A three-year NSF grant funds research on how adolescents learn to understand the law.
As any parent knows, an adolescent can go through a lot of changes between middle school and the early twenties. Yet, it is in these critical years that young people learn to understand one of the major foundations of social interaction—the law. Learning how to think about the law is far from straightforward and is influenced by gender, class, and other factors such as parental and peer factors, individual differences, and attitudes.
Ellen Cohn, professor of psychology, has researched legal socialization for more than 30 years with multiple grants from the NSF Law and Social Sciences Program. Her 1990 book, Legal Socialization: A Study of Norms and Rules, coauthored with Susan O. White, professor emerita of political science, developed a basic model for the field. “We studied how people’s attitudes about the law might explain the relationship between legal reasoning and their own rule-violating behavior,” Cohn says. “Specific attitudes included how much people approved of rule-violating behavior or how much they disapproved of rules being enforced.”
Cohn and White’s subjects were college students at UNH. While their research showed that legal attitudes were positively correlated with behaviors, Cohn and White expressed the need to expand, design, and implement more complex studies: “We conclude that neither cognitive development nor social learning theory is sufficient by itself to account for the process of legal socialization.” They likened the process of understanding legal socialization to learning the grammar of another language.
Two grants, seven years total
To further tackle this subject, a diverse group of faculty members—Cohn; Cesar Rebellon, associate professor of sociology; and Karen Van Gundy, associate professor of sociology have pooled their expertise. All are core faculty members of the Justice Studies Program, and Cohn is also the program’s coordinator. For the second time, they have been awarded funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to launch a multiyear study.
Given the span of both grants, the researchers will be following the same subjects for seven years. Their goal is to understand adolescent development as it pertains to legal socialization and such rule-violating behaviors as aggression, stealing, substance abuse, and bullying.
The first NSF grant, awarded in 2006 for $340,000 focused on the role of peer factors, individual differences, and attitudes. The study’s subjects began as middle school students (sixth grade) and high school students (ninth grade). These students, 500 in each age group, came from four different New Hampshire communities; some urban, some rural; some with high- or low-income populations; and others that were either diverse or lacked diversity. The researchers collected data over a four-year period.
The second NSF grant, awarded this fall, 2010, was for $250,000. The subjects will be the same as in the 2006 study, but now they are older, either in high school or recently graduated. This grant enables the researchers to continue their data collection from these same adolescents, once a year, for the next three years.
“In this 2010 adolescent study, we have expanded beyond legal attitudes, individual differences and peer factors to look at parental factors,” Cohn says. “We’re also looking at legitimacy of authority. For example, how much do you trust the police or parents.”
This September, the first theoretical article of the NSF-funded adolescent studies was published in Law and Human Behavior by Cohn, Donald Bucolo ’10G, Rebellon, and Van Gundy. They extended the original legal socialization model to include legal and moral reasoning. They found support for legal attitudes to explain how legal and moral reasoning are related to rule-violating behaviors.
In a recent paper also generated from the 2006 NSF-funded study, Rebellon questioned the theory that peers have a causal influence on an individual’s delinquency. His statistical analysis indicated that perhaps delinquents search out other like-minded peers. What does it mean to associate with a delinquent peer—how much time is actually spent? These are important questions that demand the depth a longitudinal study can provide.
For Rebellon, a longitudinal study is critical. “Without longitudinal research design, issues of causality cannot be addressed at all,” he says. “Correlations might be found, but you’re in a chicken and egg situation. This type of research doesn’t allow us to establish causality either—absent an experimental design, which we do not have. But at least this 2010 study allows us to start providing real empirical support favoring one causal hypothesis over another.”
Again, for Van Gundy, the study’s longitudinal design is critical. She is interested in understanding how stress and personal and social resources affect rule-violating behaviors.
“Girls and boys may differ in their reactions to stress,” Van Gundy says. “Our findings suggest that girls’ greater sense of everyday morality makes them less likely than boys to engage in property and interpersonal offenses. It’s not clear why this effect is not seen in alcohol and drug violations.
“It is in young adulthood, when subjects are older, where we typically begin to see gender differences in alcohol and drug use problems,” she says. “Young men tend to use substances more and experience more substance-related problems.… Our data will allow us to examine how and why this gender gap emerges. The longitudinal design is essential in order to ‘tease out’ the timing and sequencing of exposure to stress, personal and social resources, and various behaviors.”
A work in progress
Both graduate and undergraduate students have been and will be engaged in this research. Cohn, who was recently awarded the University’s Graduate Faculty Mentor Award, estimates that 60 students have already worked on this project. Right now, three doctoral students in psychology, one master’s degree student in justice studies, and five undergraduates are involved in this research. Many have received financial support and completed dissertations, master’s theses, and honors theses. Of course, they also publish. For another doctoral example, psychology graduate student Rick Trinkner just submitted a paper on the effects of violent video gaming on adolescents’ aggressive behavior and is revising a paper on parental authority.
And, three years from now, these three researchers will have made significant advances in the understanding of legal socialization. Their findings will aid educators, law enforcement personnel, counselors, families, and most of all, adolescents.
‹‹ back to top