Attitudes Towards Youth Crime and Willingness to Intervene: Findings from the 2006 Scottish Social Attitudes Survey

This report presents findings from a module of questions included in the 2006 Scottish Social Attitudes survey and revisits a theme first addressed by survey in 2004, namely public attitudes towards young people and youth crime.



1.1 This report, which draws on data from the 2006 Scottish Social Attitudes survey, takes as its starting point the idea that the problem of youth crime is not simply about the number of 'things that happen' ( e.g. the number of windows broken, people threatened or assaulted, cars stolen) but about the way that as individuals and communities we respond to those acts. In other words, it revisits a tenet of criminology that crime consists of both action and reaction, and places a renewed emphasis on processes of informal social control. In particular, it focuses on the specific example of public willingness to intervene in problematic situations involving young people and relates this to broader attitudes towards young people, perceptions and direct experience of youth crime, social cohesion and inter-generational contact.


1.2 The role of informal social control - and its interaction with formal control - has been the subject of surprisingly little recent study. With a few notable exceptions ( e.g. Atkinson and Flint, 2003; Forrest, Myhill and Tilley, 2005) - and despite the wider interest in issues relating to community efficacy and cohesion - contemporary criminology and criminal justice policy has tended to focus more on criminal actions rather than individual and community reactions. It is clear, however, that the latter are central to the construction of the problem of crime (and hence the problem of youth crime). It is not only that certain types of behaviour have to be viewed or interpreted as criminal before they emerge as a social problem; the immediate and longer-term consequences of such behaviours can be either exacerbated or dissipated through the reactions they produce. For example, in some circumstances, an over-reliance on formal criminal justice can inflame intra-community tensions and set in motion processes of labelling and distancing that may increase the likelihood of future conflict. In others, a constant recourse to mechanisms of informal social control may lead to vigilantism, or leave people reluctant to involve agencies such as the police, even in very serious matters, because of fear of reprisal or concern about being labelled an informer.

1.3 In 2004, the Scottish Executive commissioned a module of questions in the Scottish Social Attitudes survey to explore the issue of public attitudes towards young people and youth crime. The results of that exercise (see Anderson, Bromley and Given, 2005) went some way towards unpacking and contextualising views in this area. They showed, for example, that - despite the very powerful ways in which inter-generational contact is structured into many households and communities - a significant proportion of adults have little or no contact with young people between the ages of 11 and 24. The results also indicated that adult views of young people are more complicated than might otherwise be supposed: overall, there is certainly a great deal of concern about 'young people today', but there is also much concern and sympathy for young people in the face of the difficulties of contemporary society, particularly among the age group one might expect to be their sternest critics - those aged 65 and over. There was also some evidence that levels of inter-generational contact might influence or predict such attitudes: in other words, that those with lower levels of contact with young people may also hold the most negative attitudes.

1.4 Overall, the study concluded that public attitudes towards young people and youth crime should be seen as not simply reflecting but helping to constitute the 'problem of youth crime'. As such, the case was made for monitoring attitudes in this area over time and for attempting to understand better the relationship between attitudes, experience ( e.g. of contact with young people) and behaviour ( e.g. willingness to intervene in problematic situations affecting young people).

1.5 With funding from the Scottish Executive, the 2006 SSA was able to revisit these issues and, in particular, to examine further the ways in which the relationship between different age groups might fuel or help to defuse the problem of youth crime. In particular, the 2006 module was intended to shed light on adult willingness to intervene in situations in which young people are either posing a risk or are at risk themselves - behaviour that could be seen as a key test of the ability of communities to self-regulate and to absorb or defuse problematic behaviour associated with young people. The module also set out to understand how such interventions may be influenced by patterns of intergenerational contact, wider 'social connectedness' and prevailing attitudes towards young people and youth crime - a web of potential relationships summarised in the diagram below.

aweb of potential relationships summarised

1.6 Specifically, the module set out to answer the following questions:

  • How are adult members of the public likely to react in problematic situations involving young people?
  • To what extent will they modify their own behaviour in the face of groups of young people in public places?
  • How likely are they to intervene directly in situations in which young people's behaviour is problematic for the wider community or in which young people themselves appear to be at risk?
  • What is the balance between direct intervention and other, formal and informal, strategies?
  • How is 'willingness to intervene' related to other variables, such as 'social connectedness' and inter-generational contact; general perceptions of young people and youth crime; and broader social and demographic characteristics?
  • What reasons do adults give for any reluctance to intervene directly in such situations? How do such responses vary according to the gender of the adult and of the young people involved?

1.7 The core of the study, therefore, consisted of a series of hypothetical scenarios (or 'vignettes'), in which respondents were asked to indicate their most likely course of action. These are a useful means of exploring responses to different types of situations and, in particular, variations in response across different sections of the population (see Finch, 1987; Alexander and Becker, 1978).

Format of the report and reporting conventions

1.8 Chapters 2 and 3 revisit and develop some of the themes of the 2004 module. Chapter 2 examines levels of inter-generational contact, and sets these in the context of broader measures of 'social connectedness' and social trust. Chapter 3 focuses on prevailing attitudes towards young people and youth crime. It also relates perceptions of the prevalence of youth crime-related problems to their actual experience. Chapter 4 contains the main analysis of the variables relating to avoidance behaviour and willingness to intervene. These are related to the variables documented in Chapters 2 and 3, and also to broader socio-demographic factors, such as age and gender. Chapter 5 summarises the main themes emerging from the research and considers the implications of these for policy and practice.

The data

1.9 Our data come from the 2006 Scottish Social Attitudes ( SSA) survey, conducted by the Scottish Centre for Social Research. SSA is an independent survey that aims to provide high quality survey data on a wide range of social and political attitudes in order both to inform public policy and to facilitate the academic study of public opinion. The survey is conducted annually and comprises a series of separately-funded modules addressing different themes and a shared set of socio-demographic questions. Other topics covered by the survey in 2006 included attitudes towards homelessness, discrimination, national identity, and public services and devolution.

Fieldwork for the survey took place between August 2006 and early January 2007, and interviews were carried out with a random sample of 1,594 adults aged 18 plus resident in Scotland. This represented a response rate of between 56% and 58% 1. Further technical details about the survey are included in Annex A.

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