Structural Dynamic Model (for an explanation of the whole model, see Boers and Reinecke 2007).

Processes of psychological regulation take place and become structured within certain social contexts which are more or less influential at different age levels. With respect to the explanation of individual behaviour, the macro-structural social context constitutes distal causes of delinquency or conformity. In the Structural Dynamic Model the conception of the social macro-structure does not only follow the classical model of a vertical differentiation of society into different social classes. In line with modern sociological research the horizontal differentiation of society into so-called social milieus through certain culturally based social value orientations and beliefs (the “subjective factor”) is taken into account as well. The lower level of modern societies is for example not only characterised by traditional working class groups, but also (and even more so) by groups of people with unconventional value orientations and life-styles. Members of such non-traditional or hedonistic social milieus are less interested in safeguarding their future, have discontinuous or broken educational or occupational biographies, prefer fun and leisure oriented life-styles, seek current self-fulfilment and satisfaction of their needs (Hradil 2001: 422-43; Geißler 2006: 106-12).

According to this understanding, social milieus represent the macro-structural level of a modern society with, on the one hand, the latent structural resources of a social, an economic and a cultural capital. These capital resources can be transferred mingled with each other or supplemented by one another (e.g. social relations correspond with job or business opportunities; economic resources open the door to higher education and/or relevant social circles). On the other hand, with the life-style element, the concept of social milieus encompasses also a manifest, expressive component. So far, the latent and quite abstract capital resource structure receives a materialised form in the habits of every-day life: preferences for certain clothing, music styles, literature, media, movies, bars, restaurants, sports, working and achievement styles.

This may also be seen as an attempt to modify and differentiate the common macro- structural perspective in criminology expressed by anomie theory (Merton 1957 [1938]). Anomie theory is based on assumptions of a vertical class structure of society as well as on commonly shared value orientations (aspirations for success and welfare). Its conclusion that crime is rooted in lower class disadvantages, namely poverty, could ‑ as a direct effect ‑ not find strong empirical evidence in studies of self-reported delinquent behaviour (see Tittle and Meier 1990; Boers 1999; Akers and Sellers 2009: 188-91), and can receive only limited theoretical plausibility if one considers the results from modern social-structural research with its more complex milieu and life-style approach.

The characteristics of a specific social milieu are mediated (and also generated) through the socialisation institutions in the closer social environment (social meso-level): family, school, peer-groups, vocational training, occupational area. From the perspective of (classical) criminological theories, the social bonds generated in these institutions are generally important for a life course into conformity (Hirschi 1969). And for a delinquent development, delinquent peer-groups are especially important. They provide the major social context for the learning of delinquent norm orientations (Sutherland 1947: 5-9). Hence, delinquent peers and delinquent norms constitute proximate causes of delinquent behaviour, with delinquent peer-groups transferring the causal context from the social meso-level to the micro-level of individual norms and behaviour. All three (together with external reactions by conformity-oriented peers, parents, teachers) may also be seen as components of an interactively self-reinforcing constellation of delinquent communication (i.e. delinquent norms learned in delinquent peer-groups cause delinquent behaviour which, in turn, enhances delinquent peer-group attachment and delinquent norms, discussed as Interactional Theory by Thornberry et al. 1994, Thornberry and Krohn 2005).

Finally, the neighbourhood is of importance for the social meso-level. As specific social spaces (working-, middle- or upper-class, gentrified, alternative or migrant and ethnic living areas), they translate the abstract social macro-structure into individually relevant and perceivable environmental conditions, and may also be seen as an ecological expression/outcome of a certain social milieu-structure.

The relations between the socio-structural and individual dimensions of the Structural Dynamic Model are assumed not to operate in an uni-directional but in a reciprocal manner. On the one hand, the macro-structure shapes individual attitudes, beliefs, appraisals, decision making and behaviour. On the other hand, the social macro-structure is, in turn, also influenced by individual decisions and (problem coping) behaviour. A particularly relevant reciprocal relation is that the outcome of a chosen coping behaviour may alleviate or (if it “goes the wrong way”) aggravate a problematic situational context (like violent parental upbringing practices, delinquent peer-group pressure, perception of economic or social deprivation) and will have an impact on subsequent problem appraisals and coping behaviours.

Such reciprocal relations can only be observed while considering the temporal dimension. A temporal observation however, is not restricted to the reciprocity between external factors (e.g. between peers, norms and delinquency). Auto-dynamic (statistically: auto-regressive) or, as it is called in systems theory, self-referential processes (Luhmann 1995) are of equal importance. The operations of social, economic, legal or scientific systems or individual acts, attitudes, motivations, and beliefs (in systems theory: operations of psychic systems) aim to reproduce and, thus, preserve their own structure or personal identity, respectively. It is assumed that over time self-referential stability effects are usually stronger than the impact of external (i.e. also reciprocal) causal effects.

For further references see the following publication:

Boers, K. / Reinecke, J. / Mariotti, L. / Seddig, D., (2010): Explaining the Development of Adolescent Violent Delinquency.In: European Journal of Criminology, 7(6), 499-520.



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