Crime and Social Disadvantage: The Evidence

One of the more-interesting things about the use of Situational Action Theory (SAT) to explore the relationship between crime and social disadvantage is that it developed alongside Wikstrom’s Peterborough Adolescent and Young Adult Development Study (PADS+). This longitudinal study of young people’s behaviour in the early part of the 21st century has proven to be both a valuable resource in its own right and, more-importantly perhaps, a rich source of empirical evidence with which to test many of the hypotheses Wikstrom developed out of his application of SAT to an understanding of how and why youth crime occurs.

Peterborough courts

In this final part of what no-one is calling the SAT Trilogy we can examine some of this evidence (the previous parts – Situational Action Theory [coming soon] and Situational Action Theory: Crime and Social Disadvantage – will also be available if you’d like to read them).

As Wikstrom and Trieber (2016) argue, the objective here is “to advance knowledge about the relationship between social disadvantage and crime involvement through the application of situational action theory (SAT) and the analysis of data from a random sample of U.K. adolescents from the longitudinal Peterborough Adolescent and Young Adult Development Study (PADS+).”. To this end we can have a look at a broad overview of what, according to Wikstrom, PADS+ data tells us about both criminal involvement and its relationship to social disadvantage.

Wikstrom’s longitudinal study followed a randomly selected sample of 716 young people, aged 12 – 16, living in and around the English city of Peterborough over a period of 13 years (roughly 2002 – 2015). One of the unique features of the study was that, in line with Wikstrom’s focus on the idea of situational action, it was interested in studying the participants as both individual actors (their sense of moral purpose in particular) and the social environments (situational settings) in which they lived and moved.

General Findings: the crime paradox

The second part of this series referred to the paradox at the heart of our understanding of youth crime, namely that while certain types of routine street crime are committed by socially-disadvantaged working class youth, social disadvantage is not, in itself, a simple cause of crime and criminality. Data from the Peterborough Study is instructive in this respect:

  • Around one-third of the teenagers in the sample committed no crimes at all over the period of the study.
  • The vast majority of teens committed a very small number of minor crimes – at most one or two a year – over the period in question.
  • A small group, 4% of the sample, committed around 50% of the crime detailed in the study. This group were also responsible for the majority of the more-serious offences, such as burglary, robbery and car theft. This group also tended to commit a far wider range of crimes than their peers, indicative of a much greater level of commitment to criminality.  

While this data is interesting, it’s not in itself conclusive. While it suggests all kinds of positive correlations – between age, gender, class and crime for example – it doesn’t tell us why people with similar social characteristics seem to behave in very different ways when it comes to crime.

Specific Findings: resolving the crime paradox

Although Wikstrom and Treiber (2016) note “the correlation between disadvantage and crime involvement is decidedly small”, this doesn’t mean social disadvantage is not an important factor. It simply means there is no direct, overt, relationship between the two. And this really shouldn’t be too surprising. Very few, for example, would seriously argue gender, per se, is a causal factor in crime, even though boys accounted for 85% of all arrests of young people in England and Wales in 2022.

In this instance we would probably look to all kinds of mediating factors to explain the precise relationship between boys and crime (from their class background, through different levels of social control placed on young boys and girls to the attitudes of control agencies like the police towards female criminality) and the same is true with the relationship between disadvantage and crime.

We know one exists.

We’re just not sure about it’s precise nature.

The real question here, therefore, is not whether something like social disadvantage causes crime but how it relates to and impacts on criminality. And for Wikstrom this relationship operates, as we’ve seen, through two ideas: crime propensity and criminogenic exposure.

In terms of propensity (a combination of levels of personal morality and self-control) analysis of PADS+ data revealed two distinct groups:

1. Crime-averse youth rarely, if ever, committed crimes. This (majority) group held personal values and moral beliefs that closely-aligned with law-abiding behaviour. In general they saw crime as morally wrong and exerted a level of self-control over their behaviour that avoided law-breaking even when they found themselves exposed to criminogenic settings. The most crime-averse young people in the sample, around 15% of this group, accounted for less than 1% of crime. As Wikstrom concludes, “Many young people are ‘crime-averse’ and simply don’t perceive crime as a possible course of action – it doesn’t matter what the situation is”.

Police arrest

2. Crime-prone youth, on the other hand, held personal values and moral beliefs that saw nothing particularly wrong with certain types of crime and were not particularly concerned about breaking the law. This group had far lower levels of self-control and their behaviour tended to be impulsive and opportunistic. This was particularly evident in highly criminogenic settings: the most crime-prone 15% of this group, for example, were responsible for around 60% of all youth crime.

More-generally, Wikstrom found that socially disadvantaged individuals with high levels of offending had both higher crime propensities – “weaker personal morality and ability to exercise self-control” and higher levels of criminogenic exposure (“more crime prone peers and exposure to criminogenic settings”) than non-offenders drawn from the same or similar backgrounds. The latter “demonstrate average levels of personal morality and ability to exercise self-control more consistent with young people from the least disadvantaged backgrounds”.

A further interesting finding is that “regardless of their levels of disadvantage, young people with a high crime propensity and high criminogenic exposure report high rates of crime involvement (practically 100%) and extremely high crime frequencies”.

These findings suggest that while the key variables in understanding youth crime are propensity and exposure – variables that can be applied to almost any social grouping, regardless of factors like age, gender and class – something like social disadvantage has a strong mediating effect on these variables that explains why socially-disadvantaged young people are more-likely to engage in offending than their advantaged peers.

The socially disadvantaged, for example, have far more restricted choices of action than their advantaged peers. The latter have far greater opportunities for educational success, something that insulates them to some extent from criminogenic exposure (they spend more time in school and in the company of non-criminogenic adults and peers) and encourages lower crime propensities: the ability to exercise higher levels of self-control, for example, is much easier in situations where others – particularly parents and peers – are encouraging the development of this characteristic. Wikstrom notes how social disadvantages are played-out in relation to criminogenic exposure:

Young people from disadvantaged backgrounds spend more time on average in leisure activities, including socialising, than young people from more advantaged backgrounds, and more of this time is unstructured. Disadvantaged young people also spend more time on average unsupervised, and in particular unsupervised with their peers, and those peers are more likely to be crime prone”.

Finally in this respect, Wikstrom and Treiber conclude: “The impact of social disadvantage on young people’s crime may be primarily through disadvantage-induced selection processes which place disadvantaged young people more often than others in developmental contexts that are conducive to the development of a higher crime propensity.”


We can sum-up these ideas in a very simple way by noting:

  • Crime propensity and criminogenic exposure are causes of criminality.
  • Social disadvantage influences crime propensity through its impact on things like the  ability to self-control and attitudes towards crime and the law.
  • Social disadvantage impacts on an individual’s criminogenic exposure through the greater likelihood of being exposed to crime – both physically, in the sense of being in places conducive to criminality and mentally in terms of higher levels of association with criminally-minded peers.


Wikström, Per-Olof (2004 – 2015) Peterborough Adolescent and Young Adult Development Study

Wikström, Per-Olof and Treiber, Kyle (2016) “Social Disadvantage and Crime: A Criminological Puzzle”

Youth Endowment Fund (2022):  Statistics update

Stay Updated

Enter your email to be notified when we post something new:

Archived Posts