Reconceptualizing Social Bonds for Emerging Adults

AuthorElias S. Nader,A. Davies Robinson
Published date01 May 2023
Date01 May 2023
Subject MatterArticles
CRIMINAL JUSTICE AND BEHAVIOR, 2023, Vol. 50, No. 5, May 2023, 708 –728.
Article reuse guidelines:
© 2023 International Association for Correctional and Forensic Psychology
Kent State University
Social bond theory argues that weak bonds (e.g., relationships, values, activities) with society facilitate engagement in crime
and deviance. As these bonds are strengthened, young people grow out of deviance and into prosocial adulthood roles. Social
bond theory has four classic components: Attachment, Commitment, Involvement, and Belief. While these components are
significant for adolescents and youth, research has yet to examine how social bonds function for young and emerging adults
(ages 18–29). This article examines how emerging adults identify and define which social bonds are essential in their transi-
tion into prosocial adulthood. Life story interviews were conducted with emerging adults (n = 30), approximately half of
whom have histories of justice system involvement. Themes from interviews inform a reconceptualization of social bond
theory for emerging adults focusing on two key elements: (a) Attachment and (b) Commitment Through Involvement.
Keywords: criminological theory; desistance; social bonds; youth; theory
Social control theories argue that behavior is linked to relationships, values, and
engagement in conventional institutions in society. Within this perspective, engage-
ment in (and desistance from) crime is a result of social, structural, and environmental
factors, including communities and social networks as well as cultural norms (Lopez &
Scott, 2000; Murdock, 1949). The social bonds one has with society can influence engage-
ment in crime or other delinquent behaviors (Hirschi, 1969). While strong bonds provide
a reason to avoid crime, weak or broken bonds provide the freedom to act in deviant
ways. When bonds can be strengthened, they can thus serve as “hooks for change” (i.e.,
turning points; see Giordano et al., 2002) to facilitate the process of desistance and the
adherence to prosocial behaviors.
AUTHORS’ NOTE: The authors would like to thank all of the young people who volunteered to share their
stories for this research. The authors would also like to thank Drs. Kelly Socia and Kyleigh Clark-Moorman
for their invaluable feedback on earlier versions of this manuscript. In addition, the authors truly appreciate
the time and care the anonymous reviewers and journal editors put into this manuscript—it really helped to
shape the final iteration, and we are grateful for their insight. This study was funded by the Association for
Doctoral Programs in Criminology and Criminal Justice Student Research Funding Opportunity (Fall 2018,
awarded to Elias Nader) as well as the University of Massachusetts Lowell Graduate Student Association.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Elias S. Nader, Department of Sociology and
Criminology, Kent State University, 800 E Summit St., Kent, OH 44240; e-mail:
1152187CJBXXX10.1177/00938548231152187Criminal Justice and BehaviorNader, Davies-Robinson / Social Bonds for Emerging Adults
The integration of social control and life-course perspectives has been common among
criminologists (Laub et al., 2018). As young people age and develop, their place in society
shifts allowing for potential transitions in and out of risky behaviors or deviance. Under this
perspective, desistance from crime and other deviant-type behaviors is considered to func-
tion as a process across the life course (Bersani & Doherty, 2018; Bushway et al., 2003;
Kazemian, 2007; Laub & Sampson, 2001). Through this transition across life stages, new
turning points and contexts for social bonds emerge, as explained in Sampson and Laub’s
(1993; Laub & Sampson, 2001) age-graded theory of social control. Engagement with
social controls and turning points functions distinctly in an age-graded pattern in that as
people age, they can engage in the process of desistance by embracing the turning points
that come with the transition to adulthood.
Shifts in social-structural factors and norms across society have changed how social
controls function within the life course. For example, structural changes in society (e.g.,
changes in the economy, emphasis on higher education, shifts in cultural norms) and demo-
graphic shifts among young people (e.g., increased age of marriage) have facilitated the
development of emerging adulthood (Arnett, 2000). Emerging adulthood theory proposes
that a developmental phase within the life course exists among modern-day young people
between the ages of 18 and 29,1 operating distinctly from adolescence (13–17) or adulthood
(30+). Specifically, this phase is defined by identity exploration, changes in relationships,
new markers of adulthood, and distinct values from earlier generations (Arnett, 2015), alter-
ing the mechanisms of social bonds.
Thus, the classical social bonds merit a reexamination using emerging adulthood theory
(Costello & Laub, 2020; Salvatore, 2017). To do this, we conducted life story interviews
(LSIs) with 30 young people from a midsized city in New England, approximately half of
whom had a history of justice-system involvement. We examine the qualitative data from
these interviews and propose a reconceptualization of social bonds for emerging adults.
In his seminal work Causes of Delinquency, Hirschi (1969) argued that the understand-
ing of delinquency and crime begins with acknowledging the predisposition toward antiso-
cial behaviors. Hirschi argues that innately, we all have some susceptibility toward deviance,
hedonism, and delinquency. This argument focused on the behavior of youth, in that young
people were vulnerable to behave in a selfish, impulsive, or aggressive manor. Hirschi’s
proposal thus is that we must understand what pulls young people away from this and into
prosocial behaviors. Research must examine these motivators for social conformity and the
prevention of delinquent behavior, as they manifest in one’s adherence to society, its mem-
bers, and its rules.
Hirschi (1969) identified four key elements of social control through which youth estab-
lish prosocial bonds to society: attachment, commitment, involvement, and belief (see
Figure 1). Traditionally, attachment focuses on connections with others like family, friends,
teachers, and romantic partners. These attachments and their strength influence behavior
(Hirschi, 1969; Schroeder, 2014). When attachments are robust, young people care more
about how these connections view them, which, in turn, motivates them to avoid delinquent
involvement. Of the four components, attachment is considered the most important for
influencing behavior and deviance (Hirschi, 1969; Kubrin et al., 2009).

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