The contested nature of risk factor research Dr Steve Case Swansea University The Risk Factor Research debate Risks are quantifiable, objective, value-fee and scientific ‘facts’ with a consistent, predictable relationship with offending Proponents Opponents • Scientific (control, positivist) • Anti-positivist • Clinical (objective, treatable) • Unethical • Validated & replicated • Strengths misrepresented • Practical, atheoretical • Poorly-understood • Clumsily implemented Methodological paradoxes of RFR Simplistic over-simplification • Factorisation, developmental bias, psychosocial reductionism, aggregation, homogenisation, imputation Definitive indefinity • Lack of consensus over how to understand ‘risk factors’, ‘offending’ and the nature of the risk factor-offending relationship (e.g. causal or predictive) Replicable incomparability • Replicability does not imply comparability Simplistic over-simplification • Artefact risk factor research and risk factorology • transformation of individual, personal & social ‘risk’ info into ‘factors’ amenable to probabilistic (statistical) calculation • over-simplifies the risk factor-offending relationship • replication (statistical reliability) over validity • imputation over explanation • ‘vague, inadequate proxies for putative causal processes’ (O’Mahony 2008). • lack of attention to the active human agent • transforming a dynamic, interactive set of risk processes into static relationships and treating diverse phenomena (e.g. unemployment, attitudes) as if they were equivalent variables (Pitts 2003) Psychosocial reductionism • ‘the psychogenic antecedents of criminal behaviour’ (Armstrong 2004: 103) in individualised domains of family, school, peers, neighbourhood, lifestyle & psychological • Neglects constructions of risk, socio-structural factors (e.g. societal access routes to opportunities), social exclusion & the impact of locally-specific policy formations • Partial (in the dual sense of limited and biased) understanding & explanation of youth offending. The Cambridge Study in Delinquent Development • ‘Explanatory’ RFs at age 8-10 years statistically-predict offending at age 14-15 • ASB in childhood, hyperactivity-impulsivity-attention deficit, low intelligence & low school achievement, family criminality, family poverty, poor parenting The homogenisation of ‘offending’ • Offending as a broad & homogenous category • Little exploration of RFs for specific offences • Offending v Reoffending Offending, Crime & Justice Survey (Budd et al 2005) • Frequent offending: 6+ different offences in past year • Serious offending: any of 6 serious offences (vehicle theft, burglary, robbery, theft from person, assault resulting in injury, selling class A drugs) The Home Office Youth Lifestyle Survey (Graham & Bowling 1995) • Ever (lifetime offending) or last year (active) Definitive indefinity: What is a RF? • Causal –determine or cause offending • Predictive – increase statistical probability of offending • Linear –operate on a continuum or scale • Multiplicative, cumulative or additive - more RFs = more likely to offend • Interactive – different combinations of RFs may exert different effects when experienced together • Overlapping – correlated with each other & both related to offending, but neither having ‘temporal precedence’ • Correlational • Multi-stage - increase the likelihood of another RF • Proxy – correlated with RFs for offending • Challenging – inoculate against RFs • Symptomatic – the outcomes of offending Causal or predictive risk factors? • ‘The claim that past behave is the best predictor of future behaviour does not mean that past behaviour causes future behaviour’ (Wikstrom, in King and Wincup 2008: 133) • Systematic manipulation of independent variables & control of potentially extraneous variables allows scientific researchers to identify 'cause and effect’ relationships • Lack of detailed understanding of risk factor influence on any level, descriptive, exploratory or explanatory, other than statistical. Causation as regular associations. • ‘The problem of causation tends to be sidestepped in risk- factor research, resulting in a kind of ‘black box’ explanation… whereby causal links are assumed rather than specified’ (Porteus 2007: 271-272) Asset: Risk assessment in the YJS • Practitioners must make quantitative judgements: • To what extent are RFs in each domain associated with ‘the likelihood of further offending’? • (0 = no association, 1 = slight or limited indirect association, 2 = moderate direct or indirect association, 3 = quite strong association, normally direct, 4 = very strong, clear and direct association) • Was the issue linked to past offending? • Is there a direct or indirect link with offending? • Is the link to offending consistent or occasional? • Is the effect on offending likely to be immediate or over a longer period? • Will the issue lead to offending on its own or only when other conditions exist? Indefinitive temporality • Measurement of RFs at time A & offending at time B, or; • Exposure to risk & offending over a set period of time (e.g. 12 months) • Crude, insensitive temporal measures • Limited attention to the precise timings of exposure to risk factors & offending behaviour • Statistical association & time-ordering are necessary, but not sufficient, to establish causation without explanatory mechanisms (Wikstrom 2008) The Sex Differences in ASB Study (Moffitt et al 2001) • Measurement of all (except 5) risk predictors has pre- dated the measurement of adolescent antisocial behaviour (assessed between the ages of 13 and 18). Replicable incomparability • ‘the most important risk factors are replicable over time and place’ (Farrington 2003: 5). • Aggregated diffs between homogenised groups neglects within-individual change, contextual- or cultural-specificity • replicability does not imply commonality ASB and Young People (Rutter et al 1998) • Prospective longitudinal designs - ‘causal questions’ • Risk mechanisms (‘causal’ risk factors) & risk indicators (factors associated indirectly with the causal process). The International Self-Reported Delinquency study • Anglo-American, North West European, Southern European • ‘It seems clear that biological, cultural, socialization and environmental factors all play a role in the prediction of delinquent behaviour’ Conclusion: The validity of RFR • relies inordinately on measuring & analysing risk as a broadly-phrased, quantitative factor aggregated across groups, thus encouraging a focus on the replication of statistical differences between-groups rather than within- individual changes; • dominated by deterministic & probabilistic developmental understandings of predictive, childhood risk factors at the expense of alternative & more holistic, complex explanations; • lacks coherence & a clear, well-developed understanding of its central concepts, namely the definition of risk factors & the nature of their relationship with offending; • produces findings that are applied uncritically & over- simplistically by policy makers more interested in broad headlines than addressing the details & research limitations; • has neglected (yet imputed) two crucial issues: the validity of risk to the real lives of different young people & explanation of relationships between risk & youth offending.
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