Social Control Theory
All control theories play on the theme that deviance is mainly a function of the kinds of constraints to which people are exposed. The most well-known specific theory of this genre is Travis Hirschi's revised theory of social control (1969). It contends that everybody is motivated toward deviance, but only those who are relatively free of the bonds of commitment to, and belief in, the conventional order, attachment to others, and involvement with conventional institutions of society actually manifest their deviant motivation in unacceptable behavior.
Following especially the work of Emile Durkheim, control theorists argue that individuals are freed to commit crime when their ties to the conventional social order are weak or broken. In the late 1800s, Durkheim concluded, "The more weakened the groups to which [the individual] belongs, the less he depends on them, the more he consequently depends only on himself and recognizes no other rules of conduct than what are founded on his private interests." Building on Durkheim's conception of the social bond, the sociologist Travis Hirschi developed an influential social control theory that argues that delinquency and crime will be reduced for individuals with stronger attachments to others, greater commitment to conformity, and more involvement with and belief in law-abiding behavior.
Hirschi's (1969) book Causes of Delinquency is most often associated with recent social control theory, and his version of failed-to-bond theory has stimulated the most research. Like the early control theorists, Hirschi draws on an idea developed by Jackson Toby (1957), who argued that the key to forming commitment was developing an investment in convention, which he called a stake in conformity. Once invested, the cost of losing this stake serves as a barrier to law violation. The underlying assumption in Hirschi's argument is that all people would break the law if they did not fear the damage and consequences of getting caught. Ties or bonds to conventional parents, school, friends, employers, and so on make crime too much of a risk for most people.
For Hirschi, the "social bond" consists of several components: attachment, commitment, involvement, and belief. Attachment is defined as caring about others, including respecting their opinions and expectations. Commitment refers to the individual's investment in conventional behavior, including a willingness to do what is promised and respecting the expectations others have that it will be done. Commitment implies that "the interests of most persons would be endangered if they were to engage in criminal acts" (1969: 21). Involvement is participation in conventional activities. This can be interpreted as a simple ratio. Since time and energy are limited, the more time spent doing conventional activities, the less time is available for deviant acts. Finally, the bond is solidified by belief in the moral validity of conventional norms. This is a fundamental and explicit assumption of control theory, which "assumes the existence of a common value system within the society or group whose norms are being violated" (1969: 23).
By way of illustrating Hirschi's theory, let us consider the example of two college seniors, Trevor and Shantell, who have fallen in love, feel like soul mates, spend a lot of time together, respect each other, and plan to get married upon graduation. In a new criminology class, Trevor meets an attractive sophomore, Donna, who "just wants to have fun." The opportunity arises for a date during which Trevor would be tempted to cheat on his longtime girlfriend, Shantell. How do Hirschi's key concepts explain what might unfold? Strong attachment means that Trevor would not go on the date, because he knows it would be disrespectful toward Shantell, who would feel upset and betrayed. Strong commitment means that Trevor has led Shantell to trust in him. Such a date, especially given whom it was with, would be cheating on his relationship. This would undermine the trust between Trevor and Shantell and risk the breakup of the relationship and cancellation of their planned marriage. Strong involvement in the relationship with Shantell would mean that Trevor was so active with her that there literally would not be time for anyone else. Finally, strong belief in their relationship would include reference to certain values such as honesty, safety, monogamy, stability, security, and maybe even the belief that taking risks is unwise. In short, Hirschi's bonded conventional student, Trevor, would probably reject the date, recognizing that it threatened his valued relationship with Shantell. Of course, if he justified the act to himself with the arguments that the date with Donna would be a onetime kind of thing, that his steady would not know about it, and she would be working anyway, he would not be a Hirschi -bonded student, but a Matza-neutralizing drifter off on a moral holiday, free to date Donna, at least on this occasion! Hirschi's bonding theory, which still stands alone as a viable explanation for crime, raised the question of whether the reason some people failed to form connections with conventional others had to do with their capacity for self-control, itself affected by parental socialization practices.
Like learning theories, social control explanations of crime seem to have merit for explaining the crime trends presented earlier. Most notable, the common social control argument that juveniles and young adults with strong attachments to their families and schools are less likely to engage in delinquency is well supported. And there is certainty much evidence to suggest that families and schools underwent considerable change in the United States during the 1960s and 1970s. 49 When considered in the context of the crime trends presented earlier, however, social control theories also leave some important questions unanswered. Assuming for a moment that crime is the result of a weakening of social bonds between individuals and their families, neighborhoods, and schools, we must still explain what changes in society caused this decline and we must explain why social bonds were weaker in the 1990s than in the 1950s.
The social control argument also seems to have some promise for explaining postwar African-American crime trends. In fact, the argument that African-American crime rates are directly linked to weakened family structures has been common throughout the postwar period. Thus, in his 1960s analysis of the African-American family, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who was a congressional staff member at the time, argued that federal policy in the United States must increase the stability of African-American families. There is also much evidence to suggest that for African-Americans living in inner cities, other important informal social control mechanisms, including integration into neighborhoods, school, and work, deteriorated during the postwar period. Although these arguments are plausible, however, as with explanations aimed at the general population, social control explanations specific to African-Americans do not explain why the weakening of social attachment to the family, schools, and the community occurred when it did. One of the major contributions of both social learning and social control theories is their emphasis on families for controlling crime.
It is certainly plausible and consistent with common sense to assert, as this theory does, that people are more likely to violate conventional social rules when they are free of constraining social bonds. Most of us realize that our beliefs, commitments, attachments, and involvements have great influence on our behavior. In fact, a lot of us learned in Sunday school or from our parents that we would go wrong if we did not believe in God; develop strong moral principles; attach ourselves to conventional social groups like the family, church, and school; and involve ourselves in wholesome activities and useful work. We can recall examples of those who did go wrong, apparently because they did not follow these dictates. In addition, most of us have probably been separated at one time or another from families, friends, and neighbors for varied lengths of time and have experienced the initial exhilaration and sense of freedom to do things we usually would not do. Moreover, everybody is familiar with individuals lacking familial, interpersonal, or professional reputations who, as a result, seem to care little about the consequences of their behavior.
Hirschi's theory of social control is deliberately narrow, applying as it does only to "delinquency," although there is no necessity to limit its principles to the misbehavior of youth (a fact now recognized by Hirschi ). Still, it is hard to know what adult deviances it should explain, and even though delinquency sometimes encompasses a broad range of different kinds of behavior, including crime, social and moral delicts, and a number of individualistic acts that adults think may damage a youth's health, mental condition, or future preparation for adult responsibility, the breadth of the theory is not clear. In addition, ostensibly it does not seem to apply to behaviors of the mentally ill, to white-collar or professional types of deviance, or to instances of over conformity as deviance.
This is unfortunate. Social control theory postulates that involvement in, acceptance by, and dependence on a given group renders a person susceptible to control by that group. Such notions have been used to explain many kinds…
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The social control theory of crime is fundamentally a theory of conformity. Instead of theorizing about the motivations for criminal behavior, control theorists ask, ”Why do people conform?” Their answers to this question stress the importance of strong group relationships, active institutional participation, and conventional moral values in constraining and regulating individual behavior. When these controlling influences are weak or rendered ineffective, people are freer to deviate from legal and moral norms. Thus, in explaining conformity, control theorists highlight the conditions under which crime and delinquency become possible, if not likely, outcomes.
The most influential formulation of control theory was presented by Travis Hirschi in his 1969 book, Causes of Delinquency. Hirschi identified four conceptually distinct elements of the social bond that, when strong and viable, maintain conformity to conventional rules of conduct: (1) emotional attachment to family and other conventional groups; (2) commitment to conventional lines of action, such as educational or occupational careers; (3) involvement in conventional activities with little free time to spare; and (4) belief in core moral values of society. To the extent that these elements are weak or ineffectual, individuals are freer to deviate than are individuals who are more strongly bonded to society.
In contrast to Hirschi’s relational focus on the strength of the social bond, many earlier versions of control theory employed a dualistic conception of internal or personal controls versus external or social controls. Examples include Reiss’s (1951) analysis of delinquency as the ”failure of personal and social controls” and Reckless’s (1961) containment theory, which placed special emphasis on the importance of a ”good self-concept” as an inner ”buffer” against environmental pressures toward delinquency. In his more recent work with Gottfredson, Hirschi (1990) has also moved toward a psychologically oriented explanation by arguing that low self-control is the basic source of criminal behavior.
- Gottfredson, M. R., & Hirschi, T. (1990) A General Theory of Crime. Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA.
- Hirschi, T. (1969) Causes of Delinquency. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.
- Reckless, W. C. (1961) A new theory of delinquency and crime. Federal Probation 25: 42—6.
- Reiss, A. J., Jr. (1951) Delinquency as the failure of personal and social controls. American Sociological Review 16, 196—207.
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