EXAMINING THE USE OF GENDER-NEUTRAL THEORIES IN
PREDICTING MALE AND FEMALE
B.A., Pennsylvania State University, 2001
A thesis submitted to the
University of Colorado at Denver and Health Sciences Center
in partial fulfillment
of the requirements for the degree of
Masters of Arts
This thesis for the Masters of Arts
has been approved by
Blass, Allison (M.A., Sociology)
Examining the Use of Gender-Neutral Theories in Predicting Male and
Female Criminal Behavior
Thesis directed by Assistant Professor Ekaterina Botchkovar
Using data collected from The Survey of Inmates in State and Federal
Correctional Facilities (1997), this study examines whether two gender-
neutral theories of crime, social control theory and differential association
theory, can explain female crime as well as male crime or whether gender-
specific theories should be utilized. Social control theory suggests that
people with stronger social bonds are more restrained from engaging in
criminal behavior than people with weak social bonds and that the gender
differences in crime rates exist because females develop stronger bonds than
males through the process of differential socialization. Differential
association theory suggests that people become delinquent through the
process of interaction with others when they develop an excess of definitions
favorable to law violation over definitions unfavorable to law violation.
Gender differences in crime rates are the result of differential exposure to
delinquent behavior patterns and definitions. Findings indicate that the
absence of social bonds as well as delinquent associations predict crime for
males and females. Furthermore, both theories appear to be general theories
of crime that can explain criminal behavior across gender. However, these
results should be interpreted with caution because the association between
each theory and crime for both genders is weak; neither theory has much
explanatory power. Results imply that these two gender-neutral theories,
social control theory and differential association theory, are not the answer to
the debate over whether gender-neutral theories or gender-specific theories
should be used to explain criminal behavior across gender. Other factors may
be influencing criminal behavior of males and females. Implications and
avenues for further research are discussed.
This abstract accurately represents the content of the candidates thesis.
recommend its publication.
I would like to dedicate my thesis to my wonderful family and friends for
their continuous love and support. In particular, I would like to thank my
husband for his endless patience while I pursued my educational goals and
for constantly believing in me. I would also like to thank my parents and
sisters for always being there to offer support and encouragement.
I would like to give special thanks to my committee chair, Ekaterina
Botchkovar, for her guidance and support of my research. Thank you for
challenging me and pushing me to go further. Just as important, thank you
for always remaining positive and encouraging me. Your academic expertise
was invaluable. I would also like to thank the other members of my
committee, Leigh Ingram and Akihiko Hirose, for their valuable participation
and meaningful contributions. Finally, I would like to acknowledge all of the
faculty, support staff, and my fellow graduate students in the Sociology
Department that have truly made my graduate school experience memorable.
To all of these people, I will be forever grateful.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
2. THEORIES AND EMPIRICAL SUPPORT....................8
Social Control Theory..........................8
Differential Association Theory...............15
Social Selection versus Social Causation......19
Dependent V ariable...........................31
LIST OF TABLES
1. Descriptive statistics for the variables in the analysis...........36
2. OLS Regression Model for males containing the social control
variables and predicting criminal behavior.........................40
3. OLS Regression Model for females containing the social control
variables and predicting criminal behavior.........................40
4. OLS Regression Model for males containing the differential
association variables and predicting criminal behavior.............43
5. OLS Regression Model for females containing the differential
association variables and predicting criminal behavior.............43
Empirical studies find sex to be one of the strongest correlates of
crime (Haynie and Osgood 2005; Belknap 2001; Piquero, Gover and
MacDonald 2005; Vowell and Chen 2004). The gender gap in crime is
universal; it appears that women are always and everywhere less likely than
men to commit crime (Steffensmeier and Allan 1996). However, many argue
(Heimer 2000b) that there has been a statistically significant narrowing of
the gender gap in arrests since 1960 (p. 440). The number of women in
prison has grown substantially; from 1980 until 1994 the number of women
in prisons approximately quadrupled (Belknap 2001). Evidence also suggests
that the pattern of female offending differs from the pattern of male
offending; females are more likely to be arrested for and charged with minor
property and status offenses than males including sex work, running away,
theft, larceny, fraud, forgery, and counterfeiting (Belknap 2001; Chesney-
Lind and Pasko 2004; Heimer 2000b; Steffensmeier and Allan 1996).
Despite gender differences in crime, most traditional theories that
attempt to explain why people engage in crime, implicitly or explicitly, focus
on the etiology of male crime. For years, male criminologists dominated the
field, empirical research paid more attention to male offenders, and the
concept of female crime was seen as irrelevant. Starting around the 1970s,
criminologists began looking seriously at the issue of female crime. Some of
the questions they began to investigate include: Can female crime be
explained by traditional theories of crime? Are the causes of female crime
the same as the causes of male crime?
Criminologists disagree on ways to explain male and female
criminality. Of particular interest is the controversy over whether theories
used to explain female crime should be gender-neutral or gender-specific.
Proponents of gender-neutral theories posit that female crime can be
explained using the same theories of crime that have been used for years to
explain the criminal behavior of males (Belknap 2001; Chesney-Lind and
Pasko 2004; Steffensmeier and Allan 1996; Hirschi 1969; Sutherland and
Cressey 1970). Many traditional theories of crime including social control
theory and differential association theory are examples of gender-neutral
theories; they claim to be general enough to explain crime across gender
because the same social process leads to crime in both males and females.
These theories do not seek to explain female crime differently than they
explain male crime. Conversely, proponents of gender-specific theories of
crime (Belknap 2001; Chesney-Lind and Pasko 2004; Steffensmeier and
Allan 1996) argue that, because of the unique experiences of women, theories
based on males are not effective in explaining female crime. They contend
that gender-neutral theories fail to address gender issues in criminal behavior
and assert that gender-neutral theories cannot be applied generally to explain
both male and female crime because different processes lead to female crime
than lead to male crime. Supporters of gender-specific theories believe that
females need specific theories reflecting the challenges women face. In
particular, some scholars suggest that, the organization of gender influences
womens likelihood of engaging in criminal behavior and gender moderates
the social forces that influence criminal activity (Griffin and Armstong
The question of whether gender-specific theories of crime can explain
crime better than gender-neutral theories is still open to debate. Some studies
(Alarid, Burton Jr., and Cullen 2000; Brownfield 2003; Vowell and Chen
2004; Hartjen and Priyadarsini 2003) find that gender-neutral theories are
equally applicable to explaining male and female crime. Males and females
tend to report similar patterns of criminal behavior and variables that explain
their participation in crime are generally similar (Liu and Kaplan 1999).
Based on results from these studies, it seems that traditional, gender-neutral
theories may be considered adequate for explaining male and female crime.
Others argue that gender-specific theories are needed to fully
understand female crime. For example, Heimer (2000b) finds support for
using gender-specific theories of crime in her assessment of the narrowing of
the gender gap in crime. The economic marginalization hypothesis, which
suggests that female crime results from the increasing economic hardship
experienced by women, seems a particularly plausible explanation.
Financially, women have become more disadvantaged as compared with
men. Heimer identifies three sets of factors that have come together and
influenced the position of women in society including dramatic changes to
the composition of the family, persistent wage changes across gender
resulting in increasing inequality or dispersion of income, and the welfare
safety net eroding consistently. Because of the unique circumstances
affecting women, Heimer believes that theories of female crime must
incorporate variables uniquely related to female experiences. Perhaps,
applying gender-specific theories of crime may help us to better understand
many aspects of female crime.
Furthermore, Steffensmeier and Allan (1996) propose a gendered
approach to studying female crime. Their argument suggests that womens
inequality may lead to crime (see also Proctor 2004), thus social factors and
conditions unique to females should be the focus of empirical research. They
also note that a gendered approach should be able to explain both male and
female crime as well as account for gender differences in type, frequency,
and context of offending of crime. In addition, it must consider several key
ways in which womens paths to crime may differ from mens.
Steffensmeier and Allan identify five areas of life that inhibit female crime
but encourage male crime including gender norms, moral development, social
control, physical strength and aggression, and sexuality. Their study
concludes that a gendered approach helps to better understand criminal
Because of the limited amount of information about female crime,
studies of the nature of female offending seem particularly important.
Scholars should explore whether gender-neutral theories of crime can explain
female crime as well as male crime. Do females commit criminal acts for the
same reasons that males commit crime? Are the strongest predictors of male
crime also the strongest predictors of female crime? Answers to these
questions will help to determine directions for future research in the field of
criminology. Should criminologists continue working with gender-neutral
theories or would their efforts be better spent on developing gender-specific
theories of crime? The increasingly large number of women committing
crimes presents a challenge to the criminal justice system. Findings from this
study along with others can help shape public policy including prevention
and treatment programs.
In this study, using data from The Survey of Inmates in State and
Federal Correctional Facilities (1997), I will examine whether two gender-
neutral theories of crime, social control theory (Hirschi 1969) and differential
association theory (Sutherland and Cressey 1970) can explain female crime
as well as they explain male crime. In Chapter Two, I discuss the main
components of these two theories, looking specifically at how they each
explain both male and female crime. Chapter Two also provides a review of
empirical research pertaining to each theory, paying specific attention to the
relationship between gender and crime. In Chapter Three, I put forward my
hypotheses for the proposed study. Chapter Four contains an overview of the
methods employed for this test and provides a description of data and
variables to be used in analyses. Chapter Five is an empirical assessment of
the predictive power of two sets of variables (derived from social control and
differential association theories) on criminal outcomes for males and females.
Chapter Six presents an overview of the study findings as well as prospects
for future research.
THEORIES AND EMPIRICAL SUPPORT
Social control theory and differential association theory have
undergone significant amounts of empirical testing and still remain two of the
most dominant theories in the field of criminology. Generally, criminologists
debate as to whether social control theory or differential association theory
can better explain or predict criminal behavior across gender. In this chapter,
I offer an account of both theories along with a brief description of extant
empirical literature testing their premises.
Social Control Theory
Social control theory (Hirschi 1969) argues that all people are bom
with the inherent desire to commit crime; therefore, no special motivation to
commit crime is required (p. 31). The goal of social control theory was to
determine factors that could potentially restrain people from acting on natural
impulses to commit crime. According to Hirschi, delinquency occurs when
an individuals bond to society is weakened. Four elements of this bond
include attachment, commitment, involvement, and belief.
The theory describes attachment as sensitivity to the opinion of
conventional others, which makes it an effective deterrent of crime. By
contrast, a lack of attachment to conventional others is associated with
freedom from moral restraints. The individual who is not attached to
conventional others is not bound by the norms of society; he or she is free to
deviate by acting contrary to the wishes and expectations of others (p. 16-
18). Individuals with strong conventional bonds will be unwilling to, take
the risk that unattached people can take freely (p. 82-83).
The second element of the bond, commitment, refers to ones
investment of time, energy and oneself to certain conventional activities such
as education or a career. Any act of deviance would jeopardize the
individuals chances for conventional success. Thus, commitment represents
another constraint on delinquency. In Hirschis words,
If a person loses their motivation to strive for conventional
goals, that person is free to commit deviant acts without the
normal concern for the consequences of their behavior (p.
The element of involvement imposes time constraints on individual
behavior. The individual will not commit crime because of a lack of
opportunity to do otherwise. If ones time and energy are limited, he or she
will be too busy to find time to be deviant. While the bond of involvement
seems relevant to both adults and adolescents, different structures regulate
peoples behavior at different ages. While juveniles are often involved in
school activities, adults free time is often limited by work and marriage.
Conventional beliefs constitute the final element of the bond. Social
control theory implies the existence of a common value system within
society. However, reasonable variation in the belief of the moral validity of
the social rules (p. 26) is also expected. When ones conventional belief
system is weakened or underdeveloped, this individual is free to engage in
crime. Of special relevance are the beliefs that bear on the goodness or
badness of delinquent behavior as such (p. 198).
Presumably, social control theory is general enough to explain crime
across males and females. Like males, females become delinquent when they
experience a weakening of social bonds to conventional society. Females are
less likely to commit crime and in fact have lower crime rates than men.
Hirschi may attribute this gender gap in crime to differences in social bonds.
According to social control theory, women commit fewer crimes than men
because females social bonds are generally stronger. One explanation for
this could be that males and females are socialized differently to their gender
roles. Because females are viewed as the weaker sex, they are most likely to
be sheltered and protected. Thus, parents may be more committed to
socializing their female children, so that they develop constraints and are
therefore protected against engaging in criminal behavior. Also, females are
taught to value intimate bonds and to support each other; whereas, males are
taught to be achievers and to compete against one another. Because of this
differential socialization, the element of attachment may be a more important
component of the bond for females than males. Hirschi contends that his
theory can be used to explain both male and female crime similarly; the
gender gap in crime is caused by variations in strength of males and females
bonds to conventional society.
Researchers have focused on examining all of the key propositions of
social control theory. Overall, the theory enjoys significant empirical
support. Findings suggest that criminal behavior is associated with a
decrease in the strength of individuals bonds to conventional society
(Johnson 1984; Hanrahan 1997; Laundra, Kiger, and Bahr 2002). Extant
literature examines all of the elements of the social bond including
attachment, commitment, involvement, and belief. Many studies have found
support for Hirschis prediction that these four elements of the social bond
restrain people from engaging in criminal behavior (Junger and Marshall
1997; Lindquist, Daniels Smusz, and Doemer 1985; Johnson 1984;
Thomberry, Moore, and Christenson 1985; Wiatrowski, Griswold, and
Roberts 1981; Maume, Ousey, and Beaver 2005; Griffin and Armstrong
2003; Laundra, Kiger, and Bahr 2002; Kuhns 2005). However, some tests of
social control theory offer contrary evidence. For example, Witchcoff Knight
and Tripodi (1996) found that attachment is positively associated with
delinquency, which is opposite of what the theory predicts. Furthermore,
other studies (Waitrowski, Griswold, and Roberts 1981; Matsueda 1989)
report no statistical association between social bonds and crime.
The generality claim of social control theory has also been thoroughly
investigated in the literature. Notably, many studies (Junger and Marshall
1997; Lindquist, Daniels Smusz, and Doemer 1985; Johnson 1997; Liu and
Kaplan 1999) report findings supportive of this claim. In particular, some
research has focused specifically on the relationship between gender and
crime. Several studies (Laundra, Kiger, and Bahr 2002; Chappie, McQuillan,
and Berdahl 2005; Brownfield 2003; Alarid, Burton Jr., and Cullen 2000; Li
and MacKenzie 2003) find support for Hirschis contention that social
control theory can be used to explain delinquency in both males and females.
Controlling for sex, measures of social control are strongly associated with
crime in a statistical sense. Social bonds also seem to operate similarly to
prevent delinquency in males and females; for a given change in social
bonds, males and females exhibit a similar change in offending. These
findings indicate that, as predicted by Hirschi (1969), gender differences in
crime may be caused by differential socialization in early childhood.
Females develop strong bonds because they are taught to be nurturers and to
value relationship; whereas, boys dont because they are taught to be
achievers and to compete against one another.
Other studies (Leonard and Decker 1994; Rosenbaum 1987),
however, have not been as supportive of Hirschis prediction that
delinquency can be explained the same for both females and males using the
social control theory. For example, some findings (Huebner and Betts 2002;
Seydlitz 1990; Laundra, Kiger, and Bahr 2002; Friedman and Rosenbaum
1988) suggest that different elements of the social bond are more important
for the different genders. Attachment and commitment are strongly linked to
delinquency in females. These differences might be due to differential
socialization; for instance, attachment may be more important for females
than males because females are taught to value relationships and to rely on
these relationships for support. Additional findings (Li and MacKenzie 2003;
Alarid, Burton Jr., and Cullen 200) suggest that female and male offenders do
not respond the same way to social bonds. For example, Alarid, Burton Jr.,
and Cullen (2000) found that for females the element of attachment seems to
foster crime instead of insulating women against crime as predicted by social
control theory. Social bonds reduce crime committed by males; however, for
females, social bonds have a positive effect on the probability of crime.
These differences may be because females are socialized to their gender roles
and are taught to be caregivers and nurturers; whereas, males are taught to be
competitors and achievers. As a result, females tend to develop close bonds
and value these relationships. Females may be drawn or forced into crime by
their partners in these relationships. Because females are socialized to be
concerned about relationships, they may be more likely to be influenced by
others (Thomberry and Jang 1998). Hirschi does not examine the quality of
the bond and he does not acknowledge bonds to unconventional others.
Some studies (Laundra, Kiger, and Bahr 2002; Chappie, McQuillan,
and Berdahl 2005; Brownfield 2003; Alarid, Burton Jr., and Cullen 2000; Li
and MacKenzie 2003) support the application of social control theory to
understanding both male and female crime; delinquency occurs when an
individuals bond to society is weakened regardless of gender. Other
research (Leonard and Decker 1994; Rosenbaum 1987; Huebner and Betts
2002; Seydlitz 1990; Laundra, Kiger, and Bahr 2002; Friedman and
Rosenbaum 1988; Li and MacKenzie 2003; Alarid, Burton Jr., and Cullen
2000) indicates that social control theory cannot be used to explain criminal
behavior in both males and females; sex remains a significant predictor of
crime. Because results are mixed, more empirical research is needed to show
whether social control theory can adequately explain the criminal behavior of
males and females.
Differential Association Theory
Differential association theory (Sutherland and Cressey 1970) is the
other theory to be put to test in my study. Sutherland and Cresseys theory
explains criminal behavior on the micro level. According to the theory,
people are not bom with the inherent desire or motivation to commit crime.
Rather, individuals learn criminal behavior the same way they leam other
behavior, through the process of interaction with other people with whom
they have a personal relationship. These interactions may vary in frequency,
duration, priority, and intensity. For instance, someone who is exposed to
criminal behavior patterns more often, for a longer length of time, earlier in
life, and from a person with whom that person is close to may be more
influenced by those interactions. Through such associations, people leam the
techniques, motives, rationalizations, drives, and attitudes associated with
criminal behavior. Thus, people leam to define criminal behavior as either
favorable or unfavorable. Individuals become delinquent when they have a
greater amount of definitions favorable to law violation than definitions
unfavorable to law violation.
Like social control theory, differential association theory has also
been described as a general theory of crime that can be used to explain crime
in both males and females. Sutherland contends that, sex status is of great
statistical significance in differentiating criminals from non-criminals (p.
126). Sutherland posits that differential family socialization accounts for
much of the gender gap. For instance, the family plays an important role in
determining the development of an individuals behavior patterns because of
the close relationship it forms with the individual during childhood.
The family is the first agency to affect the direction in life a
child will take. Each family unit is expected to train its children
in an efficient way so that they will not become delinquent (p.
Furthermore, because families socialize boy and girl children differently,
their associations and exposure to definitions may vary. Because women are
seen as the weaker sex, they are often protected and their behavior controlled.
Through increased supervision, they are sheltered from exposure to
delinquent others. In contrast, males are seen as the stronger sex and are
given more freedoms. Because of this freedom, they have more opportunity
for exposure to delinquent others. Thus, males have higher rates of crime
Sutherland also believed that the educational system plays a major
role in training boys and girls. Like the family, the school acts as an
institution of socialization. When schools socialize boys and girls differently,
their associations and learning of behavior patterns will also be effected.
Both the family and the educational system also provide boys and girls with
varying levels of supervision. Because of gender roles in society, females
behavior may be more controlled in order to protect them, therefore giving
them less opportunity to engage in criminal behavior. Girls are supervised
more carefully and they behave in accordance with anti-criminal behavior
patterns taught to them with greater care and consistency than in the case of
boys (p. 130). Differential association theory suggests that the relationship
between gender and crime may be explained by differential amounts of
supervision and possible differences in socialization techniques used by
parents for girls and boys. Overall, sex is significant to the extent that it
affects social interactions, thus influencing the exposure to and learning of
definitions favorable and unfavorable to law violation.
Differential association theory has also been subject to intense
empirical examination. Overall, the theory has received significant empirical
support. Findings confirm the main premise of the theory, that criminal
behavior is learned through the process of differential association (Matsueda
1982; Matsueda 1988; Heimer 1997; Kuhns 2005). Furthermore, some
criminologists have also tested modified versions of differential association
theory and found support for these theories. For example, Akerss (1979)
social learning theory, which incorporates aspects of differential association
and differential reinforcement, has received substantial empirical support
(Akers et al. 1989; Akers and Cochran 1985; Akers et al. 1979; Akers and
Lee 1996; Akers and Lee 1999). Interestingly enough, virtually all empirical
studies of differential association theory contribute to the social selection
versus social causation debates in the literature.
Social Selection versus Social Causation
One of the most important distinctions between social control theory
and differential association theory is their positions on the role of delinquent
peers in crime causation. Whereas Hirschi argues that the relationship
between differential association variables and crime is spurious and is due to
weakened social bonds (social selection), differential association theory
assumes that the relationship between delinquent peers and crime is causal
(social causation). Despite the large number of studies that have focused on
examining the relationship between delinquent peers and crime, the findings
are mixed and the results are inconclusive.
Several studies (Baron 2003; Orcutt 1987; Wright and Cullen 2004)
report that the relationship between delinquent peers and crime is not caused
by a third intervening variable. In fact, many tests (Thomberry, Krohn,
Lizotte, and Chard-Wieschem 1993) indicate that delinquent peer association
is a strong predictor of crime. For example, Matsueda (1982) reanalyzed
Hirschis Richmond Youth Project Data and found that measures of
definitions favorable to law violation mediate the effects of the social bond
(see also Matsueda and Heimer 1987).
These empirical tests demonstrate support differential association
theorys claim that delinquent peers have an independent effect on the
behavior of youth. Furthermore, the finding that lends even greater support
to differential association theory is that delinquent peer associations (Jaquith
1981; Kuhns 2005) do not lead directly to criminal behavior; their effect is
mediated by the formation of criminal definitions. Therefore, there appears
to be an indirect relationship between criminal association and criminal
behavior that is explained by the formation of criminal definitions (Jaquith
In contrast, other studies find that, as Hirschi (1969) predicts, the
relationship between the delinquent peer association and crime is spurious
(Jensen 1972; Costello and Vowell 1999; Warr 1993b). Findings from these
studies indicate that social bonds have an important influence on criminal
behavior; they retain independent effects on delinquency when the
differential association variables are controlled. Furthermore, social control
variables affect differential association variables. For example, like Hirschi
claimed, Costello and Vowell (1999) found that the social bond has an
important influence on whether youth associate with delinquent peers; the
relationship between associating with delinquent peers and criminal behavior
is caused by another variable, the social bond.
Although researchers still pit social control theory against differential
association theory, Thomberry (1987) attempts to explain the relationship
between delinquent peers and crime instead by integrating social control
theory with differential association theory. The main premise of this
interactional theory is that delinquency is not merely an outcome; it is an
active part of the process. Tests (Thomberry et al. 1994; Krohn et al. 1996;
Matsueda and Anderson 1998) of interactional theory show that deviant
behavior results from a weakening of a persons bonds to conventional
society and from a social environment where behavior can be learned and
reinforced by delinquent others. Deviant behavior leads to further weakening
of social bonds and further entrenchment in a deviant social network.
Thus, delinquency is viewed as part of a larger causal network,
affected by the social factors but also affecting the development of
those social factors over time (Thomberry 1987:863).
Differential association theorys generality claim has also been
examined in multiple tests. Of particular interest, is research pertaining to the
role of gender in the relationship between differential association theory
variables and crime. Several studies (Warr 1993a; Dull 1983; Liu and
Kaplan 1999; Vowell and Chen 2004; Brownfield 2003; Alarid, Burton Jr.,
and Cullen 2000; Li and MacKenzie 2003) argue that differential association
theory can be used to explain crime in both males and females. For instance,
Dull (1983) examined whether differential association theory could be used
to explain crime in adult males and females. Results indicate that the
influence of peers does not vary significantly between males and females.
Friends criminal behavior is significantly and positively associated with an
individuals criminal behavior regardless of gender. Although these
empirical tests (Warr 1993a; Dull 1983; Liu and Kaplan 1999; Vowell and
Chen 2004; Brownfield 2003; Alarid, Burton Jr., and Cullen 2000; Li and
MacKenzie 2003) indicate that measures of differential association are
strongly correlated with crime regardless of sex, it appears possible that the
differential association theory has more consistent effects for males.
Furthermore, actual exposure to delinquent peers appears to be the cause of
the gender gap in crime; males are more often exposed to delinquent peers
than females (Hartjen and Priyadarsini 2003). However, it is possible that
males being more often exposed to delinquent peers could instead be a
product of the gender gap.
Additional studies have integrated the core components of differential
association with elements from other theoretical perspectives in order to test
differential association theorys generality claim. For instance, Heimer and
De Coster (1999) attempt to determine whether violent delinquency within
gender and across gender can be explained by incorporating aspects of
differential association theory, feminist theory, and gender studies. Their
theoretical model preserves the central component of differential association
theory the learning of definitions favorable to violence. The study shows
that differential association theory can be applied to explain the relationship
between crime and gender in both males and females.
However, many other studies (Piquero, Tibbetts, and Blankenship
2005) have not been supportive of differential association theorys
application to the gender gap in crime. Several studies (Erickson, Crosnoe,
and Dombusch 2000; Piquero et al. 2005; Liu and Kaplan 1999) suggest that
males may be more strongly affected by differential association variables,
such as association with delinquent peers, than females. Not only did it
appear that males have more delinquent peers; they were more influenced by
their peers behavior than females and this explained the gender differences
in delinquency (Mears, Ploeger, and Warr 1998).
Overall, differential association theory has received modest support in
the literature on gender and crime. Several studies (Warr 1993a; Dull 1983;
Liu and Kaplan 1999; Vowell and Chen 2004; Brownfield 2003; Alarid,
Burton Jr., and Cullen 2000; Li and MacKenzie 2003; Heimer and De Coster
1999) support the application of differential association theory to
understanding both male and female crime; delinquency is learned through
interaction with delinquent others regardless of gender. Other research
(Piquero, Tibbetts, and Blankenship 2005; Erickson, Crosnoe, and Dombusch
2000; Piquero et al. 2005; Liu and Kaplan 1999; Mears, Ploeger, and Warr
1998) indicates that differential association theory cannot be used to explain
criminal behavior across gender. Because results are inconclusive, more
empirical research is needed to show whether differential association theory
can effectively explain the criminal behavior of males and females.
Both social control theory and differential association theory have
been subject to intense empirical examination with a particular emphasis on
the relationship between crime and gender. On the one hand, proponents of
social control theory suggest that the reason for the gender gap in crime is
differential socialization: girls are more closely controlled and thus are more
strongly bonded with conventional others than boys. On the other hand,
proponents of differential association theory contend that the gender gap in
crime is due to the differential learning of definitions favorable to crime
through exposure to criminal behavior patterns. Presumably, males are more
often exposed to criminal behavior patterns and therefore learn more
definitions favorable to law violation. As discussed throughout the literature
review, some studies have been supportive of using gender-neutral theories,
such as social control and differential association theory, to explain this
relationship. However, despite the large number of studies that have put
these theories to the test, the results are inconclusive and the question of
whether these gender-neutral theories of crime can explain both male and
female crime remains.
With this study, I intend to add to the scarce literature on the topic and
to resolve the debate over whether gender-neutral theories can explain
criminal behavior regardless of gender. The objective of this project is to
examine whether these two gender-neutral theories of crime can be used to
explain male and female criminal behavior equally well. I will also compare
the power of each theory to explain female crime. Because social control
theory and differential association theory are proposed as general theories of
crime (their predictions should be independent of age, race, and social class),
age, race, and socioeconomic status are not expected to affect the results.
HI: Controlling for socioeconomic status, age, and race, social bonds,
including attachment and commitment, should be negatively associated with
criminal behavior for males and females.
As Hirschi predicted, because of the controlling effects of social
bonds, males and females with strong social bonds will be less likely to
engage in criminal behavior; whereas, males and females with weak social
bonds will be more likely to engage in criminal activity. Bonds to
conventional society are believed to restrain people from acting on their
natural instincts to engage in criminal behavior regardless of gender.
H2: Controlling for socioeconomic status, age, and race, association with
delinquent others, peers and family members, will be positively associated
with criminal behavior for males andfemales.
As Sutherland predicted, having delinquent associations will increase
ones likelihood of engaging in criminal behavior; whereas, individuals who
do not have delinquent associations and instead have conventional
associations will be less likely to engage in criminal activity. Criminal
behavior is believed to be learned, like other behavior, through association
with individuals who have delinquent behavior patterns and who view this
behavior as favorable regardless of gender.
H3: Controlling for socioeconomic status, age, and race, the strength of the
effects of social bonds on criminal behavior will be similar across males and
H4: Controlling for socioeconomic status, age, and race, the strength of
delinquent associations on criminal behavior will be similar across males
Because both theories claim to be general theories of crime that
explain criminal behavior across gender, the strength of the effects of social
bonds and delinquent associations on criminal behavior will be similar across
males and females. The effects of social bonds and delinquent associations
are assumed to be equal for both males and females. Males and females will
be equally restrained from committing criminal acts by bonds to conventional
society; males and females will be equally influenced by associating with
The data for this analysis come from The Survey of Inmates from
State and Federal Correctional Facilities. This survey was conducted in 1997
by the U.S. Department of Justices Bureau of Justice Statistics and the U.S.
Department of Justices Federal Bureau of Prisons.
The researchers used a two-stage sampling strategy: the selection of
facilities preceded the consecutive random selection of respondents in each of
the selected facilities. Both federal and state facilities were in the pool from
which the participating facilities were drawn. First, the facilities were
separated into male and female facilities; facilities that contained both males
and females were treated as separate entities. At the state level, the
researchers initially non-randomly selected the largest correctional facilities
because they were believed to be representative of state correctional facilities.
In order to include additional facilities in their sample, the researchers then
stratified the prisons by census regions and used random sampling to select
the facilities that would be included in the study. At the federal level, the
largest correctional facilities were again selected. Next, the prisons were
stratified according to security level and random sampling was used to select
the federal prisons. Their final sample included 300 correctional facilities,
which were selected using both non-random and random sampling
techniques. A criterion for inmate inclusion was spending the previous night
in the facility. The inmates within each facility were listed and then
systematic sampling with a random start and a predetermined sampling
interval was used within each facility to select participants. After using these
sampling techniques, 14,285 participants from state facilities and 4,041
participants from federal prisons were interviewed for a total of 18, 326
participants. Researchers used face-to-face interviews to administer the
questionnaire; the interviews lasted approximately one hour and were
conducted with the assistance of a computer (CAPI).
Involvement in criminal activity is measured as the number of times
arrested, specifically, the number of times the respondent has been arrested,
as an adult or juvenile, before the latest arrest. This measure ranges in scale
from 0 to 99 times. This measure provides a brief summary of the
individuals criminal history; however, the measure may contain inherent
bias because it only determines the frequency of times the individual was
found to have engaged in criminal behavior, not the actual number of times
he or she had been involved in criminal activity. I would expect the number
of times arrested to be less than the actual number of crimes committed by
the individual. Although self-reported criminal involvement would have
been a useful indicator, the self-reported number of arrests should be
sufficient for the purposes of this study. Furthermore, unlike self-reports of
misbehavior, this measure of crime is not as open to exaggeration,
telescoping, and other potential sources of bias. Therefore, using self-
reported arrest history may even provide certain advantages over self-
reported criminal involvement (see Table 1).
The social control theory variables are two elements of the social
bond commitment and attachment. Attachment is measured by asking
respondents their current marital status; specifically, the participants respond
with either married, widowed, divorced, separated, or never been married.
For marital status, I created a new variable that indicates strictly whether the
participants are married or not married. Married was coded as a 1 and
unmarried as a 0. Marriage is seen as an attachment to a conventional other.
If someone is married, they may be less likely to engage in criminal acts
because they do not want to risk losing that connection to their partner.
Employment and education are indicators of commitment. Employment is
measured by asking respondents if they had a job or business during the
month before their arrest with respondents answering either yes or no.
Having a job or business was coded as a 1 and not having a job or business as
a 0. Education is measured by asking respondents what was the highest
grade of school they attended including first grade through graduate school.
Each progressive grade was coded with a corresponding, ascending number,
for example never attended school 0, first grade 1, 10th grade 10, freshman in
college 13, and two or more years of graduate school 18. Employment and
education are seen as conventional activities to be invested in; an individual
who is gainfully employed and well educated is usually seen as successful.
Individuals committed to education and to employment are expected to be
less likely to commit criminal acts because of the investments of time,
money, and energy associated with acquiring a certain level of education.
Furthermore, individuals with relatively stable employment may not want to
lose this source of income. Finally, engaging in criminal activities may
jeopardize the career goals of those who are employed and those whose level
of education is rather high. In sum, marital attachment, commitment to
education, and commitment to employment should restrain individuals from
acting on their natural desires to commit criminal acts.
The differential association theory variables are delinquent peer
association and delinquent family member association. Delinquent peer
association is measured by asking the respondents if they have ever had
friends they hung around who engaged in criminal activities such as drug use,
destroying or damaging property, selling stolen property, shoplifting, stealing
motor vehicles or parts, selling/manufacturing/importing drugs,
mugging/robbing/extorting money, or any other illegal activity. Each one of
these measures was coded as 0 for not having delinquent peers and 1 for
having delinquent peers. One variable was created to incorporate all of these
measures of delinquent peer association ranging from 0 to 9. Delinquent
family association is indicated by asking respondents if they have any
immediate family members who have ever been incarcerated. Delinquent
family association was coded as a 1 for having delinquent family associations
and a 0 for not having delinquent family association. Associations with
delinquent peers and delinquent family members are perceived to be
measures of exposure to delinquent behavior patterns and definitions
favorable to law violation. Someone who has delinquent friends or
delinquent family members, may be more likely to learn definitions favorable
to crime and therefore to increase his or her chances of engaging in criminal
activity (see Table 1).
For this study, age, race, and socioeconomic status were controlled.
Age was measured by asking the participants their date of birth. From this
response, I created a new variable representing their actual age, ranging from
16 to 89, rather than date of birth. Race was measured by asking participants
which of the following best describes their race: White, Black, Asian,
American Indian, or other race. For this study, I used the variable that
indicated whether the participants were White or Not White. Responses
indicating White were coded as a 1 and Not White were coded as a 0.
Socioeconomic status is measured by asking the participants their personal
monthly income. Their numeric responses were put into categories based on
the total, increasing from 0 dollars per month to over 7500 dollars a month
and then coded 0 through 12. Like income, commitment to education
(highest grade of school attended) and commitment to employment (have a
job or business) are often linked to socioeconomic status; therefore,
multicollinearity was tested and results suggest that this is not an issue for the
current study (see Table 1).
Table 1 Descriptive statistics for the variables in the analysis.
Range Mean Standard Deviation
Age at Time of Study 16-89 34.84 9.94
Monthly Income 0-12 5.59 3.36
Race 0-1 0.48 0.50
Number of Times Arrested 0-99 4.88 8.35
Marital Status 0-1 0.19 0.40
Have a Job or Business 0-1 0.67 0.47
Highest Grade of School Attended 0-18 10.89 2.57
Delinquent Peers 0-9 2.74 2.72
Delinquent Family Members 0-1 0.46 0.50
I use OLS (Ordinary Least Squares) regression modeling to assess my
hypotheses. Two models will be used in the analysis. The first model will
contain the social bond variables and will be regressed on criminal behavior
separately for males and females. The second model will include the
delinquent association variables regressed on criminal behavior and will also
be analyzed separately by gender. I will control age, race, and
socioeconomic status in both models. In order to assess differences in effects
across males and females, I compare unstandardized estimates of effects of
predictor variables on crime. The relative strength of predictors within each
gender is assessed via examination of standardized coefficients.
Model 1 tests the predictive power of social control theory in
explaining criminal behavior for males and females. Results indicate that for
males, only 1.6% of the variance in criminal behavior is explained using the
variables derived from social control theory (see Table 2). For females,
social control theory explains only 3.0% of the variance in criminal behavior
(see Table 3). Results from the first model suggest that there is a relationship
between elements of the social bond and criminal behavior for both males
and females; however that relationship is weak. Furthermore, the social
control theory variables appear to explain slightly more of the variance in
criminal behavior of females than males; however the amount of variance
explained by social control theory for males and females is minimal.
The predictive power of these variables appears to be roughly the
same across males and females; all three predictor variables are statistically
associated with male crime and female crime. For males, the unstandardized
estimates of predictor effects for the social control theory variables are as
follows: marital attachment -1.17, commitment to education -0.23, and
commitment to employment -1.55 (see Table 2). For females, the
unstandardized estimates of predictor effects for the social control theory
variables are as follows: marital attachment -1.08, commitment to education
-0.26, and commitment to employment -2.35 (see Table 3). Commitment to
employment appears to act as the strongest restraint against engaging in
crime across males and females followed by marital attachment and then
commitment to education.
Interestingly enough, when the estimates of the predictor effects are
standardized for males, commitment to employment remains the most
important aspect of the social bond that restrains males from engaging in
criminal behavior (-0.08), followed by educational commitment (-0.07) and
then by marital attachment (-0.06) (see Table 2). When the estimates of the
predictor effects are standardized for females, commitment to employment
also remains the most important aspect of the social bond, which restrains
females from engaging in criminal behavior (-0.14). Again, commitment to
employment is followed in strength by commitment to education (-0.08) and
then by marital attachment (-0.05) (see Table 3).
Table 2 OLS Regression Model for males containing the social control
variables and predicting criminal behavior.
Marital Status Number of Times Arrested -1.17* -0.06
Have a Job -1.55*
or Business -0.08
Highest Grade -0.23*
of School -0.07
R squared .016
Table 3 OLS Regression Model for females containing the social control
variables and predicting criminal behavior.
Number of Times Arrested
Marital Status -1.08* -0.05
Have a Job -2.35*
or Business -0.14
Highest Grade -0.26*
of School -0.08
R squared 0.030
Model 2 tests the predictive power of differential association theory in
explaining criminal behavior for males and females. Results from model 2
indicate the presence of statistically significant associations between
variables derived from differential association theory and criminal behavior
for both males and females. Although this relationship is also weak, the
relationship between delinquent associations and involvement in criminal
activities is stronger than the relationship between the social bond and crime
for both males and females. This suggests that the power of differential
association theory is stronger than the power of social control theory to
explain crime in this study. Findings suggest that for males, 6.5% of the
variance in criminal behavior is explained by differential associations (see
Table 4). For females, differential associations explain 8.2% of the variance
in criminal behavior (see Table 5). Similarly to social control theory,
differential association theory appears to explain slightly more of the
variance in criminal behavior of females than males. However, even though
the actual amount of variance explained by differential association theory is
greater than the amount of variance explained by social control theory for
both males and females, the amount of variance explained is still quite small.
Surprisingly, delinquent peer association appears to have more
explanatory power for females than males. In particular, the association
between delinquent peer association and criminal behavior for females (1.03)
is stronger than the correlation for males (0.70). Furthermore, delinquent
family association seems to have more explanatory power for males (1.34)
than for females (1.02). Among females, delinquent peer association appears
to be more strongly associated with criminal behavior than for males;
whereas, among males, delinquent family association is more strongly
associated with criminal behavior than for females (see Table 4 and Table 5).
Notably, standardized effects of theoretically relevant variables for
both males and females show that delinquent peer association overall
explains more variation in crime than delinquent family association. For
males, the estimates of predictor effects for the differential association theory
variables are as follows: delinquent peer association .24 and delinquent
family association .08 (see Table 4). For females, the estimates of predictor
effects for the differential association theory variables are as follows:
delinquent peer association .28 and delinquent family association .06 (see
Table 4 OLS Regression Model for males containing the differential
association variables and predicting criminal behavior.
Number of Times Arrested
R squared 0.065
Table 5 OLS Regression Model for females containing the differential
association variables and predicting criminal behavior.
R squared 0.082
In this study, I attempted to test the generality of social control theory
and differential association theory with respect to gender. To probe the
predictive power of both theories for males and females, I hypothesized that
criminal behavior across males and females should be explained by social
bonds and association with delinquent others.
The findings appear to support the first hypothesis. Specifically, the
stronger ones bond to conventional society, the less likely that individual is
to engage in criminal behavior. The results hold true for males and females.
However, because social control theory explains a minimal amount of the
variance in crime in male and female models, social bonds do not appear to
be strong predictors of crime.
My second hypothesis also appears to be supported by the data.
Results indicate that an individual who associates with delinquent others is
more likely to engage in criminal behavior. Again, it should be noted that the
relationship between delinquent associations and crime for males and females
is rather weak. Therefore, based on the findings, differential association does
not appear to be a strong predictor of crime either. Summarizing these
results, the data suggest that there is a weak positive association between the
differential association variables and crime for both males and females.
The results of the study also confirm the last two hypotheses. When
the effects of socioeconomic status, age, and race are controlled, the strength
of the effects of social bonds and differential associations on criminal
behavior is similar across males and females. Therefore, the data do support
Hirschis and Sutherlands claims that social control theory and differential
association theory explain criminal behavior across males and females.
However, one should interpret this finding with caution. Even though the
findings suggest that social bonds and delinquent associations fare the same
for males and females, neither of these theories has much power to explain
Overall, the question of whether gender-neutral theories can be used
to explain male and female behavior remains open to debate. A number of
empirical tests presented earlier (Alarid, Burton Jr., and Cullen 2000;
Brownfield 2003; Vowell and Chen 2004; Hartjen and Priyadarsini 2003; Liu
and Kaplan 1999) seem to indicate that general-neutral theories of crime are
applicable to understanding female crime. Findings from these studies
suggest that in particular social control theory and differential association
theory can be used to explain criminal behavior in both males and females.
Based on these studies, it seems that traditional, gender-neutral theories can
be quite useful for explaining crime across gender.
However, others studies do not support the generality claim of these
gender-neutral theories (Leonard and Decker 1994; Rosenbaum 1987;
Huebner and Betts 2002; Seydlitz 1990; Laundra, Kiger, and Bahr 2002;
Friedman and Rosenbaum 1988; Li and MacKenzie 2003; Mears, Ploeger,
and Warr 1998) and some researchers (Heimer 2000b; Steffensmeier and
Allan 1996; Proctor 2004) have contended that gender-specific theories may
be beneficial to the understanding of crime in both males and females.
Criminologists should pursue other alternatives in order to find an
answer to this question. First, scholars should consider either modifying
current gender-neutral theories or developing new gender-neutral theories of
crime that may be better able to explain crime across gender. Second, using
an integrated approach such as Thomberrys interactional theory may help
address some of the limitations of traditional, gender-neutral theories.
Existing empirical tests of interactional theory (Benda and Whiteside 1995;
Thomberry 1987; Thomberry 1994; Krohn et al. 1996; Matsueda and
Anderson 1998; Thomberry and Christenson 1984) have been supportive of
the main premise of the theory that social factors and delinquency are
reciprocally related and that delinquency is part of a process not just an
outcome. However, the generality of this theory across gender has not yet
been investigated thoroughly. It may be a good alternative to some of the
traditional, gender-neutral theories such as social control theory and
differential association theory for both males and females. Third, efforts
should be made to investigate the use of other gender-neutral theories such as
general strain theory, social learning theory, and self-control theory for
explaining crime across males and females. To date, only a handful of
studies address the issue in the context of these theories (see for example Hay
2003; Sharp et al. 2001; Sharp et al. 2005). Fourth, as many have already
suggested (Chesney-Lind and Faith 2001; Chesney-Lind 1995; Chesney-Lind
1989; Gavazzi 2006; Heimer 1996, Heimer 2000a, Heimer 2000b, Heimer
and De Coster 1999, Steffensmeier and Haynie 2000a, Steffensmeier and
Haynie 2000b, Steffensmeier and Allan 1996, Steffensmeier, Allan, and
Streifel 1989, and Messerschmidt 1986) criminologists may need to invest
time in closely examining the use of gender-specific theories.
Overall, it appears that neither of the two gender-neutral theories,
social control theory and differential association theory, tested in this study
can be used to completely explain male and female crime. The question
remains as to how to explain criminal behavior across gender. Do we alter
existing gender-neutral theories, develop new theories, use integrated
theories, consider using other gender-neutral theories, or are gender-specific
theories the answer? The study presented above begins to investigate these
questions, but it is merely a start.
Future research should also go beyond this study as it certainly has
some limitations. For example, it may prove to be beneficial to utilize
different measures of criminal involvement, social bonds, and differential
associations. Other elements of the social bond including involvement and
belief should be examined, as well as, other measures of commitment (such
as extracurricular activities for juveniles) and attachment (such as individuals
who are committed relationships, but are not married). Examining the quality
of the bond and bonds to unconventional others, looking at individuals
definitions of crime, or using self-reported measures of criminal activity may
provide important insights and contributions to this area of study.
Furthermore, conducting qualitative studies may also be a useful tool for
learning more about male and female criminal behavior (Messerschmidt
2000; Joe and Chesney-Lind 1995; Mayeda 2001). Finally, it would be wise
to explore the use of other theories, not just social control and differential
association, to explain the relationship between crime and gender. Although
work has already begun in these areas, it is clear that this diligence needs to
continue to fully understand the relationship between crime and gender.
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