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Through out history, sociologists have conjured different perspectives on society and social behavior, and from these observations sociological theories have been established. This paper will be focusing on one of these theories, which is the symbolic interactionist perspective. According to symbolic interactionist perspectives, society is the sum of the interactions of individuals and groups (Murray, Linden, & Kendall, 2011, p.20). These theorists emphasize on the interaction between one another and the symbols that represent meaning in human communication. This paper will be exploring the cause and effect of youth crime and analyzing this issue through a symbolic interactionist perspective.
The Symbolic Interactionist Perspective
According to McClelland (2009), interactionists focus on the subjective aspects of social life, rather than on objective, macro-structural aspects of social systems. Unlike functional theorists, Interactionists focus on the human being rather than the society as a whole. Functionalist and conflict theorists focus mainly on a macrolevel analysis, while symbolic interactionist approaches are based on a microlevel analysis. George Herbert Mead and Herbert Bloomer are accredited thinkers in contributing to this theory. They believed that society is the sum of interactions of individuals and groups and that symbols are created to represent something meaningful. Understanding these symbols that are created will help understand human behavior. This perspective focuses mainly on our actions as human beings and how those actions can be interpreted in society. This is explained further by, the process is further aided by our ability to think about and to react to our own actions and even our selves as symbolic objects. Thus, the interactionist theorist sees humans as active, creative participants who construct their social world, not as passive, conforming objects of socialization ( McClelland, 2009).
In society, not all members may choose to follow the rules and expectations and may contribute to the well being of the society in a negative way. All societies have some degree of defiance, which is described as – any behavior, belief, or condition that violates cultural norms in the society or group in which it occurs ( Murray et al., 2011, p. 169). This defiance is considered to be a threat to the social control of the society. Symbolic interactionists focus on how people learn what is appropriate in society through socializing with others. According to symbolic interactionists, deviance is learned in the same way as conformity- through interaction with others ( Murray et al., 2011, p. 173).
According to statistics, in 2009, police identified nearly 165,000 youth accused of committing a crime. These included youth who were either charged (or recommended for charging) by police (42%) or dealt with by means other than the formal laying of a charge (58%) (Bressan & Taylor- Butts, 2008). Age is an important factor when viewing youth crime and deviance. “ Arrests increase from early adolescence, peak in young adult hood, and steadily decline with age” (Murray et al., 2011, p. 186). Youth crime is a growing as speak because of the many situations that adolescences may find themselves in, such as peer pressure and pressure of becoming an adult. This specific generation may carry attitudes that because they are minors, that the punishment may not be as harsh as opposed to being charged as an adult. Research shows that, “ harsher sentences for youths (or adults) do not reduce reoffending. Nor would harsher sentences deter others” (Doob & McMurtry, 2011). Even if the government were to impose harsher punishments for youth, this would still not stop youth from reoffending. The most important tactic to help reduce youth crime would be to encourage positive attitudes upon these youth. To do this, theory shows that putting youth in an environment with people who are unlikely to commit a crime will help decrease juvenile offenses. Violent youth tend to have co- occurring problems such as substance abuse, dropping out of school, gang membership, teenage pregnancy, and victimization (Government of Nova Scotia, 2008) . Other types of crime committed by youth involve gang related activity and possession of weapons. Evidence of gang involvement was reported by police in 22% of homicides with a youth accused( Bressan & Taylor- Butts, 2008). Statistics Canada also emphasizes that Drug-related crimes among youth have climbed dramatically over the last 10 years, with a rate of drug offences among youth in 2006 that was nearly double (+97%) that of 10 years earlier (Bressan & Taylor- Butts, 2008). This is a frightening and important statistic that needs to be addressed and should open people’s eyes up to the staggering amount of crimes that youth can commit.
During adolescence years, are usually when youth are breaking away from their parents and may feel that they have little responsibility or social role. Adolescence at this time may believe that they have the mindset that they have the knowledge to survive in society. This urge to be on their own leads to mislead choices that may lead to crime. Symbolic theorist, Edwin Sutherland developed a theory that could explain how one may be more likely to commit a crime when exposed to it through social interaction.“ Differential association theory states that individuals have a greater tendency to deviate from societal norms when they frequently associate with persons who favor deviance over conformity”(Murray et al., 2011, p.173). This theory connects with youth specifically, because during adolescent years peers are an important agent of socialization. Youths shy away from their parents at this age, and tend to gravitate towards their peers for acceptance into society. This need to become accepted by peers is often an important objective for many youth. Being accepted by peers, leads to more friends, which is essential to many youth. More friends lead to greater access to pleasures that youths strive to achieve.
Pleasures such as: parties, alcohol, and behaviors that may not always be legal. These pleasures are more attractive as oppose to: hanging out, camping, watching a movie with parents, which in their childhood was considered fun. “ Peer groups function as agents of socialization by contributing to our sense of belonging and our feelings of self worth” ( Murray et al., 2011, p. 96). So when youth choose to associate with the “ wrong crowd”, this is when youth deviance is at its highest. One may be exposed to feelings of peer pressure to commit crimes because they want to be accepted by their peers. Individuals must earn their acceptance with their peers by conforming to a given group’s norms, attitudes, speech patterns, and dress codes. When we conform to our peer group’s expectations, we are rewarded; if we do not conform, we may be ridiculed or even expelled from the group (Murray et al., 2011, p. 97). This is a time in ones life, where they may be confused as who they want to be in life, which may cause them to make the unwise choices, especially in the people they choose to associate themselves with. Differential association explains that youth will always put the interests of their friends first, which could get them into trouble. “ Ties to other deviants can be particularly important in organized crime where the willingness of peers to stand up for one another affects maintain power in the face of violent opposition from competitors” ( Murray et al., 2011, p.174).
Another symbolic theory that adds to why youth commit crime is the labeling theory. The labeling theory suggests that deviants are those people who have been successfully labeled as such by others. When youth accept this stigma as being a “ trouble maker”, they will therefore carry out these crimes. “ People accept a negative label or stigma that has been applied to them, the label may contribute to the type of behavior it initially was meant to control” (Murray et al., 2011, p. 175). For example, if a teenager gets caught doing drugs, others label he/ or her as a deviant. This label of being a “ drug user” may carry on to parents, the school, and the community, which makes it difficult for the youth to shake this label off. One’s parents may become overly strict and protective of this teenager, and in turn the school may punish this teenager, while the community may being treating this individual differently based on this label. Youth on the other hand is contemporaneously expected to be an age of deviance, disruption, and wickedness (Brown & Brown, 2008). Once an individual accepts a label of becoming a deviant, this individual may begin to act on this label by committing crimes.
Present society is also another contributing factor that can add to youth labeling themselves otherwise deviant attributes. Another important agent of socialization is the media. Young people are more impressionable. What’s important in a youth’s daily life? They are music, books, magazines, movie, and television shows. In this medias, drinking, smoking, sexual behaviors and the “high life” of using drugs are often popularized. These are considered right or “normal” behaviors among youths, in other words these are considered “cool”. An example, a popular show amongst youths is the show “jersey shore”, where youths are portrayed as “party animals”. They drink, smoke, fight, and swear obscene language. Why do they do this? It’s because it is accepted amongst youth as the “right” behavior for a young person. Hence, to do these acts, such as smoking and drinking, would be accepted by peers. So when the youth label them selves as these traits, they act on them and make it their identity.
Research has shown that, intervening in multiple systems that simultaneously target multiple risk factors for criminality (eg. individual child factors, family factors, school factors, peer factors, and community factors yields significant results in prevention and reduction of delinquency (British Columbia Representative for Children and Youth Kids, 2009). In order to help prevent and intervene in youth crime, all of these factors must be addressed. This paper has specifically addressed peer factors and the attitudes an individual and society may have to contribute to deviant behavior. The differential and labeling theories are key elements to deviant behavior and symbolizes why youth act the way they do. Symbolic theorists believe that the interaction with others is a main component of why deviance occurs, especially when it’s with the wrong crowd.
British Columbia Representative for Children and Youth Kids. (2009). Crime and care: health and well being of children in care: youth Justice Experiences and Outcomes. Retrieved from http://site.ebrary.com.auth01.norquest.ca/lib/norquest/docDetail.action?docID=10330457&p00=youth%20crime%20prevention Brown, L., & Brown, S. (2008) Understanding youth and crime (2nd ed.). New York, NY:
McGraw- Hill Education.
Bressan, A., & Taylor- Butts, A. (2008) Youth crime in Canada. Retrieved from
http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/85-002-x/2008003/article/10566-eng.htm Doob, A. N., & McMurtry R.R. (2011, November 7). When tough is not smart; harsh sentencing rules only make youth crime worse. Toronto Star. Retrieved from http://proquest.umi.com.auth01.norquest.ca/pqdweb?index=4&did=2504620081&SrchMode=1&sid=2&Fmt=3&VInst=PROD&VType=PQD&RQT=309&VName=PQD&TS=1333670712&clientId=59668 Government of Nova Scotia ( 2008, May) Perspectives on youth crime in nova scotia. Retrieved from http://site.ebrary.com.auth01.norquest.ca/lib/norquest/docDetail.action?docID=10155296&p00=youth%20crime McClelland, K. (2009). Symbolic interactionism