• By Dartington SRU
  • Posted on Tuesday 25th August, 2009

Antisocial behavior is not following the crowd

It’s an age old chicken and egg conundrum: do criminals tend to congregate in rundown inner cities or are they a product of their degraded environment? Ever since Chicago sociologists Clifford Shaw and Henry McKay developed their social disorganization theory back in the 1940s, dense city areas have been synonymous with crime.Over the years there have been several attempts to confirm the link between population density and antisocial behavior. Results have been mixed. A study comparing Oslo with rural parts of Norway, and one from the UK contrasting en from the Isle of Wight with their London contemporaries showed that more overcrowding spelled higher rates of delinquency. However, other studies in Norway and Canada detected no difference. A team of researchers led by Paige Harden from University of Virginia set out to test the connection more rigorously, by examining data on young people stretching back into their early childhood. They compared the rates of antisocial behavior for children living in areas with high and low population densities, taking into account maternal delinquency and depression (particularly salient risks for antisocial behavior).The young people included were participants in the US National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, a nationally representative survey of 14-22 year olds which began in 1979. Seven years later, the survey coordinators began collecting information from the original participants’ children. Between the ages of four and 13, the data about behavior problems was assembled from mothers’ reports; between the ages of ten and 17, children’s self-reports were relied upon. No connection between population density and behavior problems among young children was found. However, as children move into their teenage years an association appears, confirming developmental theory that in adolescence more so than in childhood antisocial behavior is more heavily influenced by social factors. The paper published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, goes on to explain how the researchers also tracked the trajectories of individuals who moved between areas of high and low population density to low population density, examining how their behavior changed. Again, no significant effect on levels of antisocial behavior was identified. There was no evidence that moving children to the suburbs or the countryside would improve a their behavior. As the authors explain, none of this is particularly surprising: population density is an aspect of a tangled web of risk factors to healthy child development, also including parental mental health, family structure, poverty and poor social support. They also acknowledge the study’s limitations. Population density was measured at county level, meaning that more localized differences were not taken into account. Nor were changes in family structure considered. For example, where the reason for moving to a less populated area was divorce, any benefits of the move may been cancelled out by the disruption to family life. See:Paige Harden K, D’Onofrio B M, Van Hulle C, Turkheimer E, Rodgers J L, Waldman I D and Lahey B B (2009), “Population density and youth antisocial behavior,” Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 50, 8, pp 999-1008

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