by Joan McCord (edited by Geoffrey Sayre-McCord, with an introduction by David P. Farrington). Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2007. 320pp. Cloth. $74.50. ISBN: 9781592135578. Paperback. $26.95. ISBN: 9781592135585.

Reviewed by Sawyer Sylvester, Department of Sociology, Bates College. Email: ssylvest [at]


Hermann Manheim once edited a book entitled, PIONEERS IN CRIMINOLOGY. Had his survey reached into the twenty-first century, he surely would have included a chapter on Joan McCord. McCord was born in 1930 and received her Ph.D. in sociology from Stanford University in 1968. Well before completing her doctorate, however, she had begun research which would character her life’s work – research on data from the Cambridge-Somerville Youth Study.

The Cambridge-Somerville Youth Study of the 1930s was, in all likelihood, the most extensive longitudinal study of juvenile delinquency of its time. The program was originally proposed by Dr. Richard Cabot, a Boston physician with an interest in a clinical study of the etiology of crime and a desire to discover methods of delinquency prevention. Dr. Cabot’s emphasis on clinical design in the diagnosis of social problems, together with experimental trials of ameliorative programs, found fertile ground at a time and place which saw the Judge Baker Guidance Center with the research on delinquency by William Healy and Augusta Bronner (1969) and, somewhat later, the longitudinal studies of Sheldon and Eleanor Glueck (1950).

The study itself began by selecting a large number of boys from two heavily populated industrial areas of Massachusetts and dividing these into two groups of “difficult” and “average” boys on the basis of recommendations from a wide variety of state and local agencies. The boys were further rated on the basis of a delinquency score and an assessment of their criminal record. One member of the pairs from the “difficult” and the “average” groups was selected at random to be provided with treatment. The treatment group received family counseling, individual tutoring, medical and psychological therapy, and was introduced to a number of social service agencies. The control group only received the initial assessment.

In 1975, Joan McCord began a follow-up study of the boys who had been involved in the Cambridge-Somerville Youth Study. Data were gathered through the use of public records and by sending questionnaires to the subjects of the original study. The results of the follow-up study were surprising, to say the least. On all of the measures used – subsequent criminal record, alcoholism, mental illness, age at death, health problems, job status and satisfaction – not only was there no improvement in the experimental group, but those subjects were distinctively worse off than those in the control group. [*847]

However, in at least one important way, the program that failed had far greater success in a manner probably unanticipated by its founders. It provided a rich data base for further analysis by generations of scholars, such as Joan McCord – and, in at least her case, an opportunity to explore in depth the reasons for the failure of the original program. The basic lesson McCord learned from the follow-up study was that intervention programs such as these, however well intentioned and well designed, have the capacity to produce damaging outcomes. They do not just fail, they produce iatrogenic effects.

In 1981, McCord published the results of a study of the data from the Cambridge-Somerville Youth Study to find out why the program had damaging results. She formulated four hypotheses: (1) that counselors imposed middle-class values on lower-class youth, which values simply did not work for them; (2) that counselors caused the boys in the treatment group to become dependent on them and, when the program ended, those boys lost a source of support; (3) that youth in the treatment group suffered a labeling effect; and (4) that the support of the counselors raised expectations of the boys in the treatment group which could not be sustained, and disillusionment set in after the program was completed.

McCord constructed a number of measures to test empirically each of these hypotheses, and only one received support. The hypothesis which was supported was the one which suggested that the damaging effects were caused by the fact that the constant attention and encouragement by the counselors raised expectations in the treatment group beyond the point where there was any realistic chance of fulfillment in the boys’ environment. This could be seen as a design flaw in any clinically oriented program which fails to take into equal account the cultural and, especially, economic surroundings of its subjects.

In papers published in 1992 and 2003, McCord emphasized a number of often unappreciated benefits of the original study. First, it established that the “compensatory model” on which the study was based, since it assumed a deficit in the subjects which could be replaced through some unitary plan of intervention, simply does not work. Second, if the program looks to develop attachments to community institutions and values in an attempt to apply control theory, control theory may not work either. Methodologically, however, the study clearly demonstrated the importance of using control groups in intervention programs. It also established that such programs are effective – they just may have unintended results. This is still useful knowledge.

McCord considered the Cambridge-Somerville Youth Study with three other programs which produced damaging effects and found that such useful knowledge was troublingly unavailable, except on what she called the “fugitive literature.” She points to this as being a problem notable to this type of study. There seems to be reluctance in the professional literature to publish studies of failed programs. This produces a clear bias in the knowledge available to the scientific community. [*848]

After the initial chapters more closely related to the premises of the Cambridge-Somerville Youth Study, McCord uses the data from that study to explore the scientific validity of several variables commonly associated with adult criminality. For example, it has commonly been assumed that child-rearing practices are related to crime in later life. McCord establishes that there are significant associations between a number of variables indicative of home atmosphere and adult criminality. Notably missing from these, however, is the father’s absence from the home. McCord thought that the widespread belief that the broken home led to crime was: (1) influenced by Freudian psychology where crime is compensatory behavior; (2) caused by the home’s no longer being a place where male children could form a masculine identity; or (3) because such homes lack control without a father present. She dismisses each of these assumptions and suggests a number of ways in which other variables connected with homes with absent fathers may be more closely related to criminality. This aside, McCord’s own empirical analysis of the Cambridge-Somerville data reveals that adult criminality simply cannot be empirically associated with a father’s being absent from the home, and that “the quality of life rather than the number of parents affects crime rates” (p.81). That quality of life, she suggests in a later paper, can be significantly diminished by child abuse or neglect, but even this is more associated with juvenile delinquency than adult crime.

In the final paragraph of the paper on family relationships and juvenile delinquency, McCord makes the general observation that the study’s findings may stand more largely for the proposition that crime is more than a symptom of a basic individual pathology. She also observes that, since her own study suggests that at least the causes of juvenile delinquency differ from the causes of adult crime, monocausal theories of crime are not likely to be productive. The history of criminology has certainly borne her out in the movement away from predominately clinical explanations to a variety of situational analyses.

In a group of somewhat more far-reaching essays, McCord considers the effects of punishment, deterrence, and discipline. These essays tend to be more theoretical, even speculative in part, but still well grounded in research data. She concludes that punishment of children, in most of its usual forms, is counter productive. “Children do not require punishments if their teachers will guide them consistently, and they do not require rewards if intrinsic values of what they ought to do are made apparent to them” (p.121).

McCord notes that the most prominent justification for the use of punishment in the criminal justice system is deterrence, and the most frequent critique of that position is labeling theory which suggests that those publicly sanctioned tend to adapt the persona forced upon them by the state and fulfill it by continuing to offend. Again, using data from the Cambridge-Somerville Youth Study, McCord finds that those accused of crime but diverted from the criminal justice system to avoid labeling have no better subsequent criminal records than those not diverted. Those who were taken to court did better – but only up to [*849] a point. If punishment was severe, they had poorer subsequent records.

In the latter half of the book McCord uses the data from the Cambridge-Somerville Youth Study to try to establish the distinct antecedents to different types of criminal behavior, and to juvenile delinquency, separately rather than criminality as a whole. She concludes that parental rejection, parental conflict, and parental crime directly relate to juvenile delinquency, but may not be related to adult crime. And, importantly, she points out that the segregation of types of offenders into typologies derived from empirical research on crime will be much more useful to criminology than simply using the categories found in criminal justice records.

Finally, McCord attempts a reconciliation of two seemingly opposed views of crime causation: the biological and the sociological. However, hers was no mere theoretical synthesis, but based again on the comparison of variables from the Cambridge-Somerville Youth Study. Her general conclusion is: “One may view these differences as indicating that genetically related potentialities require ‘fertilizer’ to develop into antisocial behavior – fertilizer not available when parents provide the protections of affection and clearly specified directives” (p.172).

More evidence for the need of real typologies of subjects in criminological study is provided in the essay, “Family Socialization and Antisocial Behavior.” In a developmental study such as this, researchers may be tempted to accept without question that environmental variables are likely to bring about the same results in similarly affected subjects. Once more, using Cambridge-Somerville data, McCord establishes that too often individual differences are discounted. It is just such individual differences which may determine the specific effect of the environmental variables. The book ends with several studies on alcoholism and drunk driving, and a chapter of miscellanea.

The book is graced by an introduction by David Farrington who knew Joan McCord. His recollections of her as a friend and colleague add to the glimpse of her character the reader gets from a study of her work. She clearly was a researcher of unbounded energy whose life’s work has added greatly to the corpus of criminological knowledge. The book is an excellent collection of that work. The methodology of her research in the developmental study of crime is both classically rigorous and strikingly inventive. Joan McCord occupies an important place in the history of modern American criminology. She also contributed just as significantly to her profession, becoming the first woman President of the American Society of Criminology. I think I met Joan McCord some time ago at one of the Society’s annual meetings. I wish I had come to know her better.

Glueck, Sheldon, and Eleanor Glueck. 1950. UNRAVELING JUVENILE DELINQUENCY. New York: The Commonwealth Fund. [*850]


Manheim, Hermann (ed). 1960. PIONEERS IN CRIMINOLOGY. Chicago: Quadrangle Books.

© Copyright 2007 by the author, Sawyer Sylvester.