Interactional Theory of Delinquency Research Paper

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Interactional theory offers a broad explanation for the causes and consequences of involvement in antisocial behavior. When first proposed by Thornberry in 1987, it primarily focused on delinquency and drug use during adolescence and early adulthood. The theory proposed that delinquent behavior was caused by weak social bonds and involvement in delinquent networks but that delinquency also had feedback effects to further weaken prosocial bonds and further embed the individual in deviant networks and belief systems. Prolonged and serious involvement in antisocial behavior gradually evolved over the life course as a function of these reciprocal processes. The theory was subsequently expanded in two major directions. First, Thornberry and Krohn (2001, 2005) added a fuller developmental, life course perspective to account for involvement in antisocial behavior across the life span. The theory offered explanations both for the onset of offending, from childhood through adulthood, as well as for continuity and change in offending as a person ages and develops. Second, Thornberry (2005, 2009) extended the logic of interactional theory to the explanation of intergenerational continuity in antisocial behavior. One of the central premises of this theoretical orientation is that involvement in antisocial behavior has consequences for a person’s later development. Those consequences, such as difficulty in the transition from adolescence to adulthood, interfere with patterns of family formation, and with the quality of parenting behaviors, helping to account for why parental involvement in delinquency is a significant risk factor for their children’s involvement in delinquency.

The Original Statement

Interactional theory starts with the basic assumptions and premises of a social control theory of delinquency. Youth who are strongly bonded to conventional society are unlikely to have the behavioral freedom to engage in delinquency, drug use, and other problem behaviors. In particular, youth who are strongly attached to their parents and family, who are committed to conventional institutions like school, and who have strong beliefs in conventional values are thereby constrained from engaging in antisocial behaviors. These elements of the bond to society are likely to prevent any prolonged and serious involvement in antisocial behavior. In contrast, youth who have weak social bonds have more behavioral freedom and a higher probability of engaging in antisocial behavior.

Beginning with this basic perspective, Thornberry elaborated upon it to develop a more comprehensive and dynamic explanation for delinquent behavior during adolescence. Theoretical elaboration (Thornberry 1989) is an approach to theory construction that starts with a core theoretical orientation and then elaborates upon it to develop a broader theoretical explanation. There is no specific intent to integrate different theoretical models into a single theory, but insights are taken from other theories and from empirical investigations to develop as comprehensive an explanation as possible. One defining aspect of the theoretical elaboration that is evident in interactional theory is that the causal processes that generate delinquency vary developmentally. For example, the factors that cause offending for a 12-year-old are likely to be different from those that cause offending for an 18-year-old or a 25-year-old. Underlying processes – such as the strength of bonds to conventional society – may be the same, but the way they are manifested and the specific social institutions that are involved vary. Accordingly, Thornberry (1987) presented several developmentally specific causal diagrams of interactional theory. To summarize the logic of the theory, Fig. 1 presents the model for middle adolescence. It should be noted that the general concepts presented in the figure are proxies for more specific causal processes within each of these developmental domains. For example, “attachment to parents includes the affective relationship between parent and child, communication patterns, parenting skills such as monitoring and discipline, parent-child conflict, and the like” (Thornberry 1987, p. 866). Similar extensions can be drawn for the other concepts. In the interest of space, however, we will only discuss the more general concepts here.

Interactional Theory of Delinquency Research Paper

Two core aspects of interactional theory are immediately evident in Fig. 1. The first concerns the inadequacy of a basic social control theory to account for delinquent behavior. Weak bonds to conventional society are viewed as creating increased behavioral freedom; that is, they allow individuals to deviate from conventional activities, but they do not necessarily lead directly to involvement in antisocial behavior. For that to occur, a learning environment is required that channels the behavioral freedom specifically into delinquent behavior, as opposed to other maladaptive responses such as internalizing problems, retreatist behavior, alienation, and withdrawal. This learning environment is represented by two key concepts – association with delinquent peers and delinquent values. Associating with others who engage in delinquent behavior provides role models for imitation and social reinforcements for engaging in delinquent behavior. It also increases the likelihood of spending unstructured and unsupervised time with peers which is also related to delinquent behavior (Osgood and Anderson 2004). In addition, beliefs that it is acceptable to engage in delinquent behavior in certain circumstances, or at least that it is not morally wrong to engage in those behaviors, also increase the likelihood of delinquent behavior.

The second core aspect of interactional theory that is evident in Fig. 1 is its reciprocal and dynamic nature. First, these central causes of delinquency are likely to become reciprocally related over time. For example, youth who are poorly attached to their parents are likely to be less engaged and successful in school, and in turn, youth who fail in school are likely to grow more distant from their parents. Second, delinquent behavior is not viewed as a mere outcome of earlier factors, such as weak commitment to school or associations with delinquent peers, as it is in many traditional theories. In contrast, delinquency is viewed as embedded in a set of mutually reinforcing causal relationships that develop over time and that create trajectories toward or away from prolonged involvement in delinquency. For example, associating with delinquent peers, via learning processes and changes in routine activities, increases the chances of delinquent behavior. But, the more the individual engages in delinquent behavior, the more likely they are to associate with fellow delinquents in part because of social selection processes and in part because delinquent youth are often rejected from prosocial peer groups. Similarly, weak social bonds such as attachment to parents increase the likelihood of delinquent behavior as youth are less constrained to follow the wishes and values of their parents, but involvement in delinquency is likely to further erode the bond to parents since it is typically antithetical to parental wishes and desires.

Thus, delinquent behavior is not merely the outcome of earlier risk factors and causal processes. It is part and parcel of its own development. Weak bonds to conventional society allow for the emergence of delinquent behavior, values, and associations. But as individuals become enmeshed in these delinquent influences, it is likely that their bonds to the conventional world will become further eroded. As a result, alienation from parents and family is likely to increase as does school disengagement. These reciprocal relationships are reflected in the bidirectional arrows presented in Fig. 1. Some are stronger during middle adolescence than others, as reflected in the solid lines, but the orientation of the theory as a state-dependence model (Nagin and Paternoster 1991) is evident. Past delinquent behavior is correlated with future delinquent behavior because of the consequences – the erosion of bonds to conventional society and embeddedness in deviant networks – that it generates.

These reciprocal relationships create behavioral trajectories that lead to different patterns of offending over the life course. At one extreme are youth who are strongly bonded to conventional institutions of family and school and are not embedded in delinquent networks. For them prolonged involvement in delinquency is highly unlikely. At the other extreme are youth from dysfunctional families who have weak bonds with conventional institutions and abundant sources of delinquent peer networks. For these youth chronic, serious offending is much more likely. And, of course, there can be a variety of offending trajectories between these extremes. Moreover, the starting values that give rise to these different trajectories are systematically related to structural variables. Two of the most central are social class and neighborhood composition. Children from impoverished families, especially those living in areas of concentrated disadvantage, suffer from a number of stressors that increase the likelihood of weak bonds and delinquent embeddedness as compared to children from families living in more advantaged neighborhoods with more resources and better schools.

Life Course Extensions

Thornberry and Krohn (2001, 2005) extended interactional theory to account for offending over longer portions of the life course. Antisocial behavior can emerge at virtually any age, from toddlerhood to adulthood. Childhood onset of offending is accounted for by three broad factors – individual characteristics, ineffective parenting, and social disadvantage. Children who exhibit early involvement in antisocial behavior are likely to suffer from a variety of negative developmental traits and neuropsychological deficits, such as impulsivity, risk-taking, and negative emotionality. They are more likely to be born to families experiencing severe structural adversity such as chronic poverty, unemployment, and residence in areas of concentrated poverty. They are also more likely to experience less effective parenting styles such as low affective ties with parents, ineffective monitoring and discipline, and, at the extreme, child maltreatment. More importantly, very early onset of antisocial behavior is likely to be brought about by the intense coupling and interaction of these influences. For example, bidirectional influences between the child’s temperament and the parent’s child management style have been observed as early as toddlerhood (Shaw and Bell 1993). Also, social disadvantage contributes to both parenting deficits and to negative temperamental qualities in the child.

Antisocial behavior that emerges during late childhood and early adolescence is more likely to be caused by environmental influences. Those influences, which were largely described above and in the original statement of interactional theory (Thornberry 1987), include the weakening of social bonds, associations with delinquent peers, the formation of delinquent beliefs, and the reciprocal influences that develop among them over time.

Thornberry and Krohn (2005) also account for unusually late onset – late bloomers or offenders whose criminal careers do not begin until late adolescence/early adulthood, after the normative peak of onset as described by the age-crime curve. Interactional theory hypothesizes that late bloomers have a number of individual deficits (e.g., internalizing problems like anxiety and depression) as well as reduced human capital (e.g., lower intelligence and lower academic competence). At earlier ages, however, these risk factors for delinquency are offset by compensating factors such as a supportive family, residence in more organized communities, and strong school environments. During emerging adulthood the individual leaves the protective environment of the family and school, begins to seek his or her own identity, and enters adult roles such as employee, partner, and parent. As the prosocial cocoon of adolescence is lost, the individual deficits begin to emerge, creating stress which is likely to be linked to late onset of antisocial behavior such as drug use and criminality.

Continuity And Change

In addition to issues related to onset, life course theories are also interested in the twin topics of continuity and change. Continuity in offending is somewhat more likely for those who start early than for those who start later. Unlike taxonomic theories (e.g., Moffitt 1993), however, interactional theory assumes that continuity is not tightly linked to age of onset. Although there is a positive correlation between onset and persistence, the magnitude of the correlation is moderate (Krohn et al. 2001). Regardless of when one’s delinquent career begins, it is possible for that career to continue. Continuity is accounted for by two general processes. The first, which is much more important for those with an early onset of offending, is the stability of factors associated with delinquency. Negative temperamental qualities, ineffective parenting styles, and extreme social disadvantage are all relatively stable over time. Therefore, these factors are likely to continue causing involvement in delinquency at later ages offering a partial explanation for persistence. The second general process, which is important for all offenders regardless of their age of onset, stems from the bidirectional relationships within which delinquency is embedded. As we saw earlier, delinquency has feedback effects that further intensify the factors associated with its causality. Delinquency, especially serious delinquency, erodes social bonds with family, school, and prosocial peers and embeds the individual in deviant social networks and belief systems. As those reciprocal relations intensify, persistent involvement in delinquency becomes more likely.

Although some offenders do indeed persist in antisocial behavior throughout long portions of their lives, most offenders stop or desist from involvement in crime. Involvement in delinquent and criminal behavior peaks during adolescence, and desistance from crime typically unfolds during the transition from adolescence to adulthood. This transition affords new opportunities for social bonds that can reverse previous patterns of behavior. In particular, the major developmental challenges of this developmental stage are to complete the development of autonomy and independence from the family of origin, to establish one’s own family of procreation, and to establish stable patterns of work. Successfully doing so is likely to lead to reductions in involvement in antisocial behavior. First, all of these transitions increase bonds to conventional society – especially the roles of partner, parent, and worker. Second, as the individual becomes enmeshed in the conventional roles, they are less likely to associate with deviant peers and to engage in risky time with friends; friendships gradually change to prosocial networks organized around family and work. All of these changes are likely to reduce involvement in antisocial behavior, and at this point, the reciprocal influences begin to work in reverse – increasing social bonds enhances prosocial behavior patterns, and those behavior patterns feedback to increase prosocial bonds. Of course, smooth and successful transitions to adulthood are not available to all. For example, the more extensive an individual’s delinquent career, the harder it is to move from antisocial to prosocial behavior patterns. Nevertheless, most youth come through adolescence with enough human and social capital to give them entre´e to successful transitions to adulthood. It may be through a “good marriage” or a set of skills that opens employment opportunities, but once those transitions are initiated, the movement away from antisocial behavior is enhanced.

Intergenerational Extensions

Linked lives, a basic premise of the life course perspective, argue that an individual’s life course does not unfold independently of that of others. Quite the contrary, the life courses of intimate relations – husbands and wives, best friends, and parents and children – become interwoven over time and mutually influence one another. Consistent with this, there is evidence of intergenerational continuity in delinquency, drug use, and other antisocial behaviors. That is to say, children born to parents who have a history of involvement in delinquent behavior are themselves at significantly increased risk of also becoming involved in delinquent behavior (Farrington 2011; Thornberry 2005, 2009). There are a number of possible explanations for this level of intergenerational continuity ranging from purely genetic influences to shared environmental influences. Interactional theory’s explanation for how parental behavior can influence child behavior in this regard is firmly rooted in the life course perspective and is summarized in Fig. 2.

Interactional Theory of Delinquency Research Paper

One of the basic premises of interactional theory is that antisocial behavior has important causal influences on subsequent aspects of the person’s development. Involvement in delinquency, especially if it is prolonged and serious, is not cost-free – it has negative consequences for the individual and, eventually, for the individual’s children. Some of the important consequences that bear on the next generation are represented in Fig. 2. First, there is considerable evidence that delinquent careers are associated with disorderly transitions from adolescence to adulthood. Delinquency interferes with the successful completion of the major developmental tasks of adolescence, and delinquents are significantly more likely to drop out of high school, to become teen parents, to cohabit and exhibit unstable patterns of family formation, and to have higher rates of unemployment or underemployment. Both a history of delinquency and experiencing these disorderly transitions increase the likelihood of experiencing structural adversity as indicated by such factors as poverty, receipt of welfare, and residence in areas of concentrated disadvantage. All of these influences increase stressors such as depression, financial stress, aversive life events, and partner conflict. In other words, delinquent careers can initiate a cascade of negative influences that interfere with adolescent development, disrupt an orderly transition to adult roles, and create stress and disadvantage during the period of early or emerging adulthood. These outcomes are not preordained by delinquent careers, but they are significantly more likely to occur for serious delinquents as compared to nondelinquents. Young adults experiencing this constellation of factors are poorly prepared to enter the role of parent and to provide a safe, stable, and nurturing environment for their children. They are more likely to remain involved in antisocial behaviors including substance use and to remain embedded in deviant social networks. In addition, they are less likely to develop strong prosocial bonds to conventional institutions, in particular in the arenas of family and work.

These problematic developmental processes have important intergenerational implications. The most potent pathway by which they influence the child’s development and likelihood of delinquency is via their effect on family processes such as family conflict, hostility, and especially the quality of parenting behaviors. Less effective parenting styles include low affective ties and reduced involvement with the child, inconsistent monitoring and standard-setting, explosive and inconsistent disciplinary styles, and, at the extreme, child maltreatment. A robust literature describes the impact of ineffective parenting on the onset and maintenance of delinquent careers (Patterson et al. 1992). Children exposed to this style of parenting are more apt to be involved in delinquency, drug use, and other antisocial behaviors. They are also unfortunately less likely to develop prosocial competencies that may buffer them from these parental risk factors.

In general, the developmental processes depicted in Fig. 2 describe a set of pathways that lead from adolescent antisocial behavior by the parent to an elevated risk for involvement in antisocial behavior by their children. Parental delinquency creates disorder in their life course that enhances the probability of structural disadvantage, stressors, and antisocial behavior during the early-adult years, all of which interferes with the development of competent and effective parenting styles for rearing their children. Those inappropriate parenting styles are the most proximal influences on the child’s behavior and the most powerful mediators between parental and child antisocial behavior. These processes certainly do not account for all of the intergenerational continuity in antisocial behavior that has been observed, but they are proposed to account for a substantial share of the variance.

And, at this point, we have come full circle. The children initiate involvement in delinquent behavior in part because they are linked to their parent’s history and prior behaviors and to the consequences of those behaviors. But once initiated, their own delinquency begins to have the reciprocal effects described in the original version of interactional theory. Delinquency potentially weakens their bonds to society and enhances their embeddedness in deviant networks thereby increasing the likelihood of an escalating level of involvement in delinquent careers.

Empirical Support

Over the years a considerable amount of empirical support for interactional theory has been demonstrated. The core contention of interactional theory is that delinquency is embedded in a set of mutually reinforcing reciprocal relationships and that delinquency has consequences for the person’s later development. In 1996 Thornberry reviewed 17 studies of delinquency and crime that examined bidirectional relationships. Overwhelmingly, they provided empirical data consistent with this core contention. For example, weak social bonds increase delinquent behavior, and involvement in delinquency further attenuates the strength of social bonds. Similarly, association with delinquent peers and delinquent beliefs increase the likelihood of delinquent behavior, and delinquency further cements those associations and beliefs.

In the context of the Rochester Youth Development Study, Thornberry and colleagues conducted a number of empirical assessments of interactional theory (see Thornberry et al. 2003b, for a summary). Jang and Smith (1997) found that delinquency and parental supervision are involved in mutually reinforcing relationships over time. In contrast, the relationship between attachment to parents and delinquency is unidirectional, but interestingly, delinquent behavior was found to attenuate attachment, while attachment was not significantly related to delinquency. Thornberry et al. (1991) and Thornberry and Henry (2009) demonstrated that engagement in school and delinquency are also reciprocally interrelated. Finally, relationships among beliefs, association with deviant peers, and antisocial behavior were investigated in several studies. Thornberry et al. (1994) focused on delinquent behavior, while Krohn et al. (1996) focused on drug use. In both cases support for interactional theory’s hypotheses was evident. Reciprocal influences between associations and behavior, between beliefs and behavior, as well as between associations and beliefs were generally evident. Overall, there is little evidence to suggest that the major causal influence is simply from social bonds to delinquency or from peer associations to delinquency. In contrast, there is abundant evidence that these relationships are bidirectional and that delinquent careers develop over time both because of these influences and because of the feedback effects of delinquency on those influences.

Another central contention of interactional theory is that involvement in delinquent behavior has long-term consequences disrupting the normal course of adolescent development and transitions from adolescence to adulthood. Consistent with expectations, involvement in delinquency and drug use was found to be significantly related to early pregnancy, teenage parenthood, high school dropout, and living independently from one’s parents during the teenage years (Krohn et al. 1997; Smith et al. 2000). In line with these findings from the Rochester Youth Development Study, many other longitudinal studies also find that involvement in adolescent antisocial behavior leads to later disruption in life course development (see, e.g., Huizinga et al. 2003; Newcomb and Bentler 1988).

Core aspects of the intergenerational theory presented in Fig. 2 have been examined in the context of the Rochester Intergenerational Study. First, there is clear evidence of intergenerational continuity both for general antisocial behavior and for drug use. Parental involvement in these behaviors significantly increases the likelihood of child involvement in these behaviors (Thornberry 2005, 2009; Thornberry et al. 2003a, 2006, 2009). Interestingly, the level of intergenerational continuity is moderated by the level of ongoing parental contact with the child in a manner that is quite consistent with interactional theory’s emphasis on environmental influences. In particular, the impact of parental criminality on child criminality is statistically significant for mothers, virtually all of whom are primary caretakers of their children, as it is for supervisory fathers, who have ongoing contact with their children. In contrast, for nonsupervisory fathers – those who have little or no contact with their children – the relationship is not statistically significant and is quite close to zero (Thornberry 2005, 2009; Thornberry et al. 2003a, 2006, 2009). A similar pattern also appears to emerge between the drug-use patterns of grandparents and grandchildren (Thornberry et al. 2006). Overall, the pattern of findings in the Rochester study suggests that ongoing contact between the parent and child is essential for the intergenerational transfer of risk for antisocial behavior to occur (see also Jaffee et al. 2003).

Second, these intergenerational analyses from the Rochester study also offer strong support for the mediational model of intergenerational continuity described above (see Fig. 2). These studies (Thornberry 2005, 2009; Thornberry et al. 2003a, 2009) examined different aspects of parental antisocial behavior; different disorderly transitions; varying types of stressors such as depression, financial stress, exposure to negative life events, and parenting stress; different aspects of parenting styles sometimes based on interview data and sometimes based on direct observational data; and different aspects of the child’s antisocial behavior measured by different reporters. Despite these methodological and measurement variations, the results are uniformly supportive of interactional theory’s predictions. Adolescent antisocial behavior on the part of the parent leads to later life course disorder that in turn leads to ineffective parenting styles that increase the chances of the child’s antisocial behavior.

The findings presented by Thornberry et al. (2009) illustrate this general pattern. For mothers, they found that parental drug use and delinquency during adolescence, as well as being a teenage mother, significantly increased their early-adult depressive symptoms. In turn, depressive symptoms significantly reduced their attachment to the child and that significantly impacted the child’s externalizing behavior problems. In addition, maternal depression had a direct impact on the child’s behavior. For the supervisory fathers, adolescent involvement in drugs and delinquency increased their early-adult depressive symptoms; depressive symptoms reduced the father’s level of attachment to the child and that, in turn, was related to the child’s externalizing behavior problems.

A number of other intergenerational studies also report results that confirm interactional theory’s basic explanation for intergenerational continuity in antisocial behavior (e.g., Capaldi et al. 2003; Conger et al. 2003). First, these studies find that a history of parental delinquency increases the likelihood of child delinquency. More importantly, they also find that this intergenerational impact is largely indirect, mediated by the types of development processes depicted in Fig. 2. Of particular importance are disorderly transitions to adult roles, continued involvement in antisocial behavior, and, especially, parenting behaviors. As hypothesized by interactional theory, an ineffective parenting style – low attachment, poor monitoring, harsh discipline, etc. – is the strongest and most proximal mediator of the impact of a parent’s history of delinquency on the likelihood of delinquent involvement by their offspring.


Interactional theory, first proposed in 1987, offers a broad explanation for involvement in antisocial behavior across the life course as well as for intergenerational continuity in antisocial behavior. It attempts to account both for the major causal processes that are associated with the onset of delinquent careers at different stages of the life course as well as for the consequences of involvement in delinquent behavior. This theoretical approach views delinquency as part of a dynamic developmental process in which factors like individual characteristics, family processes, and peer networks bring about delinquency, but involvement in delinquency also has causal impacts on those factors and, more generally, the person’s later development. Those consequences help to account for levels of change and continuity in offending patterns as well as the manner in which the lives of parents and their children are linked with respect to antisocial behavior. There is also a body of empirical support for the basic tenets of the theory and its explanation of offending across the life course and across generations.


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