Publication - Research and analysis

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

Published: 4 Feb 2008
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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.

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


5.1 This study has provided strong empirical support for the theoretical relationships posited in the introduction. It suggests that there is indeed a strong connection between levels of inter-generational contact, social connectedness, perceptions of young people and youth crime, and willingness to intervene. This also suggests that, by focusing on any one of these areas, policy may have intended or unintended consequences for the others.

5.2 The relationship between social connectedness and willingness to intervene is especially interesting and various mechanisms suggest themselves as explanations. It may be, for example, that adults feel more able to intervene in situations in which they know or recognise the young people concerned. Alternatively, they may think it likely that they will know or recognise the parents of the young people and anticipate a point of connection through that channel. Finally, through an implicit sense of connection with those in the community around them, they may feel confident that their actions will, at best, be supported and, at worst, not be misinterpreted. In other words, they are more likely to feel that their intervention will reflect shared norms and values. Of course, the reverse may also be true: through successful intervention, relationships may be built, collective values reinforced and community efficacy strengthened.

5.3 In general, the research emphasises the need to give greater consideration to the notion of civilities as well as incivilities - i.e. those everyday actions and behaviours that help to tighten, rather than loosen, the bonds between people and prevent or lessen the consequences of anti-social behaviour in its various forms. Although this is implicit in many of the recent debates about anti-social behaviour and the 'respect' agenda, we still understand little about the interactions and experiences that bring people together within and across communities. As Bannister and colleagues have argued (Bannister, 2007), there is a need for a renewed focus on the micro-aspects of civility - indeed, for the development of a 'civic criminology' - to help us better understand the circumstances in which individuals feel able and motivated to engage in actions that are of wider social benefit.

5.4 The present study has thrown up one hugely significant - and largely unanticipated - finding in this respect: that a large proportion of adult males are now deterred from intervening in problematic situations involving young people not because of fears for their own safety, but because of concerns that they themselves will be falsely accused of threatening behaviour or assault. This is clearly an issue that requires further debate, since there are good reasons why communities and individuals have become sensitised to 'stranger danger' and child abuse in its various forms. But we need to be aware of the consequences of this distancing - both for adult males, who would traditionally have played a central role in informal social control within all communities, and for the police, who will increasingly be called upon to fill the gap.

5.5 It should be emphasised that willingness to intervene - and informal social control more generally - is not being advanced here as a cure-all for the problem of youth crime; nor is it seen as inherently superior to formal responses to crime and anti-social behaviour. Indeed, in certain communities and in certain circumstances, informal social control may be impossible to enact without formal structures of various kinds (because social ties are so fragile). Alternatively, it may displace formal mechanisms to an inappropriate and damaging degree - e.g. in communities which have turned to vigilantism or largely reject the police. In such circumstances, there may be a particular role for 'intermediate' solutions, such as community wardens and other agencies which provide a means to address anti-social behaviour without immediate recourse to the police.

5.6 But the successful exertion of a degree of informal social control is probably a necessary, if not sufficient, condition for healthy communities. Indeed, it could be argued that mechanisms of informal social control are what allow formal social control to operate effectively. They do so, in part, by strengthening social cohesion and a sense of shared values and endeavour. In such circumstances, as sociologists from Durkheim onwards have told us, communities are more likely to identify and act against those who transgress norms - and, in so doing, reaffirm those norms. Such mechanisms also allow the police to operate more effectively, first, by helping to create the conditions in which members of the public may co-operate with them and, secondly, by allowing the police to focus on more serious problems. There has been a striking paradox in recent years: in an era of falling crime rates, the demands on police resources have risen steadily. Why might this be the case? Of course, to some extent, it reflects the increasing diversity and complexity of the role of the police (resulting, for example, from globalisation, technological development and terrorism). But it also reflects a more mundane reality: that crime may be down but 'call handling' is up. The police are now regularly expected to intervene in a range of often sub-criminal forms of behaviour that would previously have been either tolerated or resolved by communities themselves.

5.7 It may also be worth considering the implications for informal social control and the 'problem of youth crime' of Scotland's ageing population. The balance and the nature of the relationships between the youngest and oldest sections of the population have shifted hugely in recent decades and will shift even further over the coming years. It is not just that older people increasingly outnumber the young: as families disperse and communities change, the opportunities for inter-generational contact are also likely to contract. There will also be more childless older people, who do not have children and grandchildren to weave them back into the wider community. That said, there are also some grounds for optimism about the nature of such relationships. First, as older people live longer and more active lives, they may remain involved in a range of activities that bring them (or keep them) in contact with younger people - not least, of course, employment. Secondly, it could be argued that there is a collapsing cultural distance between the generations or, at the very least, that the 'generation gap' is narrower than in previous decades. Finally, it is possible that the phenomenon of older parenting will extend the role of grandparenting and great-grandparenting into older age groups - though it is also possible, of course, that many young people will simply not have grandparents and that this important inter-generational bridge will be broken.

5.8 In policy terms, there is a case both for anticipating the consequences of such developments and considering what steps might be taken to prepare for them. As such, initiatives aimed at building or reinforcing inter-generational contact clearly have an important role within the broader context of attempts to strengthen community cohesion and efficacy.

5.9 As ever, the biggest challenges in this respect lie in the most deprived communities, the areas of greatest need and fewest resources. As this research has demonstrated, residents of such areas are more likely to be directly affected by youth crime, and certainly to feel that it is all around them. At the same time, they are less likely to trust or to have strong links to others which, as we have seen, are both important indicators of willingness and ability to exert informal social control (at least as evidenced through willingness to intervene). Do high levels of youth crime reduce the capacity to exert such control, or does the lack of informal control lead to youth crime? The answer is almost certainly both, which suggests the need for policy to take a more holistic approach to the problem of youth crime - one which pays as much attention to reactions as actions, to civilities as incivilities, and to pro-social as anti-social behaviour.