Free Essay On Social Control Theory

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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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Social Control Theory Essay

1247 Words5 Pages

Social control theory has become one of the more widely accepted explanations in the field of criminology in its attempt to account for rates in crime and deviant behavior. Unlike theories that seek to explain why people engage in deviant behavior, social control theories approach deviancy from a different direction, questioning why people refrain from violating established norms, rules, and moralities. The theory seeks to explain how the normative systems of rules and obligations in a given society serve to maintain a strong sense of social cohesion, order and conformity to widely accepted and established norms. Central to this theory is a perspective which predicts that deviant behavior is much more likely to emerge when…show more content…

The theoretical stability of social control theory rests upon the existence of four variables which are not only thought to have a correlative relationship amongst each other but are viewed as pivotal perquisites in deterring deviant behavior. These variables are attachment, commitment, involvement, and belief. Attachment refers to the obligatory connections and expectations that relate the individual to other persons in society. Through the individual's attachments to other people's expectations, norms become internalized by the individual. Commitment refers to the fear of law-breaking behavior and assumes that the organization of society is situated such that the interests of most persons of the given society would be endangered if they decide to engage in criminal and/or deviant acts. Involvement refers to the conventional activities that makes a person too busy to find time and/or the opportunity to engage in deviant behavior. As for Belief, the theory holds that a common, if not, single value system exists in society in which both he law-abiding individual as well as deviant both value. The opinions and impressions that are dependent on constant social reinforcement comprise belief. A person is more likely to conform to social norms when he believes in them. However, there is possibly a wide variability amongst the society as to how much one adheres to the belief that they should obey the norms and rules of society.

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