8. Sociological Theories of Crime

8.5 Social Control Theory

Dr. Sean Ashley

The main question criminologists in this chapter have been exploring so far is, “Why do certain people engage in criminal activity?” Travis Hirschi (1969) says the question we should be asking is, “Why don’t people engage in criminal behaviour in the first place?”

Hirschi (1969) argues that human beings are similar to animals in that we sometimes fight and steal, while at other times we are pleasant and cooperative. This aggression and impulsivity do not require explanation, as these traits are simply a part of our nature. What requires explanation is why people do not engage in more of this type of behaviour as it is the easiest way to satisfy our desires. The answer proposed by social control theory is that this behaviour is controlled and regulated by our social bonds. Criminality and other deviant behaviour results “when an individual’s bond to society is weak or broken” (Hirschi, 1969, p.16).

A person’s behaviour is controlled by four types of bonds: attachment, commitment, involvement, and belief. Attachment refers to the emotional ties a person has with other people, particularly with parents. This bond is associated with how much time children spend with parents, how closely they identify with them, and whether they feel as though their parents care for their wellbeing. Commitment is the time and energy a person spends in the pursuit of goals, such as getting an education or building a business. If a person engages in reckless and anti-social activity, they may place these projects in jeopardy.

Involvement is the degree to which a person is active in conventional activities. For example, if someone is busy at school and is involved with sports, they will have much less time to plan and commit delinquent acts. Belief refers to the acceptance of a common value system shared by people in a given society. This is not the same as religious beliefs, though religion may play a role. Rather, it is the belief in the validity of the law and norms of their society.

Social control theory has been one of the most tested theories in criminology, though overall the results have been mixed. The evidence suggests that weak social bonds are related to an increase in offending, but the strength of this relationship varies from low to moderate, suggesting that other variables need to be taken into account (Lilly et al., 2019). Other studies question what happens when children are attached to parents who are involved in illegal behaviour themselves. Jensen and Brownfield (1983), for example, found that close attachment to parents who are drug users does not prevent children from engaging in drug use themselves. There is also the question of whether commitment and involvement are always positive (O’Grady, 2014). Was it not a commitment to win and heavy involvement in the sport that led Lance Armstrong to use performance-enhancing drugs to win the Tour de France?

While these criticisms are important, social control theory remains an important way of understanding the development of criminal behaviour in youth, and Hirschi remains one of criminology’s most important thinkers.


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Introduction to Criminology Copyright © 2023 by Dr. Sean Ashley is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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