Sociology, Department of


Date of this Version



Published in The Encyclopedia of Juvenile Delinquency and Justice, ed. Christopher J. Schreck (Wiley-Blackwell, 2018), pp. 819-823.


Copyright © 2018 John Wiley & Sons Inc. Used by permission.


In the study of crime and delinquency, what has come to be called social support theory has. its origins in Cullen’s (1994) presidential address to the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences. In the address, entitled “Social support as an organizing concept for criminology,” Cullen argued that the notion of social support is threaded through many theories of crime and delinquency. Cullen distinguished between macro-level and interpersonal-level effects of social support, emphasizing how supportive societies and supportive relationships, respectively, can lessen crime rates and individual crime. He also implicated social support in the processes of social control and criminal justice, arguing that effective social control and rehabilitation are predicated on support. Unlike other theories of crime and delinquency, which tend to focus on how something negative causes crime (e.g., lack of social bonds; strain; low self-control; learned deviant attitudes or behaviors; labeling and stigma; community disorganization), social support theory focuses on how something positive can prevent or reduce risk for crime (Cao et al., 2010).

Social support is commonly conceptualized as the social resources on which an individual can rely when dealing with life problems and stressors (Thoits, 1995). Elaborating on this idea, Cullen, Wright, and Chamlin (1999) described social support as a process of transmitting human, cultural, material, and social capital, whether between individuals or between larger social units (communities, states) and their members. Support is often provided informally, through social relationships, but support can also be provided formally by an entity with an official status, such as government assistance programs or the justice system. Social support has direct and indirect effects on delinquency and other indicators of well-being. As a direct effect, people who experience social support may engage in less delinquency. As an indirect effect, social support may act as a buffer between risk factors for delinquency and participation in delinquent behavior.