Seriously out of order

14th July 1995 at 01:00
Psychological Disorders in Young People. Edited by Michael Rutter and David J Smith. John Wiley ,#163;49.95. - O 471 95O54 8. Real World Research. By Colin Robson. Blackwell, #163;15.99. - 0 631 17689 6.

A year after the Berlin Wall fell, a study group was set up by the Academia Europaea, an association of scholars from all over Europe and covering all disciplines. Its brief was to examine rigorously and in detail the reasons and remedies for the steady increase of adolescent behaviour disorders in our multinational society.

This thick (840 pages), comprehensive and unusual book is the result. Its recommendations and conclusions are likely to be much heeded because of the importance and quality of its subject matter and the distinction of its contributors, chaired by Professor Sir Michael Rutter. Media mentions have already ranged widely, including in The TES (June 2).

The book's approach is to trace the shifting meaning of "adolescence" over the years, and to identify and examine cross-national trends and contributory factors ("causes") possibly involved in adolescent disorders at different times and places. Research findings up to the very recent are copiously cited and meticulously evaluated and compared. Links between different kinds of behaviour disorder are considered. For example, research suggests that links between alcohol and crime are fairly close, but between other psychoactive drugs and crime are less strong than is often assumed. Thus a substantial proportion of young offenders use drugs, but most continue to use drugs after they have stopped offending. Using drugs may therefore be more a symptom than a cause of delinquency. The scourge of multiple adversities is similarly analysed.

With such credentials one would have liked to praise the book wholeheartedly and recommend it to decision makers, academics, teachers, practitioners and carers. It is therefore a shame to have to report that, precisely because of their thoroughness and the difficulties of making meaningful comparisons across such a vast spectrum, the editors found themselves unable to come up with more punchy conclusions, as they themselves regret. The upshot consists of ten potential "causes" which form the last chapter and amount to something like this: Social deprivation, poverty and bad living conditions do not account for rising levels of delinquency; during a period of affluence around 1950-1973 with growing incomes, low unemployment and improving living conditions in developed countries, adolescent psychological disturbances actually increased. One of the editors seems to regard employment and unemployment as something of an all or none statistic, ("Employment unlike income is not distributed across individuals in infinitely varying quantities; instead each individual is either in work or out of work"), whereas increasingly people today have part-time or composite jobs, which is fairly briefly discussed.

The reader might also wonder about the disrupting effects (envy?) of the growing contrast between the more and the less successful in an improving society. The editors point out that the 1930s with high unemployment were not associated with rises in crime, suicide or drug abuse. But society in the 1930s differed from the l950s and 1960s in other important ways, for example, there was a war in the 1940s resulting in absent fathers. Entire communities were sometimes unemployed in the 1930s, which may actually have lessened the distressing impact of unemployment on individuals, as is mentioned elsewhere in the book.

Nor does increasing affluence does not appear responsible for rises in crime, though it may provide more opportunities for crime and for alcohol and drug abuse. Nor can the mass media be hugely blamed, though it is conceded that they may magnify the effects of social change. There is increasing evidence from research that young people spend an inordinate amount of time watching television, often of a violent and repetitive kind,and the dividing line between fantasy and reality can sometimes become frighteningly thin, as one of the contributors implies. It is unclear, though, whether it is the already most violent youngsters who are most drawn to violent programmes or the other way round.

"Broken homes" are not regarded by the authors as crucial either, since they may primarily reflect unwillingness to put up with serious family difficulties - though they agree that there is good evidence that family discord and bad parenting do increase the risk that children will later develop disorders.

Psychological changes, such as the development of a distinct youth culture cut off from the rest of society, may be important. The authors say that this youth culture rests on the earlier reaching of puberty and the then later development of adult status by finishing education and getting a job. Young people may be more stressed by early sexual experiences and the break-up of love relationships. But what about the fact that in recent years some youngsters especially those with poor skills could not look forward to getting a job at all?

Education is at least partly blamed by the authors for the growth of disturbed youth behaviour, since it increases expectations and individualism which cannot easily be satisfied in real life. But surely high expectations are one of the most effective motives for progress, and education the most hopeful means of improving living standards?

The authors point to important changes in moral values over the last half century, but they doubt whether there is evidence of a general moral decline; growth in respect for individuals' beliefs may however be connected with psychosocial disorders.

While admiring the integrity and competence of the editors and their working party, all this does make one wonder how far the great effort and expense of this project has actually paid off. The book is an excellent and critical source of information and references to a large literature with a good subject index. Its conclusions may serve to undermine facile generalisations and to protect convenient scapegoats such as teachers or one-parent families. Apart from that its complex evaluations and qualifications pose more questions than they answer. A higher priority for research is the main recommendation.

Maybe the idea that clear common threads can be isolated which underlie psychosocial disturbances in young people with such varying backgrounds, resources, nationalities and times is, sadly, too optimistic. The authors frequently stress how the effects of, for example, television depend on the detailed characteristics of the situations under study. Perhaps the next step therefore should be smaller scale investigations, not by transnational teams of expert authorities, but by humbler investigators who work day by day with young people, both successful and maladapted, and who could probe in greater depth the questions highlighted by the big book.Perhaps teachers and other youth workers could be trained in basic research skills so that they could gather reliable data and check the effects of changes in circumstances and behaviour "on the job". Some of this is already happening, and could be made easier if Real World Research by Colin Robson, first published in 1993 and just in its 3rd reprinting, were used as a manual.

This is a most practical book, beautifully produced, which is intended for people who want to do or help others with small scale and field research. Increasingly practitioners and consultants in education and social work and holders of "people" jobs in industry, commerce, and elsewhere, as well as students, are called upon to carry out some sort of empirical survey or other kind of evaluation and to try to recommend and implement changes.

With its user-friendly explanations, diagrams and examples this book gives them the necessary skills (how to draw up valid questionnaires and case studies, how to make the best of qualitative data, how to recognise a good research proposal) and background. It explains the strengths and limitations of different approaches, for example, the dilemma between carrying out an enquiry which is preliminary and fairly "quick and dirty", or careful and thorough but will miss deadlines. There is also information on the main kinds of statistics needed for this sort of research. A final section deals with making presentations and gives advice on "impact".

Hannah Steinberg is Visiting Professor, The School of Psychology, Middlesex University.

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