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- Peer Influence in Homogeneity
- Differential Association Theory
- Role of Nonadolescents
The concept of adolescent networks can be understood in either of two ways: as networks composed (exclusively) of adolescents, or as the personal networks of adolescents, which may include many nonadolescents, such as the adolescent’s parents and other adult relatives, older or younger siblings, teachers, or adults in the neighborhood. Adolescent networks in the former sense are often called peer networks, as they are composed of persons of approximately the same age, or age peers. Much of the research on the personal networks of adolescents ignores the presence of adults and children in these networks, thereby conflating the two meanings of the term: the salient network of a particular adolescent is presumed to be a network of adolescents, or peer network. Ignoring the role of adults and children in the adolescent’s network is implicitly or explicitly justified by the assumption, or belief, that adults and children have little salience in the lives of adolescents. While childhood is characterized by adult controls, and adulthood by relative autonomy, adolescence is the time in life when the influence of age peers is believed to be paramount. It follows that adolescent networks are studied mainly because of the presumed influence of age peers in the adolescent’s life, which is exerted through the adolescent’s peer network. Many attitudes, behaviors, and conditions have been found to be spread through the adolescent peer network; for example, cigarette smoking, illegal drug use, and other forms of deviant and illegal behavior; eating and overeating behavior; body image; sexual practices; and sexually transmitted diseases.
Peer Influence in Homogeneity
While in most pairs of connected adolescents—or dyads—each will have some influence over the other (bidirectional influence), their mutual influence may be equal (symmetric) or unequal (asymmetric). In the extreme case of asymmetric influence, it may flow in only one direction, in which case the influence is said to be unidirectional. However, influence in adolescent networks is by no means limited to direct dyadic ties. Each member of the entire network potentially influences each of its members, with the strength of the influence of any member on any other member attenuated by the distance (number of intermediaries) between them and positively associated with the strength of the ties making up the path between the sender and receiver.
The outcome of peer influence is to make the recipient of influence more similar—in attitude, behavior, or condition—to the sender of the influence. Thus, adolescent networks tend to become increasingly homogeneous over time. More precisely, cliques tend to form within networks. A clique is a subset of a network that is characterized by relatively dense and strong ties among its members. Different cliques are interconnected within the larger network by weaker and sparser ties. Members of a clique tend to be relatively similar to one another: the dense, strong ties among clique members allow the unimpeded flow of mutual influence.
Homogeneity in adolescent networks, and especially cliques, is due not only to peer influence but also to homophily, also known as selection or preferential association: the tendency to prefer interaction with people who are similar to oneself, the extreme obverse of which is xenophobia. Adolescents are strongly homophilous with respect to such attributes as gender, age, and ethnicity. Homophily and peer influence are mutually reinforcing: adolescent networks tend to add new members who are similar to existing members and to shed members who are different; meanwhile, members are subject to mutual influence to become more similar to one another. Similarly, within the larger network, ties are formed or strengthened between members who are similar and weakened or broken between members who are dissimilar; this leads to the increasing differentiation of internally homogeneous cliques and their decreasing external connectedness with each other.
It is relatively straightforward to measure and document the homogeneity of adolescent networks and cliques. It is much harder to disentangle the effects of selection (homophily) and influence. However, estimating the separate effect of each factor on homogeneity has applied significance. For example, it has long been known that delinquent adolescents tend to have delinquent friends, and the level of delinquency of an adolescent’s friends is one of the best, if not the best, predictor of the level of his or her own delinquency. However, prediction is not causal explanation. The similarity could be due to adolescents becoming delinquent because they have delinquent friends, or becoming more (or less) delinquent because they have friends who are more (or less) delinquent than themselves (influence), or it could be due to adolescents preferring the company of others with a level of delinquency similar to their own (homophily). Both processes could operate and be mutually reinforcing.
Differential Association Theory
The former explanation (influence) was formulated by Edwin Sutherland as his famous differential association theory, which explains delinquency (or nondelinquency) as a result of association with delinquent (or nondelinquent) friends. The policy implication of his theory is that adolescents should be kept away from delinquents, both as a preventative measure for nondelinquents and as a rehabilitative measure for delinquents. Also, delinquents should be exposed to nondelinquent influences, but in a way that does not put the nondelinquents at risk of becoming delinquent: for example, the delinquent should be exposed to a peer network that is so strongly nondelinquent that the delinquent’s influence will be negligible, or should be exposed to nondelinquent influences that are asymmetric, or even unidirectional, such as those from prosocial adults. However, to the extent that delinquent friendship networks and cliques are the result of homophily, not influence, there is no harm in letting adolescents associate with delinquents and no rehabilitative value in keeping delinquents away from other delinquents.
Differential association theory has such strong hold on the popular imagination—and that of many policy-makers—that it is difficult to believe that associating with delinquents is not criminogenic. However, it is only recently that researchers have begun to be able to reliably separate the roles of selection and influence in explaining the correlation between an adolescent’s delinquency and that of his or her friends. This is done by longitudinal research designs that are able to statistically determine the extent of the formation of ties in adolescent networks between adolescents of similar levels of delinquency (selection) versus the expression of similarly delinquent attitudes or behavior of pairs of already-tied members (influence). Half a dozen or so such studies have been done in the United States, Sweden, and the Netherlands, and the results have been inconsistent. All have found evidence of both selection and influence in adolescent networks. However, some have found that influence is the stronger effect, while others have found that selection is stronger. The evidence to date is fairly unequivocal that delinquency is at least partly due to differential association, or peer influence, so that exposure to delinquents is criminogenic for adolescents.
Role of Nonadolescents
While research on adolescent networks has emphasized the role of peers and peer influence, the role of nonadolescents has not been entirely neglected. Parents, other adult relatives, and teachers are usually seen in one of two ways. In investigations based on differential association theory, adults are usually conceptualized as prosocial members of the adolescent’s network who contribute, just like prosocial peers, to the total of prosocial influences that are balanced against criminogenic influences from delinquent members of the network. Notable exceptions to this general rule are parents or other adult relatives who are themselves criminal and therefore add to the criminogenic side of the balance of influences. Research has also found that adolescent boys in more disadvantaged neighborhoods are more likely to have young adult men in their networks who pass on their criminal attitudes and knowledge in an example of cross-cohort socialization. Another approach to adolescent networks and delinquency that includes adults in the adolescent network is based in social control theory, which holds that delinquency results when the adolescent has weak social bonds, such as those to family, peers, and school. For example, in Marvin Krohn’s network theory of delinquency, attachment to parents, teachers, and other adults in the adolescent’s personal network is conceptualized as a form of social bond that discourages delinquency.
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