December 01, 2008

Sampson & Laub's Age-Graded Life-Course Theory of Crime

author_brad By Bradley Wright

When we moved to Connecticut with our five-year-old son, we wanted him to make friends. Unfortunately, we didn’t really know anyone in town, so we randomly selected two kids from his class to invite over for a play-date. Well, it went just fine, but what I remember best about it was my impressions of the two kids. Even though they were just kindergartners, they acted very differently.

One kid was quite prosocial—he was polite, listened to my wife and me when we gave the kids instructions, and overall he was “nice.” The other kid, though, was a bit of a scamp. He wasn’t mean-spirited, but he used rather rough language (at least for a kindergartner), and he would periodically act out by being too rough with my son and the other boy.

Fast forward ten years, and the nice boy is one of my son’s best friends. We see him on a regular basis, and he remains a really good kid. The other kid got kicked out of school a couple of times, and we’ve lost track of him. The last I heard from my son, he was in some sort of legal trouble. Hopefully, though, he’ll be able to straighten things out and make a good life for himself.

This story echoes an observation made by Lee Robins, a psychologist who studies crime. She noted that all antisocial adults were antisocial as children; however, not all antisocial children grow up to be antisocial adults. This observation provided important insight for theories of crime. It holds that very few “good” kids get involved in crime and other forms of antisocial behavior as adults. Once prosocial, always prosocial. In contrast, some “bad” kids grow up to be antisocial, criminal adults, but others do not. In statistical language, being antisocial as a child is a necessary, but not sufficient, predictor that a child will be antisocial as an adult.

My son’s friends support this observation. The nice, well-behaved kindergartener remains so now that he’s a high school kid. This illustrates the stability of prosocial behavior. The kid who got into trouble, however, seems to have continued to do so, but we’re hoping that he’ll work things out. This illustrates antisocial behavior continuing into adulthood, but, according to Robins’ observation, there is hope for change.

Rob Sampson and John Laub used this observation to anchor their age-graded, life-course theory of crime. They developed this theory using some of the most fascinating data ever studied by criminologists. In the 1940s, Sheldon and Eleanor Gluck conducted a longitudinal study of troubled boys in Boston. These boys were in their early teens and had already been in trouble with the law and put into reform school. The Glucks collected extensive records about the boys and studied them through adolescence. The study was put aside until Sampson and Laub found their data boxed up in the basement of the Harvard Library.

clip_image002Sampson and Laub reconstructed the data and followed-up with the original respondents, who were then around 60 years old. Sampson and Laub found out that some of the troubled boys ended up in trouble with the law for the rest of their lives, while others lived very conventional lives and had no legal problems. This variation fit with Robins’ observation, and it lead Sampson and Laub to ask why some of the troubled kids turned out well and others didn’t.

clip_image004Their answer used principles of life-course development. Specifically, they found that the troubled kids who got straightened out experienced some sort of turning point—an event or life circumstance that pulled them out of their criminal lifestyle and into a more conventional pattern of behavior. Such turning points included military service, employment, and marriage. Military service provided structure and discipline for the reform school boys. Employment and marriage provided stability and the need to walk the straight-and-narrow if they wanted to keep their jobs and marriage.

What’s important about this theory is that it brings together social influences on crime, such as family and employment, with psychological predispositions. This social psychological approach to crime adds some of the best features of strictly psychological and sociological approaches, for it acknowledges personal differences in criminal propensity, but it also makes a place for society to overrule, or at least counteract, these propensities. This gives some hope that the troubled kid who came over to our house that one day will find the right job or partnership to turn his life around.


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I've just discovered this blog and very much appreciate the content. Brad... Very interesting points made here, well supported with anecdotal evidence and longitudinal studies. However, I cannot help but feel that the whole notion of 'criminality' needs unpacking more. It seems that criminality here is defined by deviant acts that stand out, get noticed, reported and acted on. There is plenty of room in this constellaiton of thought for 'prosocial' children, to grow into prosocial adults that none the less commit deviant behaviour... white collar crime being the famous example... The difference being that offenders of such crimes simply do not get caught, 'prosocial' meaning that they are, for what ever reason, aware of the protocols required to 'pass' as 'normal.' This however, has little to dowith pyschological predisposition than it does the abundance of symbolic and cultural captial of the habitus in which they are raised. I recall friends that my parents thought were really good kids (now in prison). I also recall friends parents that thought,and still do think, that the sun shines out of one of my corporeal orifices, this despite the fact that I am occasionally technically speaking, deviant.

You bring up some great ideas that span several theories of crime.

In particular, how we define and measure criminality is an on-going issue in this kind of work.

Very good thoughts!

You have some good points that cause me to think. If children that act out and get involved in crimes or legal issues young why don't we do more as a society to keep them from being criminals all their lives. One thing that could help young citizens that are placed in a juvenile correction facility is the Project Pooch. This project is where they give dogs that would have been put down in a shelter to a correction facility and they get to train dogs. This helps the people because they learn that so called "bad dogs" can be trained, given to a family, and turn their life around, so can the criminals. When they get out they can become productive members of society. If it helps the older criminals it most likely would have the same effect on younger criminals. Don't you think?

I just would like to find more ways to prevent all the crimes taking place in the world and if this project works why not use it everywhere?

Integrated theories recognize that multiple social and individual factors interact to result in the eventual behaviour of individuals, and that we must consider the constellation of factors in an individual’s life in order to understand his or her behaviour.

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