Life-Course Criminology: Comparing the Dual Taxonomy and Age-Graded Theories of Criminal Behavior

By Joana Ferreira
2016, Vol. 8 No. 06 | pg. 1/1

One of the most well established assertions in criminology is that of the relationship between crime and age (e.g. Sampson & Laub, 1992, 1998; McAra & McVie, 2012), in which developmentally orientated researchers attempt to explain how crime unfolds across the life course. From this impetus, the criminal career paradigm was developed, later setting the inspiration for developmental and life-course criminology (DLC). The aim of this framework is to explain offending by individuals through the analysis of the impact of different events at different stages of life as antisocial behaviour develops (Farrington, 2005, 2010). Several theories, from psychological to more sociological ones, have been proposed to study these questions. This paper undertakes a comparative analysis of these theories to facilitate in the identification of strong and weak points in their theoretical constructions.

Two theories are the the focus of this paper, namely Moffitt’s (1993) dual taxonomy and Sampson & Laub’s Age-Graded Theory (1993). Firstly, the framework and main assumptions of these theories are briefly presented. Subsequently, both theories are compared in an approach valuing the analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of the first one when confronted with the latter.

Moffitt’s theory is explained first, as it is the touchstone of this paper. Moving away from the reduction of offending to a single theoretical approach (see Skardhamar, 2009), the author has constructed a developmental taxonomy sustaining the existence of two qualitatively different groups of individuals, “each in need of its own distinct theoretical explanation” (Moffitt, 1993, p. 674). Thus, she proposes an adolescence-limited (AL) group of offenders and a life-course-persistent (LCP) one. These would emerge from the “distinction between temporary and persistent antisocial behaviour” (Moffit 1993, p. 674), respectively.

LCPs are characterized by continuity in their antisocial behaviour, starting from an early age and persisting throughout the life-span (Moffitt, 1993). Their action includes a wide range of antisocial and criminal behaviours (Moffitt, 1993) which refers to the notion of heterotypic continuity. This assumes the continuity of an underlying trait (or genotype) that would be accountable for different behavioural manifestations (Moffitt, 1993). According to Moffitt (1993), persistent offending is explained by neuropsychological vulnerabilities during childhood interacting with criminogenic environments. Thus, “individual differences in child neuropsychological health initiate a cumulative process of person X environment interactions, culminating in a pathological adult antisocial personality structure [cumulative continuity].” (Moffitt, 1994, p. 3).

On the other hand, ALs are characterized by the absence of a past history of antisocial behaviour and, therefore, by the reduced likelihood of adopting that kind of behaviour in the future. Unlike LCPs, discontinuity is the hallmark of these late onseters whose short criminal careers are limited to adolescence (Moffitt, 1993, 1994, 2006).

Understandably, the causal factors on the basis of adolescence-limited antisocial behaviour differ from those explaining persistence. Central to delinquency during adolescence is the ‘maturity gap’, a breach between biological and sociological maturity that results from individuals reaching the age of biological maturity at an earlier age but not being granted access to the attractive status of adulthood (Moffitt, 1993, 1994). Delinquency appears as a behaviour that allows access to the desirable mature status (motivation), obtained by mimicking those peers who apparently have already achieved this status – LCPs (Moffitt, 1993, 1994).

As a result, ALs desist from crime as they progress to more adult roles, since motivation decreases and delinquency is no longer seen as rewarding as other alternatives. Adolescence-limited offending is not, consequently, pathological, but rather flexible, adaptative (a response to changing contingencies) and transitional (Moffitt, 1993, 1994). Hence, ALs engage in antisocial behaviour when perceived as beneficial, but they also are capable of refraining from it when it is not as rewarding as other possible alternatives (Moffitt, 1993). For example, an adolescence might shoplift if he or she sees it as advantageous, but might stop doing it if the negative consequences (e.g. being caught) surpass those benefits; thus, once other behaviours are seen as more recompensating the adolescent opts for them.

A third group (which will be discussed explored below) was also mentioned by Moffitt (1993), of those who abstained from delinquency due to late puberty or early adulthood or even to the lack of contact with antisocial peers or opportunities to learn about delinquency. In more recent revisions of her work, Moffitt (2006) has also questioned the need for more typological groups of offenders but those shall not be approached here.

On the other had, Sampson and Laub (1993), in a more sociological approach, developed the age-graded theory.Their primary goal was to analyse “whether (and why) adolescent delinquents persist or desist from crime as they age across the adult life course” (Sampson & Laub 2005a, p. 12). Unlike Moffitt (1993), they developed a single theoretical model which combines “structural and process variables… [and] individual characteristics” (Laub, Sampson & Sweeten 2006, p. 315) and seeks to explain both continuity and discontinuity in offending and antisocial behaviour (Sampson & Laub, 1993, 1997; Laub, et al., 2006).

The theory states that crime is more likely to occur when an individuals’ bond to society is weakened or broken. In a dynamic approach, “individual behaviour is mediated over time through interaction with age-graded institutions” (Laub, et al., 2006), which vary across the life-span. Age-graded changes in the social bonds an individual establishes, for example with their family or friends, explain changes in antisocial or criminal behaviour, independently of previous criminal propensity (Sampson & Laub, 1993, 1997, 2006).

The theory concerns the whole life-course, emphasizing change rather continuity. Thus, relevance is given to life events and their impact on offending and its (dis)continuity (Laub, et al., 2006), which is illustrated by their notion of turning points. These result from the intersection of trajectories – “long-term patterns of behavior” – and trasitions – “life events … that are embedded in trajectories and evolve over shorter time spans” (Sampson & Laub, 1997, p. 10) – and can give place to changes in the life path, either positive or negative (Sampson & Laub, 1997). Finally, the authors emphasize human agency and personal choice impact in determining behaviour and life paths, as well as having structured routine activities (Sampson & Laub, 2005a).

Now that an overview has been given, this paper will proceed with the assessment of Moffitt’s theory when confronted with that of Sampson and Laub. It will be shown although there are some positive aspects in Moffitt’s approach, it is clear that they are surpassed by its vulnerabilities.

What seems to be immediately striking is that the age-graded theory highlights the dual taxonomy’s fragilities. To begin with, Moffitt’s taxonomy (1993) lacks an underlying construct that would be explanatory of antisocial behaviour (Farrington, 2006). Instead, she presents several concepts that influence this behaviour, such as neuropsychological deficits for LCPs and ‘maturity gap’ for ALs (Moffitt, 1993) – this results in the need for different theoretical assumptions. Sampson and Laub, however, propose a unique framework to explain antisocial behaviour, developing a single underlying construct (age-graded social control) that accounts for all behavioural manifestations (Farrington, 2006).

The implications of this are clarified by Farrington, “if no underlying construct is proposed, it seems likely that a more complex theory might be needed involving different factors influencing different types of antisocial behaviour” (2006, p. 345), and this is what is seen with the taxonomy. Ultimately, this has practical implications on how to approach crime and achieve its effective reduction, which has led many authors to question the real necessity of typological or group approach to delinquency (see Sampson & Laub, 2005b).

It should not be overlooked though that the fact that Moffitt presented a highly specific theory with concrete factors and predictions for each group of offenders, has allowed her to achieve a considerable testability level (Sampson & Laub, 2005b).

Another dimension worth mentioning is Moffitt’s deterministic approach to LCPs. These individuals are assumed to be ‘doomed’ to a life-time of antisocial, enchained by the past, with virtually no possible escape in the future. Undoubtedly, this appears to be a far-fetched proposition, not clearly backed up by empirical evidence, as several of Moffitt’s assumptions.

Firstly, attention will be given to the link between childhood and adult offending. As it was said earlier, LCPs comprise neuropsychological deficits in interaction with criminogenic environments and the lack of opportunities to learn socially acceptable behaviours. Thus, troubled children exposed to these conditions would not be able to break from delinquency and would therefore persist until, at least, mid-life (Moffitt, 1993, 1994, 2006). Apparently, there is an assumption of an “unbreakable chain,” as children with neuropsychological deficits (cognitive deficits, hyperactivity) usually share this characteristics with their parents, that provide them with criminogenic environments (poor parenting, disrupted families, poverty), reducing their opportunities to learn alternative prosocial skills and behaviours (Farrington, 2006; Moffitt, 2006).

Moffitt (1997) presented evidence that suggests there is this strong impact of childhood events on persistence, for LCPs specially (e.g. Moffitt & Silva, 1988; Nagin & Land, 1993; Nagin, Farrington, & Moffitt, 1995, White, Moffitt, Earls, Robins, & Silva, 1990). Particularly, the Dunedin Multidisciplinary and Health Development Study should be mentioned, as it has set the basis for the assumptions of the taxonomy. In a first description of the results of this study, Moffitt (1990) distinguished two main groups of youngsters, with the childhood-onseters being characterized by a combination of atypical individual and contextual risk factors (e.g. hyperactivity, disrupted families, among others) and showing higher persistence in their behaviour (e.g. 5% of the boys accounted for 68% of the sample stability, see Moffitt, 1997). Several follow-up studies of this longitudinal research took place later on (see e.g. Moffitt and Caspi, 2001; Piquero & Moffitt, 2005) and other studies were pointed out by the author which support, at least partially, her theoretical assumptions on the prediction of future offending (Moffitt, 1997, see e.g. Moffitt, Caspi, Rutter & Silva, 2001).

However, the context and conditions under which these studies were conducted should be considered. For example, it could be questioned whether the conditions to which the participants of either the Glueck and Glueck’s study or the Dunedin were the same and how would that impact the results obtained. This study was carried with New Zealand males, and the specific social framework of this country has to be considered, as well as its impact on the extent as to which the results can be applied to other populations.

In a different view, other serious and intensive testing of these theories have come to challenge this idea that trajectories can be “prospectively identified based on typological accounts rooted in childhood and individual differences” (Sampson & Laub, 2005b, p. 173). A relevant example is Sampson and Laub’s (2003) longitudinal study, a unique 35-years long developmental study that followed-up on Glueck & Glueck’s (1950) participants. The results of this research have somehow given way to break this postulation of “bad boys-bad men” (Sampson & Laub, 2005b, p. 173) that seems to have been haunting developmental criminology. The authors have concluded that childhood and individual predictors do not successfully allow the distinction between groups of trajectories on the long term, for instances, they all presented similar results from assessed variables (Sampson & Laub, 2003).

As made evident, the authors supported their statement resourcing to a longitudinal study, which allowed for the analysis of within-individual differences in offending (in contrast with the group approach) (Sampson & Laub, 2005b). In fact, one of the most avid criticism to the dual taxonomy is that it is based on studies focused on “portions of the life course” (Sampson & Laub, 2005b, p. 174), with outcomes, including typologies or groups, and trajectories identified retrospectively (Sampson & Laub, 2003, 2005b). This is the norm for most typoligical theories, including Moffitt’s, and eventually undermines their empirical support (Sampson & Laub, 2003). Of course, it should not be disregarded that this kind of research is not always viable, due to lack of resources and limited strategies to carry them out.

Following this line of thoughts, the approach that both perspectives have on desistence ought to be considered. As already stated uncountable times, Moffitt (1993) presents a very reductionist and limited view of LCPs, asserting in her original theory that they continuously offend since childhood throughout the entire life-span, even though she later came to state that individuals do not persist in that sense but that they maintain some kind of antisocial behaviour throughout their lives (Moffitt, 2006).

Sampson and Laub (1993), however, propose a more dynamic approach, focusing on “change, unpredictability and a lack of continuity” (Farrington, 2005b, p. 254). They have come to reveal, again in their 35-years study, that crimes declines with age for all offender groups (Sampson & Laub, 2003, 2005), even those classified by Moffitt as life-course persistent. At the basis of the explanation of desistence, the researchers accentuate the importance of events such as marriage and employment (e.g. Laub, Nagin & Sampson, 1998; Warr 1998) in adult life that provide opportunities to the (re)establish social bonds that promote the drift from antisocial behaviour.

Moffitt (1993) considers this of little importance since LCPs would be embedded in antisocial behaviour in such a way that that would not be counterbalanced. It might be relevant to ask, not withstanding, if these events would have the same impact within the present reality of unemployment and where divorce rates are higher. Would these still act as positively influencing events?

Later on, Sampson and Laub came to recognize that social bonding was not sufficient to fully understand desistence (Bottoms, 2006), and the concept of human agency comes into play, by mediating the remaining variables (Laub & Sampson, 2001; Sampson & Laub, 2005b). Again, this contrasts with Moffitt’s approach on the role of choice and individual will, that is practically, if not entirely, non-existent for LCPs. In fact, she does not include the possibility of rational choice for this latter group, although she seems to recognize ALs are capable of rational decision-making that would make them give up on delinquency (Moffitt, 1993, 1994, 1997). The reason behind these difference in assumptions between groups is not evidently presented by the author who, ultimately, seems to justify it all under the umbrella of the ideas of “maladaptive behaviour” and an “antisocial personality” that are the supporting traits of these individuals.

Before moving forward, it is worth noting that despite moving forward with this component of human agency and its relevance towards the desistance process, Sampson and Laub (2003) approach of this concept, in their latest works, is rather vague and its mechanisms are not fully explored, if explained at all (Bottoms, 2006).

Until now, criticism towards Moffitt and her work have led in this paper. Notwithstanding, the strengths of her theoretical approach should also receive attention, as her theorization is still one of the most accounted for in the field of DLC.

As stated earlier, Sampson and Laub (1993) present an imminently sociological approach centered on the role of informal social control. Moffitt’s taxonomy, combining a micro and macro-level of approach (Wellford & Solé, 2002), draws attention upon the interactional relationship between the biological and environmental perspectives when referring to LCPs (neuropsychological vulnerabilities/criminogenic environments), and also, to same extent, to ALs (biological maturity/criminogenic environments). Moffitt (1993) suggests the possibility that behaviour might be influenced even by genetic factors, and there is consistent research showing these might be at the etiology of antisocial behaviour (see e.g. Moffitt, 2005).

Contrastingly, the age-graded theory has a considerably more limited view, neglecting any biological influence. This is understandably appealing within sociology, as individual are seen as social beings, not constrained by biological determinism. But the interaction between biological and sociological elements is determinant even for assessing the impact of the latter factors (see Moffitt & Caspi, 2006). Regarding environment, although considered, namely through the influence of structural adversity (Sampson & Laub, 2005b), which evidence supports as a factor contributing to antisocial behaviour during adolescence, the authors do not mention, for instance, the role of neighbourhoods (Farrington, 2006).

Evidently, both theories have different approaches on the explanation of offending along the life-course and propose different justifications for key empirical issues. When assessing and confronting these theories, some keys issues risen which might render their effective comparison.

A question that immediately rises concerns the notion of crime. Due to the lack of a widely accepted definition, the use of the concept ‘crime’ is not as evident as it might seem and has an impact on how different approaches are interpreted. Moffitt (1993) constantly recurs to the notion of antisocial behaviour and even delinquency, while Sampson and Laub (1993) prefer the use of the notion of crime. Should it be assumed that the researchers refer to the same kind of behaviours? Or different notions account for different behavioural manifestations? These queries have to be addressed in order to understand the full scope of each theory and what it tries to explain. This has for once an impact on policy making, as the approaches to reduce ‘crime’ are not necessarily the same orientated to tackle antisocial behaviour.

A different consideration regards the notion of ‘age’. Moffitt’s typology is said to address the age-crime curve, namely the sharp peak at seventeen and the deep drop in early adulthood (Moffitt 1997) and Sampson and Laub (2005) included its analysis. Although this will not be deeply explored, there is one question that urges to be asked: to what extent is it useful to consider biological age? Does being the same age imply the same stage of development? Moffitt implicitly seems to assume that, despite how old they are, individuals might not be at the same level of development, namely, when questioning the possibility of a group of “abstainers” (Moffitt, 1993). Focusing on age might also disregard personality traits could influence behaviour.

In conclusion, this comparison exercise is crucial to identify the advantages and disadvantages and, hopefully, improve these theories in order to obtain better predictions and more effective approaches on crime (Farrington, 2006). However, the lack of effort to tackle this fragilities is clear, for instances, in Moffitt’s case. Indeed, several research has defied some of the theory’s main assumptions, the author herself, as recognized them, but still no changes or adaptations are made. Again, we face the problem of over theorization in criminology, and the lack of integration between approaches.


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