The theory of social control has had considerable influence in how criminologists explain crime and criminal offending. Early proponents of this perspective sought to explain the role of external factors that may influence why some people, particularly young people, engage in delinquency and crime whereas others do not. More specifically, for social control theorists, what needs to be explained are the processes by which people are socialized and how this influences individuals’ decisions to abide by rules (or conform) in society.
Social control can be broken down into two broad categories. The first is formal social control and the second is informal social control. The mechanism by which social control influences a person’s behavior varies between these two subcategories. Formal social control typically refers to the well-established, formal sanctions that governments have the power to enact and enforce in society. These controls are formalized and work to maintain some level of stability in society. For example, the enactment and enforcement of criminal law is one form of formal social control in society.
Informal social control typically refers to the process by which individuals’ internalize societal norms and moral values. Informal social control involves group dynamics whereby an individual’s behavior develops and changes in response to an external group’s expectations of behavior. Individuals may internalize these behavioral expectations (social norms and values), and in turn, deem for themselves what is acceptable or unacceptable behavior. Social control theory then aims to explain how relationships with conventional others impact decisions to engage in delinquent behaviors. More specifically, theories of social control assume that crime and delinquency are the result of weak or broken societal bonds. That is, for social control theory, individuals become delinquent when their bonds to society or societal constraints on such behavior are weak or broken. Alternatively, when bonds are strong this may serve to protect individuals from delinquency.
Historically, how the roles of societal bonds were understood and the primacy they were given in research varied. In the 1960s, Travis Hirshi proposed a nuanced understanding of social control with a theory that provided some advantages over past approaches. Hirshi examined a variety of social control models and argued for an understanding of very specific elements of the societal bonds individuals hold within conventional society. These elements of social bonding were attachment, commitment, involvement, and belief.
For Hirschi, informal social control or the internalization of societal norms and values rests, in part, on the attachments people develop with other individuals and groups in society. For example, attachment can refer to an individual’s school and parental relationships. The strength of attachment an individual has to conventional others may influence how invested a person is in conforming to societal norms and values. These attachments may contribute to delinquent and criminal behavior when they are weak or undeveloped. Alternatively, when attachments to others are strong and well developed, this may serve to protect against nonconforming behaviors.
Indeed, some research has found that the greater the strength of parental attachment the less likely young people will engage in delinquent or criminal behavior. For example, Christopher Henrich, Kathryn Brookmeyer, and Golan Shahar surveyed youth from 132 American middle schools (collected through the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health), and found that youth who reported stronger attachment to their parents were less likely to commit violent weapons offenses. In addition, research has found that when schools provide supportive environments (environments that encourage social bonds through attachment) young people are less likely to act out aggressively and this may reduce violent offending later. Jane B. Sprott in surveys of Canadian youth also found that the stronger school attachment was for youth the less likely they were to engage in violent offending. This research challenges punitive educational policies, such as zero tolerance, where at-risk youth may be further isolated from school. Instead this research suggests that providing greater school supports might strengthen social bonds and subsequently reduce delinquency.
Social control theory also rests on the notion of commitment or how invested an individual is in conventional activities, norms, and values. That is, when individuals have a perceived stake in conventional activities, such as education and employment, the risks associated with non-conforming behaviors may be greater. For some individuals it is the fear of the consequences (a deterrence effect) of nonconformist or law-breaking behaviors that influences their decisions to remain law abiding. That is, the more an individual aspires to succeed in conventional activities the greater their commitment to conforming to societal values and norms. For example, behaviors that threaten an individual’s reputation, social status, employment, and educational prospects may be deemed too risky to take part in. From a social control perspective then, the more an individual is committed to conformity (in part, the result of risk avoidance) the less likely they are to engage in delinquency or crime. Commitment to conventional activities reinforces the norms and values of society.
However, it has also been noted that even commitment to nonconformist activities can serve to produce some levels of more traditional conformity. For example, those working in illegal and/ or informal economic activities may place value on trustworthiness (a value also held among those conforming to societal conventions).
A third element of social control theory suggests that the level of involvement in conventional activities is related to opportunities for delinquency or law-breaking behaviors. From a control perspective if an individual is heavily involved with conventional activities they will have less time to engage in nonconventional activities. For example, an individual who is engaged in conventional activities, such as employment, education, and other recreational commitments, will spend most of their time occupied with these conventional activities, leaving little time to participate in delinquent or law-breaking activities. Application of this aspect of social control theory can be found in the emphasis on providing after-school recreational opportunities and programs for at-risk youth (as well as youth generally). The logic behind such initiatives is that by limiting a young person’s free time, these youth will have less time to engage in delinquency.
Control theory assumes that within a society there is a common value system among its members. For control theorists, an individual does not adopt specific beliefs in order to justify delinquent or criminal conduct, but rather has a preexisting belief structure that may or may not support rule adherence. From a control perspective, belief is not static across society. The extent to which people believe in society’s values and norms, and believe in abiding by the rules, varies. An individual’s belief is important in explaining delinquency or rule breaking because it has been argued that if an individual does not believe in abiding by the rules he or she will be more likely to break them. For example, individuals who do not believe in the legitimacy of societal rules may challenge them and subsequently believe violation of the rules is acceptable.
From a social control perspective then, delinquent and criminal acts are seen as the product of a combination of an individual’s beliefs and conventional ties in society. It is worth noting that control theory does not suggest that criminal or delinquent acts result solely from individuals’ who do not believe in conventional norms and values. Hirschi has suggested that individuals’ may understand their delinquency to be morally wrong, but that the efficacy of these beliefs are dependent on both an individual’s beliefs and the strength of their prosocial bonds. Research has examined the role of religious beliefs (as one dimension of the social bond) on delinquency, however, much of the results in this area have been mixed. It has been suggested that the strength of a young offender’s religious beliefs may insulate him or her from delinquency. Byron R. Johnson, Sung Joon Jang, David B. Larson, and Spencer De Li found that religiosity (as measured by the strength of one’s religious beliefs and participation in religious services) was associated with reduced levels of delinquency among youth. They argue that religion shapes an individual’s beliefs and thus results in reduced rates of delinquency. Yet, other research has found the opposite effect. Brent B. Benda and Robert F. Corwyn in their research found that religiosity was a strong predictor of participating in violent behaviors. Thus, while religion may shape people’s beliefs, it has not been consistently shown to prevent delinquency.
A General Theory of Crime: Self-Control Theory
In 1990, Travis Hirshi and Michael Gottfredson published A General Theory of Crime. This work provided a new understanding of the role of control in understanding crime. In this theory, social bonding and indirect social controls are still important, however, they are less important than direct controls, such as an individual’s level of self-control. Self-control refers to the level of behavioral control someone is able to exercise over his or her own behavior. Self-control is seen as a relatively stable trait that develops in early childhood; inadequate parenting (for example, poor supervision, lack of appropriate discipline for deviant behaviors) may result in a low level of self-control. This theory seeks to explain crime at the level of the individual. Levels of self-control (high versus low) explain an individual’s propensity toward criminal offending.
For example, someone with low self-control is more likely to seek immediate gratification and engage in risky behaviors, while individuals with high self-control are better able to delay such gratification and less likely to engage in risk-taking behaviors. Not all individuals with low self-control commit crime. That is, low self-control increases ones propensity to commit crime. The criminal act itself is then dependent upon whether or not daily life, however, opportunities to commit crime are common. Thus, for self-control theory individuals with low-self-control (a greater propensity toward criminal offending) will almost certainly have the opportunity to offend and become more deeply embedded in a life of crime. Research on the relationship between self-control and delinquency has found a significant relationship between low levels of self-control and delinquency. Researchers, however, vary on their interpretation of these results, specifically whether or not these findings strengthen the theory.
Critiques of Social Control Theory and Application
Social control theory and the elements of social control as described by Hirschi have not gone without criticism. The theory and its elements have been challenged on a number of grounds. First, the theory itself has difficulty accounting for all types of crime and delinquency. For example, financially motivated, nonviolent crime, such as corporate crime, typically involves individuals who have found opportunity to commit crime precisely because they hold conventional employment. These conventional ties provide such offenders with both the opportunity and the time to commit criminal acts.
Others have argued that the theory itself is overly simplistic in its depiction of crime, and in turn how society might prevent crime and delinquency. For example, one of the most influential elements of social control theory has been involvement. With increased involvement in conventional activities, individuals will: (1) have little time to engage in delinquency, and (2) help to reaffirm conventional norms and values. The logic of this theory then implies that giving youth access to and involving them in extracurricular activities might prevent delinquency. The difficulty with such assertions is that it assumes economic and social equality across individuals and communities within society. Yet, not all individuals and communities have access to the resources necessary for such a public policy approach.
In addition, the emphasis placed on parental attachment has led some to argue that this may place unfair blame on the parents of delinquent youth. That is, if one assumes that delinquency is the result of weak parental attachment, then the parents of delinquent youth may have contributed to the delinquency through, for example, inadequate parental supervision. This notion has been supported by calls for holding parents responsible for the criminal acts of their children.
In addition to these critiques of the mechanisms of social control, critics have also raised concerns about the ability of self-control theory to explain all types of criminal offending (ranging from the most minor to the most serious offenses). For example, the notion that individuals with low self-control seek immediate gratification would appear inconsistent with offenders who engage in white-collar crime, which often requires delayed gratification. Thus, self-control theory is seen by some to explain some types of crime better than others. The notion that levels of self-control are stable across the life course also implies that offenders will always have a greater propensity toward crime. The implication of this is that rehabilitative efforts in and outside the criminal justice system will have little impact on changing the trajectory of offenders’ lives.
- Benda, B. B. and R. F. Corwyn. “The Effect of Abuse in Childhood and in Adolescence on Violence Among Adolescents.” Youth & Society, v.33/3 (2002).
- Henrich, C. C., K. A. Brookmeyer, and G. Shahar. “Weapon Violence in Adolescence: Parent and School Connectedness as Protective Factors.” Journal of Adolescent Health, v.37/4 (2005).
- Herrenkohl, T. I., K. G. Hill, I. Chung, J. Guo, R. Abott, and J. D. Hawkins. “Protective Factors Against Serious Violent Behaviour in Adolescence: A Prospective Study of Aggressive Children.” Social Work, v.27/3 (2003).
- Hirschi, T. Causes of Delinquency. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969.
- Johnson, B. R., S. J. Jang, D. B. Larson, and S. De Li. “Does Adolescent Religious Commitment Matter? A Reexamination of the Effects of Religiosity on Delinquency.” Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, v.38/1 (2001).
- Sprott, J. B. “The Development of Early Delinquency: Can Classroom and School Climates Make a Difference?” Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal Justice, v.46/5 (2004).
- Sprott, J. B., J. M. Jenkins, and A. N. Doob. “The Importance of School: Protecting At-Risk Youth From Early Offending.” Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice, v.3/1 (2005).
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