Peer Networks and the Development of Illegal Political Activity Among Adolescents

Viktor Dahl


By: Viktor Dahl, Örebro University, Sweden
Maarten van Zalk, Örebro University, Sweden

Illegal political actions have always been a political influence repertoire of citizens in democratic societies. Although involvement in these activities is uncommon, the public and media space devoted to them is often large. Despite this, there is little knowledge of how illegal political behavior emerges among individuals.

Using a social network approach, this study examined to what extent peer influence explains the development of illegal political behavior among adolescents. Because peer-adolescent similarities in illegal political behavior may not only be the result of influence processes, the current study controlled for a) adolescents’ tendencies to initiate peer relations with similar others (selection), b) influence from peers involved in legal political behavior, and c) gender.

Our findings supported the idea that adolescents adopt illegal political behavior of peers already involved in these behaviors. This finding remained controlling for selection, legal political peer influences on political behavior, and gender. Consequently, the influences of peers involved in illegal activism seem partially to explain adolescents’ escalations in these behaviors. Nevertheless, adolescents did not seek out peers with similar dispositions for illegal political behavior. Accordingly, adolescents’ illegal political behavior seems the product of socialization rather than selection.

One way to make theoretical sense of these findings is to turn to the pyramid model in the stage theory of radicalization (Moskalenko & McCauley, 2009). This theory states that a pyramid can illustrate the discrete levels of commitment to a political cause; the base comprise sympathizers with the cause, a higher level those who justify the actions of the activists, thereafter the activists, and at the top, radicals – prepared to use illegal and violent political means. Adolescents form politically active peer groups on the basis of similar legal political behavior.

The development of illegal political behavior seems a subsequent step. In line with stage theory, it might be argued that illegal political behavior comprises something of a final step on a stairway of political commitment in pursuit of a political goal or cause. Whether illegal political activities are more of a problem than an asset for democracies is a question of normative concern. Irrespective of the way in which we think about this kind of political action, the question of how illegal political behavior come about has previously been neglected. What we can say from this study is that peers have a crucial role to play for the development of alternative political outcomes such as illegal political behavior.

Access to the article can be found here.

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