Sampson & Laub's Age-Graded Life-Course Theory of Crime
When we moved to Connecticut with our five-year-old son, we wanted him to make friends. Unfortunately, we didn’t really know anyone in town, so we randomly selected two kids from his class to invite over for a play-date. Well, it went just fine, but what I remember best about it was my impressions of the two kids. Even though they were just kindergartners, they acted very differently.
One kid was quite prosocial—he was polite, listened to my wife and me when we gave the kids instructions, and overall he was “nice.” The other kid, though, was a bit of a scamp. He wasn’t mean-spirited, but he used rather rough language (at least for a kindergartner), and he would periodically act out by being too rough with my son and the other boy.
Fast forward ten years, and the nice boy is one of my son’s best friends. We see him on a regular basis, and he remains a really good kid. The other kid got kicked out of school a couple of times, and we’ve lost track of him. The last I heard from my son, he was in some sort of legal trouble. Hopefully, though, he’ll be able to straighten things out and make a good life for himself.
This story echoes an observation made by Lee Robins, a psychologist who studies crime. She noted that all antisocial adults were antisocial as children; however, not all antisocial children grow up to be antisocial adults. This observation provided important insight for theories of crime. It holds that very few “good” kids get involved in crime and other forms of antisocial behavior as adults. Once prosocial, always prosocial. In contrast, some “bad” kids grow up to be antisocial, criminal adults, but others do not. In statistical language, being antisocial as a child is a necessary, but not sufficient, predictor that a child will be antisocial as an adult.
My son’s friends support this observation. The nice, well-behaved kindergartener remains so now that he’s a high school kid. This illustrates the stability of prosocial behavior. The kid who got into trouble, however, seems to have continued to do so, but we’re hoping that he’ll work things out. This illustrates antisocial behavior continuing into adulthood, but, according to Robins’ observation, there is hope for change.
Rob Sampson and John Laub used this observation to anchor their age-graded, life-course theory of crime. They developed this theory using some of the most fascinating data ever studied by criminologists. In the 1940s, Sheldon and Eleanor Gluck conducted a longitudinal study of troubled boys in Boston. These boys were in their early teens and had already been in trouble with the law and put into reform school. The Glucks collected extensive records about the boys and studied them through adolescence. The study was put aside until Sampson and Laub found their data boxed up in the basement of the Harvard Library.
Sampson and Laub reconstructed the data and followed-up with the original respondents, who were then around 60 years old. Sampson and Laub found out that some of the troubled boys ended up in trouble with the law for the rest of their lives, while others lived very conventional lives and had no legal problems. This variation fit with Robins’ observation, and it lead Sampson and Laub to ask why some of the troubled kids turned out well and others didn’t.
Their answer used principles of life-course development. Specifically, they found that the troubled kids who got straightened out experienced some sort of turning point—an event or life circumstance that pulled them out of their criminal lifestyle and into a more conventional pattern of behavior. Such turning points included military service, employment, and marriage. Military service provided structure and discipline for the reform school boys. Employment and marriage provided stability and the need to walk the straight-and-narrow if they wanted to keep their jobs and marriage.
What’s important about this theory is that it brings together social influences on crime, such as family and employment, with psychological predispositions. This social psychological approach to crime adds some of the best features of strictly psychological and sociological approaches, for it acknowledges personal differences in criminal propensity, but it also makes a place for society to overrule, or at least counteract, these propensities. This gives some hope that the troubled kid who came over to our house that one day will find the right job or partnership to turn his life around.