|John Hagan and Bill McCarthy. Mean Streets: Youth Crime and Homelessness. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1998, xv plus 299 pp (incl. appendices and notes) $US 54.95 cloth, $US 19.95 paper.
This excellent book, published earlier in hard cover, has been very well received by researchers and has won several prestigious awards. The authors have succeeded well in reaching their elusive population of interest (i.e., homeless youth) and have carried out a first-class empirical study of the linkages between their social conditions and criminal activity. The most outstanding feature of the book lies in its imaginative operationalization of concepts and sophisticated empirical testing of theories and hypotheses. There is no especially new theoretical framework nor especially new hypotheses or interpretations of the situation of homeless youth, but the authors comb the relevant literatures very well and extract what is heuristic and proceed to integrate these ideas in testable models which are then examined in a most thorough and inventive fashion. It would be difficult to find a better example of demanding, quality empirical research for fellow researchers to learn from.
Hagan and McCarthy establish that homeless youth constitute a significant social problem and argue convincingly that much modern criminology has followed the line of least resistance and focused too heavily on school surveys and self-reported criminal behaviour, neglecting the more taxing 'street criminology' which initially inspired American criminological research. Their agenda is to shift the focus back to the street, while retaining, in this research, the concern with quantitative analyses and self-reported criminal activity. To advance this agenda, they offer a complex study design which saw them compare the responses of street and school youths in Toronto, and, a few years later, conduct a three-wave panel study (over seven weeks) of homeless youth in Toronto and Vancouver. These cities provide a useful comparison since, as the authors argue, they have different social policy frameworks for dealing with homeless youth; the crime-control model in Vancouver presumably creates more criminogenic conditions (e.g., material deprivation, danger) for homeless youth than the more social welfare model found in Toronto. The authors arrange their analyses and discussion in a linear fashion, first dealing with factors causing youth to take to the street, then dealing with adversity and crime on the street, the factors that 'amplify' street crime, and, lastly, the factors associated with leaving the street.
Hagan and McCarthy bring together the major theoretical frameworks that are usually called upon to explain criminal behaviour and conceptualize their linkages in imaginative ways. The postulates of strain theory are linked with those of control theory, and these, in turn, are integrated with differential association in feedback loops. The authors discuss background and foreground contexts, in each of which they emphasize the importance of class factors (e.g., material deprivation, work), and, more generally, sociogenic versus ontogenetic factors. Re-conceptualizing differential association and opportunities theory, they use the concepts, social capital and criminal capital, to account for the amplification of criminal behaviour among homeless youth. The essence of their theoretical argument is that 'class' factors (via strain and control variables) not only cause youth to take to the streets but continue to operate in the social realities of homelessness (i.e., the foreground) and are amplified in their effects by the factors of criminal capital and social policy. Methodologically, the authors complement their surveys of self-reported criminal and other behaviour (plus values and attitudes) with in-depth interviews and a sufficient street presence to be confident that their core methodology will yield valid, reliable results. In dealing with each phase of the homelessness trajectory, the authors follow a standard, informative format - the theoretical specifications, observational and interview findings, then the statistical testing of explanatory models.
After identifying age and predictable family characteristics (linked to both strain and control theory specifications) as factors associated with 'taking to the streets', the authors show that this path does indeed lead to more crime; surprisingly, though, when foreground factors are controlled for, the same 'background' factors account for serious criminal behaviour in both street and school populations. Street life for the homeless youth is depicted, based largely on self-reported data, as violent and crime-ridden, strikingly individualized at its core, and a continuing challenge for money, food and lodgings. The authors show that the high level of serious criminal behaviour there is accounted for mostly by these foreground factors. Criminal embeddeness, reflected in informational networks and tutelage, is shown to be more important in accounting for the amplification of crime than are any direct effects of strain or control theories' variables. The authors have little to say concerning why youth subsequently leave the street; here their statistical analyses yield weak results with a low explained variance and employment as the only major significant factor, although there is an indication that strain (e.g, employment opportunities) and control (e.g., responding to perceived sanctions) theories could be specified more elaborately with better results. The authors make a convincing case for progressive social policy since their analyses show that 'City' is an important causal variable: Vancouver's homeless youth are much more involved in serious, non-violent criminal activity than those in Toronto.
Hagan and McCarthy deserve the praise they have received for this book. The social science researcher will dip into it often. At the same time there are some critical issues that should be raised. The authors might well have considered more how their methodology affects their findings. Focusing on individuals, through self-report survey and interviews, may well limit appreciation of social processes and group activity. The authors discount the ideas of family-like ties or collective criminal action among street youth. They also do not present any satisfying account of why youth take to the streets and subsequently leave them, in particular the social linkages that facilitate these actions. An ethnographic approach might well yield a quite different picture of homeless youth in crime. It would be valuable, too, to have a sense of how street crime of the homeless links up (or does not) with the street crime of the non-homeless in the areas of drugs, prostitution and serious theft. Also, from a psychological stance, one wonders about factors that set the homeless youth apart from others, especially since no specific sociogenic background factors apparently do. Are the homeless youth particularly scarred by early family experience and particularlyt unable to form collaborative ties, or is their behaviour overwhelmingly determined by the foreground factors? Finally, it must be noted that, from a substantive point of view, the book does not go much beyond extant public awareness or social constructions in answering why youth take to the streets (e.g., family factors), their experience in the street (e.g., lots of crime and anomie), and why they leave the street (e.g., they become sensitive to the long term impact of sanctions and find jobs). The book's primary value is for professional researchers.
Sociology, Dalhousie University