This project develops a symbolic interactionist theory of role-taking, deterrence, and delinquency. This perspective is used to integrate recent research on deterrence -- the ability of threats of punishment such as arrest and incarceration to deter individuals from crime -- and research on informal social control -- the ability of institutions, such as families, schools, and communities to prevent crime through informal controls. According to the symbolic interactionist theory of delinquency, organized groups control the behavior of members through role-taking. When ongoing lines of activity are blocked or interrupted, individuals engage in cognitive behavior, in which they consider the anticipated reactions of other to lines of action and most importantly views of self from the standpoint of others. This project, more specifically, will address the following issues. First, do individuals learn perceived costs and returns to crime based on a Bayesian learning model, in which prior beliefs about costs and returns influence behavior, but are then modified based on the consequences of that behavior? Second, do delinquent decisions follow a model of limited rationality, in which actors satisfice, rather than optimize? And can a symbolic interactionist model of decision-making specify the conditions under which delinquent decisions tend toward rationality? Third, are there specific conditions under which deterrent effects appear, and can a symbolic interactionist learning model identify those conditions? Fourth, by examining both future self-reported delinquency and present delinquent intentions, can we reconcile divergent findings in the literature? The project will employ two data sets. The National Youth Survey and the Denver Youth Study. The project will make important contributions to our understanding of delinquent decision-making, and the way in which informal social control and formal sanctioning operate to affect delinquent behavior. Moreover, the research will have implications for basic research on rational decision-making, and public policies intended to reduce crime by strengthening institutions versus investing in police, courts, and prisons.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Social and Economic Sciences (SES)
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Isaac Unah
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University of Washington
United States
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