Sometimes a diagram is helpful to organize your thoughts.
A little while ago I commented that crime rates had fallen through the floor even though single parenthood is still on the rise, apparently contradicting a generation of conservative conventional wisdom that attributed rising crime rates to the decline of the nuclear family. In the graphs I showed a very strong positive relationship between crime and single parenthood from 1960 until 1991, after which the relationship was reversed.
In response, someone countered:
Your graphs on single-mother families and crime rates, and your accompanying commentary, conveniently miss any reference to the massive increase in incarceration since the 1980s … Were it not for the fact that this country has incarcerated more than a million men behind bars since the late 1980s, it is likely that the upward swing in single-motherhood & nonmarital childbearing would have been paralleled by an upward swing in crime.
I have written before about the family consequences of the drug war, focusing on how incarceration affects families, rather than on how (whether) family structure drives crime; as well as other aspects of the prison boom (such as giving birth in chains, distorted marriage markets, and how prisons contribute to the spread of HIV).
But I didn’t address the question of how incarceration may have saved us from a worsening crime wave driven by single parenting.
I still don’t have an answer, but I have some thoughts, which I have chosen to express in the form of a conceptual diagram, with references. Each of these links is at least plausible and at most conclusively shown by the research listed below. If I were to dig into this research, this is where I would start: an annotated free-association figure:
Click to enlarge the diagram.
From what I can see so far, it looks like incarceration causes single-parent families more than single-parent families cause crime. The numbered references are below. (Thanks to Chris Uggen for some leads.)
Work process aside: I love a good conceptual diagram. For working things out I can use one like the above. Ideally, though, you would already understand the thing at hand before you present one to others, to make things more clear. I like this classic one from James Coleman, illustrating Weber’s Protestant Ethic:
Unlike my random scattering, this uses the location of the nodes to simply convey the conceptual hierarchy — religion and capitalism as macro, values and behavior as micro, with each path a potentially observable process. The diagram also is intuitive because it shows time moving from left to right. And it’s simple — any less to it and there’s no need for a figure.
On the other hand, I guess a diagram could help keep things straight when they’re complicated, like this one, from “Toward an Integrated Theory of Gender Stratification,” by Randall Collins and colleagues:
References (with links that might hit pay walls)
1. Demuth, S. and S. L. Brown. 2004. “Family structure, family processes, and adolescent delinquency: The significance of parental absence versus parental gender.” Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 41(1):58-81. Schroeder, Ryan D., Aurea K. Osgood and Michael J. Oghia. 2010. “Family Transitions and Juvenile Delinquency.” Sociological Inquiry 80(4):579-604.
2. Charles, Kerwin K. and Ming C. Luoh. 2010. “Male Incarceration, the Marriage Market, and Female Outcomes.” Review of Economics and Statistics 92(3):614-627.
3. Childs, E. C. 2005. “Looking behind the stereotypes of the ‘angry black woman’ an exploration of black women’s responses to interracial relationships.” Gender & Society 19(4):544-561. Robnett, Belinda and Cynthia Feliciano. 2011. “Patterns of Racial-Ethnic Exclusion by Internet Daters.” Social Forces 89(3):807-828.
4. Dixon, T. L. and D. Linz. 2000. “Overrepresentation and underrepresentation of African Americans and Latinos as lawbreakers on television news.” Journal of Communication 50(2):131-154.
5. Dixon, T. L. and K. B. Maddox. 2005. “Skin tone, crime news, and social reality judgments: Priming the stereotype of the dark and dangerous black criminal.” Journal of Applied Social Psychology 35(8):1555-1570. Dixon, Travis L. 2008. “Network news and racial beliefs: Exploring the connection between national television news exposure and stereotypical perceptions of African Americans.” Journal of Communication 58(2):321-337.
6. Tonry, Michael. 2010. “The Social, Psychological, and Political Causes of Racial Disparities in the American Criminal Justice System.” Crime and Justice: A Review of Research, Vol 39 39:273-312.
7. Pettit, Becky and Bruce Western. 2004. “Mass imprisonment and the life course: Race and class inequality in US incarceration.” American Sociological Review 69(2):151-169. Reiman, Jeffrey. 2007. The rich get richer and the poor get prison: ideology, class, and criminal justice. Boston: Pearson/Allyn & Bacon. Wakefield, Sara and Christopher Uggen. 2010. “Incarceration and Stratification.” Annual Review of Sociology 36:687-406.
8. I made this argument in a recent blog post here. For a more thorough review of media depictions of single parents, see: Usdansky Margaret L. 2009. “A Weak Embrace: Popular and Scholarly Depictions of Single-Parent Families, 1900-1998.” Journal of Marriage And Family 71(2):209-225.
10. Nagin Daniel S., Francis T. Cullen and Cheryl Lero Jonson. 2009. “Imprisonment and Reoffending.” Crime and Justice: A Review of Research 38:115-200.