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Education and Crime - Mechanisms Producing Education-crime Associations

schools argued individuals social

As youth increasingly spend time in educational (rather than family) settings, the role of schools in the socialization of children and adolescents increases. Schools provide the context where much of the drama of the maturation process now unfolds. Children and particularly adolescents struggle—often in interaction with school authority—to define themselves as individuals with distinct identities. Identity formation involves challenges in many social psychological domains, including moral development. Educational psychologists have long argued that a critical stage in the process of moral development occurs during adolescence. Youths struggle to create their own definitions of right and wrong, as well as their own place in such a moral order (see Gilligan; Kohlberg).

Émile Durkheim, one of the founding influences on modern sociology, devoted a significant portion of his writings to how schools contribute to this socialization process. In Moral Education: A Study in the Theory and Application of the Sociology of Education (1903), Durkheim argued that schools confront individual students as the embodiment of society's moral authority. Youths learn in schools to respect society's moral authority if the rules they confront do not appear arbitrary, unenforceable, or unjust. Durkheim argued that discipline is needed in education "to teach the child to rein in his desires, to set limits on his appetites of all kinds, to limit and, through limitation, to define the goals of his activity" (p. 43). Essential to Durkheim's conception of the role of school discipline in the socialization of youth is his attention to the Hobbesian problem of order. The philosopher Thomas Hobbes argued that since individuals are governed by passions and desires, the threat of sanctions from a greater authority was necessary to constrain individual actions and promote social order. Durkheim countered that the strength of external sanctions was ultimately dependent on individuals internalizing these restrictions as normative rules. Durkheim argued that schools provide social settings whereby individuals are able to develop attachments to and integration with a larger societal moral order.

Durkheim's insights were most effectively introduced into contemporary criminological research by Travis Hirschi. Following Durkheim's insights, Hirschi was instrumental in developing criminological control theory, which has argued that individuals are subject to greater likelihood of criminal involvement when they have less attachment and integration with conventional authority. Since control theory owes its intellectual origins to earlier explorations of the role of schools in moral development, it is not surprising that—given the dramatic expansion of the role of schools in the lives of youth—much of the contemporary research from this perspective has emphasized the relationship between educational experience and criminality. Hirschi in later work with Michael Gottfredson argued that schools in fact were in many respects better situated than families to control and properly socialize youth. School personnel were argued to have a greater ability than family members to monitor, assess, and sanction youth misbehavior. School personnel were also claimed to have a greater incentive and need to control youthful behavior because of the large concentration of children and adolescents in close proximity to each other. Regardless of whether it has in any way replaced family-based socialization, involvement in schooling also serves an important role in the socialization of individuals. Schools provide youth with forms of attachment to conventional activities and thus increase an individual's ability to resist the temptations of criminal behavior.

While socialization of youth is one of the primary mechanisms whereby a causal relationship develops between educational experience and crime, the role of the education system in training, selection, and allocation is also critical. Sociologists Max Weber and Pitrim Sorokin, writing in the first third of the twentieth century, highlighted the fact that schools not only were responsible for training individuals for specific occupational tasks, but more importantly schools also served as closure mechanisms preventing individuals from gaining access to lucrative subsequent occupational positions. A second primary function of schools is thus "to sort and sieve" students for either success or failure. Schools directly determine through grades and promotions which students will have access to privileged advanced training leading to coveted occupational positions in a society and which will instead face the greatest risk of economic hardship.

Criminologists have argued that since schools are involved in selection and the allocation of scarce resources, they are sites where individuals confront obstacles to their aspirations for upward social mobility. Social scientists such as Richard Cloward, Lloyd Ohlin, and Arthur Stinchombe have developed strain theories of delinquency that link criminal behavior to blocked and frustrated status attainment. To the extent that schools produce resistance and misbehavior associated with institutional barriers to adult occupational success, a second mechanism underlying an association between crime and education is identified.

In addition to socialization and selection, schools also function to structure patterns of individual interpersonal interactions and associations. Social scientists, such as George Simmel and George Herbert Mead, argued early in the twentieth century that interpersonal interactions and associations were critical dimensions of how individuals came to understand and act in society. Criminologists have applied these insights by focusing on two processes. First, researchers such as Edwin Sutherland argued that delinquency could result from patterns of differential association. Since schools can structure youth interaction through a variety of mechanisms, the likelihood of youth misbehavior could be increased or dampened through such a structuring process. Second, schools provide settings where individual interactions occur. Researchers have argued that personnel within formal institutions often engage in a labeling process. Students are argued to have negative labels applied to them, which carry social stigmas. Since this research tradition assumes that individual meanings are the product of the dynamics of social interactions, often students will accept the negative labels assigned to them by authority figures. Rather than labels being easily rejected by students as being erroneous, they instead are argued to often become self-fulfilling prophecies.

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