Social control theory

Social control theory

In criminology, Social Control Theory as represented in the work of Travis Hirschi fits into the Positivist School, Neo-Classical School, and, later, Right Realism. It proposes that exploiting the process of socialization and social learning builds self-control and reduces the inclination to indulge in behaviour recognized as antisocial. It was derived from Functionalist theories of crime and Ivan Nye (1958) proposed that there are four types of control:
*Direct: by which punishment is threatened or applied for wrongful behaviour, and compliance is rewarded by parents, family, and authority figures.
*Internal: by which a youth refrains from delinquency through the conscience or superego.
*Indirect: by identification with those who influence behaviour, say because his or her delinquent act might cause pain and disappointment to parents and others with whom he or she has close relationships.
*Control through needs satisfaction, i.e. if all an individual's needs are met, there is no point in criminal activity.


Social Control Theory (later also called Social Bonding Theory) proposes that people's relationships, commitments, values, norms, and beliefs encourage them not to break the law. Thus, if moral codes are internalized and individuals are tied into, and have a stake in their wider community, they will voluntarily limit their propensity to commit deviant acts. The theory seeks to understand the ways in which it is possible to reduce the likelihood of criminality developing in individuals. It does not consider motivational issues, simply stating that human beings may choose to engage in a wide range of activities, unless the range is limited by the processes of socialization and social learning. This derives from a Hobbesian view of human nature as represented in Leviathan, i.e. that all choices are constrained by implicit social contracts, agreements and arrangements among people. Thus, morality is created in the construction of social order, assigning costs and consequences to certain choices and defining some as evil, immoral and/or illegal!

Albert J. Reiss

The earliest form of the theory (or at least the earliest recorded) was proposed by Reiss (1951: 196) who defined delinquency as, "...behavior consequent to the failure of personal and social controls." Personal control was defined as, "...the ability of the individual to refrain from meeting needs in ways which conflict with the norms and rules of the community" while social control was, "...the ability of social groups or institutions to make norms or rules effective." Reiss' version did not specify the sources of such "abilities" nor the specific control mechanisms leading to conformity, but he did assert that the failure of primary groups such as the family to provide reinforcement for non-delinquent roles and values was crucial to the explanation of delinquency.

Jackson Toby

Toby (1957), argued that "the uncommitted adolescent is a candidate for gang socialization." acknowledging "gang socialization" as part of the causal, motivational, dynamic leading to delinquency, but introduced the concept of "stakes in conformity" to explain "candidacy" for such learning experiences. He believed that all could be tempted into delinquency, but most refused because they considered that they had too much to lose. But the young who had few stakes or investments in conformity were more likely to be drawn into gang activity. The notion of "stakes in conformity" fits very well with concepts invoked in later versions of social control theory.

F. Ivan Nye

Nye (1958) not only elaborated a social control theory of delinquency, but specified ways to "operationalize" (measure) control mechanisms and related them to self-reports of delinquent behavior. He formulated the theory having formally interviewed 780 young people in Washington State, but the sample was criticized because it contained no-one from an urban environment and those selected might be those more willing to describe their families unfavorably. Some were concerned that criminal activity was only mentioned in two of the questions so the extrapolations to crime in general were considered unsafe. Like Reiss, he focused on the family as a source of control. Moreover, Nye specified different types of control:
*direct control = punishments and rewards
*indirect control = affectionate identification with non-criminals; and
*internal control = conscience or sense of guilt.Youth may be directly controlled through constraints imposed by parents, limiting the opportunity for delinquency, as well as through parental rewards and punishments. However, they may be constrained when free from direct control by their anticipation of parental disapproval (indirect control), or through the development of a conscience, an internal constraint on behaviour. The focus on the family as a source of control was in marked contrast to the emphasis on economic circumstances as a source of criminogenic motivation at the time. Although he acknowledged motivational forces by stating that, "...some delinquent behavior results from a combination of positive learning and weak and ineffective social control" (1958: 4), he adopted a control-theory position when he proposed that, "..most delinquent behavior is the result of insufficient social control..."

Walter Reckless

Reckless (1961) developed Containment Theory by focusing on a youth's self-conception or self-image of being a good person as an insulator against peer pressure to engage in delinquency.
*inner containment = positive sense of self;
*outer containment = supervision and discipline.This inner containment through self-images is developed within the family and is essentially formed by about the age of twelve. Outer containment was a reflection of strong social relationships with teachers and other sources of conventional socialization within the neighborhood. The basic proposition is there are "pushes" and "pulls" that will produce delinquent behavior unless they are counteracted by containment. The motivations to deviate as pushes are:
*discontent with living conditions and family conflicts;
*aggressiveness and hostility, perhaps due to biological factors; and
*frustration and boredom, say arising from membership of a minority group or through lack of opportunities to advance in school or find employment;and the pulls are:
*delinquent peers, and
*delinquent subcultures.

David Matza

An analysis of 'neutralization' was developed by Sykes and Matza (1957) who believed that there was little difference between delinquents and non-delinquents, with delinquents engaging in non-delinquent behaviour most of the time. They also asserted that most delinquents eventually opt out of the delinquent lifestyle as they grow older, suggesting that there is a basic code of morality in place but that the young are able to deviate by using techniques of neutralization, i.e. they can temporarily suspend the applicability of norms by developing attitudes "favorable to deviant behavior". The five common techniques were:
*denial of responsibility (I couldn't help myself)
*denial of injury (nobody got hurt)
*denial of victim (they had it coming)
*condemnation of the condemners (what right do they have to criticize me?)
*appeal to higher loyalties (I did it for someone else).Later Matza (1964) developed his theory of "drift" which proposed that people used neutralization to drift in and out of conventional behaviour, taking a temporary break from moral restraints. Matza based his "drift" theory upon four observations which were:
*Delinquents express guilt over their criminal acts
*Delinquents often respect law-abiding individuals
*A line is drawn between those they can victimize and those they can not
*Delinquents are not immune to the demands of conforming

Although Drift Theory has not been widely supported by empirical tests, it remains a key idea in criminology despite not answering why some conform and others don't.

Travis Hirschi

Although Travis Hirschi's "Causes of Delinquency" (1969) was a landmark book, contrasting with Strain Theory (see anomie and the work of Robert King Merton) and Conflict Theory. In particular, Hirschi challenged Differential Association Theory (Edwin Sutherland and Donald Cressey) on the impact of delinquent peers on delinquency. He proposed that delinquent peers would have no direct effect on delinquency when social bonds inhibiting delinquency were taken into account. He argued that similarly unattached youth drifted together into delinquent groups because weak social bonds failed to prevent both association with delinquents and delinquency itself. The groups that could strengthen the bonds were family, school, peers, religious institutions, etc. The social bond had four elements:
*Attachment to parents, peers, or school
*Commitment to conventional lines of action
*Involvement in conventional activities
*Belief in a common value

Hirschi adopted Toby's concept of an investment in conventionality or "stake in conformity". He stressed the rationality in the decision whether to engage in crime and argued that a person was less likely to choose crime if they had strong social bonds.

Hirschi has since moved away from his bonding theory, and in co-operation with Gottfredson, developed a General Theory or "Self-Control Theory" in 1990. Akers (1991) argued that a major weakness of this new theory was that Gottfredson and Hirschi did not define self-control and the tendency toward criminal behavior separately. By not deliberately operationalized self-control traits and criminal behaviour or criminal acts individually, it suggests that the concepts of low self-control and propensity for criminal behaviour are the same. Hirschi and Gottfredson (1993) rebutted Akers argument by suggesting it was actually an indication of the consistency of General Theory. That is, the theory is internally consistent by conceptualizing crime and deriving from that a concept of the offender's traits. The research community remains divided on whether the General Theory is sustainable but there is emerging confirmation of some of its predictions (e.g. LaGrange & Silverman: 1999).

Jack P. Gibbs

Gibbs (1989) has redefined social control and applied it to develop a control theory of homicide. Any attempt to get an individual to do or refrain from doing something can be considered an attempt at control. To qualify as 'social' control, such attempts must involve three parties. One or more individuals intends to manipulate the behaviour of another by or through a third party. Gibbs' third party can be an actual person or a reference to "society", "expectations" or "norms". For example, if one party attempts to influence another by threatening to refer the matter to a third party assumed to have authority, this is referential social control. If one party attempts to control another by punishing a third (e.g. general deterrence), it is a form of vicarious social control. The presence of the third party distinguishes social control from mere external behavioral control, simple interpersonal responses, or issuing orders for someone to do something. This definition clearly distinguishes social control from mere "reactions to deviance" and from deviant behaviour itself.

Gibbs argues that "Homicide can be described either as control or as resulting from control failure" (1989: 35), and proposes that the homicide rate is a function not just of the sheer volume of disputes, but also of the frequency of recourse to a third party for peaceful dispute settlement (p37). When one person fails to control the actions of another through the third party, murder represents another violent attempt at direct control. People resort to self-help when forms of social control are unavailable or fail. Gibbs is critical of Hirschi's Social Control Theory because it merely assumes that social relationships, personal investments and beliefs that discourage delinquency are social controls (which is one reason why Hirschi's theory is often referred to as a Social Bond Theory).


Much of the early research is based on self-reporting studies which can be problematic because there may be different motives for disclosing information and, in any event, questions may be interpreted differently. Nevertheless, many of the conclusions are intuitively convincing, e.g. that individuals will not engage in crime if they think that this will sacrifice the affection or respect of significant others, or cause them to lose employment or their autonomy if they face imprisonment. Davies (1994 and 2004) reports that, in the late-nineteenth century Britain, crime rates fell dramatically, as did drug and alcohol abuse, and illegitimacy became less common. All these indexes of deviance were fairly steady between World War I and 1955. After 1955 they all rose to create a U-curve of deviance, over the period from 1847 to 1997. He attributes the initial shift to adoption of a culture in which the assumptions of Protestant Christianity were taken for granted. Few people believed strongly, but everyone believed a little in a moral code of helping others that was rooted in Christian ethics. The recent decline of religion in favour of secular liberalism has been matched by an increase in crime. In 1957, half a million notable offenses were recorded by the police, but in 1997 it was 4.5 million. Statistics may demonstrate correlations, but there are few explanations of why any particular individual elects to steal or engage in violence. The same social norms for the defense of the person and property that informed the law before 1955 remain the policy norms. That more people are uncontrollable and may offend against those norms in social interactions cannot be explained by simply counting how many people sit in church pews (see the general discussion in Braithwaite: 1989).

See also

*Milieu control


Further reading

*cite book |last=Hirschi |first=Travis
last2 = Gottfredson | first2 = Michael R. |authorlink= |coauthors= |editor=Michael Donnelly and Murray A. Straus |title=Corporal Punishment of Children in Theoretical Perspective |edition= |year=2005 |date= |publisher=Yale University Press |location=New Haven, CT; London, UK |isbn=0300085478 |pages= |chapter= Punishment of Children from the Perspective of Control Theory |chapterurl= |url= |doi= |id= |oclc=144609343

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