Social Control Theory of Crime Essay

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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.


  1. Gottfredson, M. R., & Hirschi, T. (1990) A General Theory of Crime. Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA.
  2. Hirschi, T. (1969) Causes of Delinquency. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.
  3. Reckless, W. C. (1961) A new theory of delinquency and crime. Federal Probation 25: 42—6.
  4. Reiss, A. J., Jr. (1951) Delinquency as the failure of personal and social controls. American Sociological Review 16, 196—207.

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