The importance of knowing what family means to young offenders

How can we begin to understand how family life influences youth offending behaviour if we do not have a clear understanding of what ‘family’ means to young people themselves?

Nicola Coleman

Nicola Coleman is a full-time PhD student in Criminology at Middlesex University, London. Her research focus is on understanding the relationship between family life and youth offending behaviour.

 

 

Recent years have witnessed an increasing focus on young people and their problematic behaviour, which has been brought to the public’s attention by the government and kept in the limelight by the media. Understandably, this has been met with a vast amount of research, which has mostly been aimed at identifying key ‘risk factors’ in young people’s lives that could potentially be used to predict how at-risk they are of reoffending (Farrington, 2015). Largely based on this risk factor research, youth justice responses are becoming increasingly managerialist, creating a culture consumed by the need for ratings and scores to predict future behaviour and decide on the most appropriate ways to manage such behaviour (O’ Mahony, 2009).

From this vast pool of risk factor research, the relationship between the family environment and youth offending behaviour has been well established. However, with much of the previous research in this area employing quantitative methods, it has been suggested that a move forward would be to incorporate qualitative measures in order to achieve more depth and understanding (Case, 2007). Furthermore, with the changing nature of family life over the past 30 years, and the move away from a traditional ‘nuclear’ family structure, findings from earlier studies investigating the relationship between family life and youth offending may be less relevant to contemporary social relations (Blau & Van der Klaauw, 2013). Such a context indicates the need for research to reinvestigate definitions and understandings of ‘family life’ and its influence on behavioural outcomes, including youth offending.

The married, co-resident heterosexual couple with children no longer occupies the centre-ground of Western societies and cannot be taken for granted as the basic unit in society (Roseneil & Budgeon, 2004: 140).

The statement above provides the central argument for my current research: that society and academics are changing the way in which ‘family’ is both practiced and conceptualised, rendering previous research into the relationship between ‘family’ and youth offending behaviour outdated. This creates a significant gap in the current literature, whereby further research is needed to explore, in detail, the ways in which people understand ‘family life’ and how this impacts on behavioural outcomes, such as youth offending behaviour. Previously, research has taken the image and concept of the traditional ‘nuclear family’ as the central point of comparison for all other families; in this sense, if you ‘measure’ too far away from this centre point, then you are deemed as being more ‘at risk’ with regard to developing delinquent behaviour.

My current research project will take a case study approach and apply a mixed methods research design in order to develop understanding of the relationship between youth offending behaviour and family life. The first stage of my data collection utilises questionnaires to gather views and opinions about family life from both the young people and staff at a Youth Offending Unit (YOU) in London. Importantly, it aims to work towards identifying a common definition of what ‘family’ means. The results from this initial stage will help to inform the questions used in follow-up interviews and focus groups with the staff and young people at the YOU. In working closely with, and being fully supported by a Youth Offending Team (YOT) in London, the practical implications of my research can be demonstrated not only at a local level but also potentially at a national level. The managers at the YOU where my case study is based intend to use the findings to develop the programmes and activities they run with young people and their families: most importantly, however, the level of understanding the staff have about how young people perceive family life will be increased. In adopting a case study approach, the results will be limited to the YOT where the research was conducted. However, the tools developed to collect the data are not location specific, and therefore there is potential for the research to be replicated in other YOTs across the country, providing each unit with its own tailor-made recommendations and insights into the young people it deals with.

 

Blau, D.M. & Van der Klaauw, W. (2013) What determines family structure? Economic Inquiry, 51(1), 579-604.
https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/ doi/abs/10.1111/ j.1465-7295.2010.00334.x

Case, S. (2007) Questioning the ‘evidence’ of risk that underpins evidence-led youth justice interventions. Youth Justice, 7(2), 91-105. http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1473225407078771

Farrington, D.P. (2015) Prospective longitudinal research on the development of offending. Australian & New Zealand Journal of Criminology, 48(3), 314-335. http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0004865815590461

O’ Mahony, P. (2009) The risk factors prevention paradigm and the causes of youth crime: A deceptively useful analysis? Youth Justice, 9(2), 99-114. http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1473225409105490

Roseneil, S. & Budgeon, S. (2004) Cultures of intimacy and care beyond ‘the family’: Personal life and social change in the early 21st century. Current Sociology, 52(2), 135-159.
http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/001 1392104041798

 

Contact

Nicola Coleman, PhD Student in Criminology, Middlesex University, London.

Email: n.coleman@mdx.ac.uk

Twitter: @nic_coleman_

 

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