Social Competence and Criminal Offending Over Time

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Prior research indicates that involvement in conventional social relationships, such as employment, are associated with decreases in criminal offending. However, far less is known about why only certain individuals seek out or are offered such opportunities for change. Social competence is defined as the set of cognitive and non-cognitive individual attributes, such as an individual's perceived dependability, maturity and sociability, which facilitate transitions throughout life and goal obtainment. Social competence is important for criminological theory and research because it can illuminate the mechanisms that underlie the empirical association between involvement in employment and criminal offending. Additionally, social competence may directly explain changes in criminal offending patterns over time. Using data taken from the Pittsburgh Youth Study (PYS), a prospective longitudinal study of the development of anti-social behavior among inner-city boys from childhood to early adulthood, the current study examined three main hypotheses. First, social competence established in adolescence predicts involvement in employment and the number of hours worked while employed. Second, social competence predicts both the overall level as well as changes in offending between and within-individuals. Finally, this study explored the relationship between within-individual changes in cumulative competence and changes in offending patterns as well. Results indicate that social competence established in adolescence is significantly related to involvement in employment, thus emphasizing the importance of individual level traits for selection into conventional social institutions. Although there was less support for the effects of social competence established in adolescence on overall levels of offending between individuals, strong support emerged for the effects of competence on changes in offending patterns. Results from within-individual analyses found that increases in social competence coincide with decreases in self-reported general delinquency, theft and violence. Future research should continue to examine the mechanisms underlying the relationship between conventional social relationships and offending patterns, and provide more nuanced examinations of the role of social competence and other individual level traits for criminological theory and research.