In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Peer Networks and Delinquency

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Intellectual Foundations
  • Unpacking Mechanisms of Peer Influence
  • Causal Inference
  • Measuring the Peer Effect
  • Social Network Analysis
  • Experimental and Quasi-Experimental Design
  • Examining the Functional Form of Peer Influence
  • Variation in the Peer Effect
  • Examining the Role of Gender
  • Types of Peer Relationships
  • Virtual Peers in the Digital Age
  • Peer Networks and Desistance from Crime
  • Prevention

Criminology Peer Networks and Delinquency
Gregory M. Zimmerman, Alexis Yohros, Carter Rees
  • LAST REVIEWED: 09 August 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0121


This article is concerned with (primarily criminological) research on the relationship between engaging in delinquent behavior and being exposed to delinquent peer networks (i.e., friendship groups). The notion that an individual’s peer group influences his or her criminality has been referred to as “peer network,” “peer influence,” “peer effects,” or “personal network” research, and this kind of research focuses predominantly on the delinquent and criminal conduct of children, adolescents, and young adults. Although the coverage of peer group influence is quite varied, the following references highlight some of the major topical areas, such as the mechanisms through which peer influence functions, causal concerns pertaining to peer influence, measuring the peer effect, conditioning effects on the strength of peer influence, and the role that gender plays in the relationship between peer and personal delinquency. Seminal pieces of research on peer influence, particularly differential association theory and social learning theory, were first written in the early 20th century and theorized that the people with whom one interacts have an influence on one’s criminality. Examples of more detailed theoretical and methodological treatments of the effect of peers have begun to appear regularly in the literature since the 1990s.

General Overviews

The notion that delinquency is a group phenomenon was fundamental to pioneering research on delinquency. Early works (see Intellectual Foundations) developed a rich theoretical framework to understand the nature of group effects on delinquency. However, as Erickson and Jensen 1977 discusses, the middle of the 20th century witnessed a movement away from the study of peer groups and toward a focus on individual criminal acts. A resurgence of research on delinquent peer groups surfaced in the late 20th century. For example, Warr 2002 provides an overview of research and policy developed since the initial works. Reiss 1986 reviews the body of literature on co-offending in youth and adulthood. And Felson 2003 discusses delinquency primarily as a group activity, focusing on the processes by which offenders find one another. More recently, Brechwald and Prinstein 2011 provides a comprehensive multidisciplinary overview of the peer-influence literature over the past decade, and Hoeben, et al. 2016 provides a state-of-the-art review on the role of peers in explaining delinquent and substance using behaviors. Agnew and Brezina 2011, a text on juvenile delinquency, emphasizes the processes through which delinquency is learned from peers. Other studies, such as Matsueda 1988 and Pratt, et al. 2010, provide assessments of the empirical status of the core social learning theories of crime.

  • Agnew, Robert, and Timothy Brezina. 2011. Juvenile delinquency: Causes and control. 4th ed. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    The text is organized around three major questions: What is the nature and extent of delinquency? What theoretical and empirical explanations exist for the causes of delinquency? How can we control and prevent delinquency? As a text on juvenile delinquency, there is an emphasis on the processes through which delinquency is learned from peers.

  • Brechwald, Whitney, and Mitchell Prinstein. 2011. Beyond homophily: A decade of advances in understanding peer influence processes. Journal of Research on Adolescence 21.1: 166–179.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1532-7795.2010.00721.x

    Comprehensive multidisciplinary overview of the peer-influence literature over the past decade. Five main themes are identified. First, peers influence a host of antisocial and prosocial attitudes and behaviors. Second, sources of peer influence are more easily identified with social network data. Third, mechanisms of influence have been tested directly. Fourth, several moderators of peer influence have been identified. Lastly, more consideration needs to be given to biologically based explanations of peer influence.

  • Erickson, Maynard L., and Gary F. Jensen. 1977. Delinquency is still group behavior! Toward revitalizing the group premise in the sociology of deviance. Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology 68.2: 262–273.

    DOI: 10.2307/1142849

    A brief review of the history of peer group research in the sociology of deviance. The premise that delinquent behavior is a social activity involving peers is explored using questionnaires administered to seventeen hundred students from three small town schools and three urban schools. Findings suggest that youths generally engage in delinquent behavior when in the company of peers, although variation in the findings exists, for example, by offense.

  • Felson, Marcus. 2003. The process of co-offending. In Theory for practice in situational crime prevention. Edited by Martha J. Smith and Derek B. Cornish, 149–167. Crime Prevention Studies 16. Monsey, NY: Criminal Justice Press.

    After a review of literature on crime as a group activity, Felson provides insight into the processes by which offenders find one another. The concept of offender convergence settings is used to understand how offenders converge in time and space without outside interference in the context of routine activities.

  • Hoeben, Evelien M., Ryan C. Meldrum, D’Andre Walker, and Jacob T. N. Young. 2016. The role of peer delinquency and unstructured socializing in explaining delinquency and substance use: A state-of-the-art-review. Journal of Criminal Justice 47:108–122.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.jcrimjus.2016.08.001

    A review of the contemporary literature on the influence of peer delinquency and unstructured socializing on delinquent behaviors and substance use. The authors identify trends in the literature, gaps in knowledge, and directions for future avenues of research.

  • Matsueda, Ross L. 1988. The current state of differential association theory. Crime and Delinquency 34.3: 277–306.

    DOI: 10.1177/0011128788034003005

    Review of the development of differential association theory and an assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the theory through a detailed review of empirical examinations of the theory.

  • Pratt, Travis C., Francis T. Cullen, Christine S. Sellers, et al. 2010. The empirical status of social learning theory. Justice Quarterly 27.6: 765–802.

    DOI: 10.1080/07418820903379610

    The authors subject the body of empirical literature related to social learning theory to a meta-analysis. Results indicate that, across studies, measures of differential association and definitions are strongly predictive of crime. Measures of differential reinforcement and modeling/imitation are modestly associated with criminal conduct. Variation in effect sizes across study methodology is noted.

  • Reiss, Albert J., Jr. 1986. Co-offender influences on criminal careers. In Criminal careers and career criminals. Edited by Alfred Blumstein, Jacqueline Cohen, Jeffrey Roth, and Christy Visher, 121–160. Washington, DC: National Academy.

    A book chapter that reviews the body of literature on co-offending in youth and adulthood. The chapter pays particular attention to intervention strategies in criminal careers.

  • Warr, Mark. 2002. Companions in crime: The social aspects of criminal conduct. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511803956

    A book that comprehensively reviews research on peer influence and describes mechanisms through which peer influence functions. A survey of the literature demonstrates that offenders are normatively imbedded in a network of delinquent friends.

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