Hirschi’s Social Control Theory of Crime

A consensus theory which argues that crime increases when the bonds attaching the individual to society weaken

The ‘Social Control’ Theory sees crime as a result of social institutions losing control over individuals. Weak institutions such as certain types of families, the breakdown of local communities, and the breakdown of trust in the government and the police are all linked to higher crime rates.

Hirschi: Bonds of Attachment

Travis Hirschi argued that criminal activity occurs when an individual’s attachment to society is weakened. This attachment depends on the strength of social bonds that hold people to society. According to Hirschi there are four social bonds that bind us together – Attachment; Commitment; Involvement and Belief.

According to this theory one would predict the ‘typical delinquent’ to be young, single, unemployed and probably male. Conversely, those who are married and in work are less likely to commit crime – those who are involved and part of social institutions are less likely to go astray.

Truancy
According to Social Control Theory, truancy is an indicator of low social-attachment, and thus a predictor of criminal behaviour

 

Politicians of all persuasions tend to talk in terms of social control theory. Jack Straw from the labour party has argued that ‘lads need dads’ and David Cameron has made recent speeches about the importance of the family and the problems associated with absent fathers. These views are also popular with the right wing press, which often reminds their (middle class, nuclear family) readers that ‘Seventy per cent of young offenders come from lone-parent families; children from broken homes’

Supporting evidence for Hirschi’s Social Control Theory

Evidence for Social Control Theory tends to focus on three problem areas that are correlated with higher crime rates. These are: Absentee parents; Truancy; Unemployment

The Cambridge Study in Delinquent Development (Farington and West 1991). Looked at 411 ‘working class’ males born in 1953 who were studied until their late 30s. Found that offenders were more likely to come from poorer, single parent families with poor parenting and parents who were themselves offenders. This study suggests that good primary socialisation is essential in preventing crime.

Martin Glyn has pointed out that many young offenders suffer from what he calls ‘parent deficit’. He argues that this is the single most important factor in explaining youth offending. He argues that children need both discipline and love, two things that are often both absent with absent parents.

Research commissioned by NASUWT, a teachers’ union, based on reviewing existing literature and in depth studies of two schools in Birmingham and London found that Family breakdown and a lack of father figures could be to blame for pupils joining gangs, Children as young as nine are being drawn into organised crime for protection and to gain a “sense of belonging” because of the lack of positive role models at home, it is claimed. Others are being effectively “born into” gangs as membership is common among older brothers and even parents in some areas. The problem is increasingly threatening some inner-city schools, with teachers claiming that the influence of gang culture has soared over the past three years.

Criticisms of Social Control Theory

  • Some crimes are more likely to be committed by people with lots of social connections – e.g. Corporate Crime
  • Marxism – It’s unfair to blame marginalised people – they are victims of an unfair society which does not provide sufficient opportunities for work etc.
  • Interactionism – Middle class crimes are less likely to appear in the statistics – In reality the attached (middle classes) are just as criminal.
  • By focussing on the crimes of the marginalised, the right wing elite dupe the public into thinking we need them to protect us from criminals (whereas in reality we need protecting from the elite)
  • This may be a case of blaming the victim – We need to look at structural factors that lead to family breakdown (poverty, long working hours, unemployment.)
  • Parent deficit does not automatically lead to children becoming criminals. There are also ‘pull factors’ such as peer group pressure.

Revision Notes for Sale 

If you like this sort of thing, then you might like my Crime and Deviance Revision Notes  – 31 pages of revision notes covering the following topics:

  1. Consensus based theories part 1 – Functionalism; Social control’ theory; Strain theory
  2. Consensus based theories part 2 – Sub cultural theories
  3. The Traditional Marxist and Neo-Marxist perspective on crime
  4. Labeling Theory
  5. Left- Realist and Right-Realist Criminology (including situational, environmental and community crime prevention)
  6. Post-Modernism, Late-Modernism and Crime (Social change and crime)
  7. Sociological Perspectives on  controlling crime – the role of the community and policing in preventing crime
  8. Sociological Perspectives on Surveillance
  9. Sociological Perspectives on Punishment
  10. Social Class and Crime
  11. Ethnicity and Crime
  12. Gender and crime  (including Girl gangs and Rape and domestic violence)
  13. Victimology – Why are some people more likely to be criminals than others
  14. Global crime, State crime and Environmental crime (Green crime)
  15. The Media and Crime, including moral panics

 

The Functionalist Perspective on Crime and Deviance

Functionalist believe that crime is actually beneficial for society – for example it can improve social integration and social regulation.

The Functionalist analysis of crime starts with society as a whole. It seeks to explain crime by looking at the nature of society, rather than at individuals. There are two main thinkers usually associated with the Functionalist Perspective on Crime: Emile Durkheim and Robert Merton.

This post provides a summary of Durkheim’s Functionalist Theory of why crime is inevitable and functional for society. For Merton’s Strain Theory of Crime please see the link below.

Durkheim: Three Key Ideas About Crime 

  1. A limited amount of crime is inevitable and even necessary
  2. Crime has positive functions -A certain amount of crime contributes to the well-being of a society.
  3. On the other hand, too much crime is bad for society and can help bring about its collapse, hence institutions of social control are necessary to keep the amount of crime in check. Refer here to Durkheim’s Theory of Suicide 

Durkheim developed his theory of crime and deviance in The Rules of Sociological Method, first published in 1895.

Crime is Inevitable

Durkheim argued that crime is an inevitable and normal aspect of social life. He pointed out that crime is inevitable in all societies, and that the crime rate was in fact higher in more advanced, industrial societies.

Durkheim theorized crime was inevitable because not every member of society can be equally committed to the collective sentiments (the shared values and moral beliefs of society). Since individuals are exposed to different influences and circumstances, it was ‘impossible for them to be all alike’ and hence some people would inevitably break the law.

Durkheim also imagined a ‘society of saints’ populated by perfect individuals deviance would still exist. The general standards of behaviour would be so high that the slightest slip would be regarded as a serious offence. Thus the individual who simply showed bad taste, or was merely impolite, would attract strong disapproval.

Durkheim argues that all social change begins with some form of deviance. In order for changes to occur, yesterday’s deviance becomes today’s norm.

Crime Performs Positive Functions 

Durkhiem went a step further and argued that a certain amount of crime was functional for society.

Three positive functions of crime include:

  1. SOCIAL REGULATION (reaffirming the boundaries of acceptable behaviour) – Each time the Police arrest a person, they are making it clear to the rest of society that the particular action concerned is unacceptable. In contemporary society newspapers also help to perform the publicity function, with their often-lurid accounts of criminal acts. In effect, the courts and the media are ‘broadcasting’ the boundaries of acceptable behaviour, warning others not to breach the walls of the law (and therefore society)
  2. SOCIAL INTEGRATION (Social Cohesion) – A second function of crime is to actually strengthen social cohesion. For example, when particularly horrific crimes have been committed the whole community joins together in outrage and the sense of belonging to a community is therefore strengthened
  3. Social Change – A further action performed by the criminals is to provide a constant test of the boundaries of permitted action. When the law is clearly out of step with the feelings and values of the majority, legal reform is necessary. Criminals therefore, perform a crucial service in helping the law to reflect the wishes of the population and legitimising social change.

Durkheim argued that crime only became dysfunctional when there was too much or too little of it – too much and social order would break down, too little and there would not be sufficient capacity for positive social change.

The suffragettes: anticipating the morality of the future?

Durkheim’s view of punishment

Durkheim suggested that the function of punishment was not to remove crime from society altogether, because society ‘needed’ crime. The point of punishment was to control crime and to maintain the collective sentiments. In Durkheim’s own words punishment ‘serves to heal the wounds done to the collective sentiments’.

According to Durkheim a healthy society requires BOTH crime and punishment to be in balance and to be able to change.

Evaluations of Durkheim’s Functionalist View of Crime

  1. Durkheim talks about crime in very general terms. He theorizes that ‘crime’ is necessary and even functional but fails to distinguish between different types of crime. It could be that some crimes may be so harmful that they will always be dysfunctional rather than functional.
  2. Secondly, Durkheim is suggesting that the criminal justice system benefits everyone in society by punishing criminals and reinforcing the acceptable boundaries of behavior. However, Marxist and Feminist analysis of crime demonstrates that not all criminals are punished equally and thus crime and punishment benefit the powerful for than the powerless
  3. Interactionists would suggest that whether or not a crime is functional cannot be determined objectively; surely it depends on an individual’s relationship to the crime.
  4. Functionalists assume that society has universal norms and values that are reinforced by certain crimes being punished in public. Postmodernists argue society is so diverse, there is no such thing as ‘normal’. 

Revision Bundle for Sale 

If you like this sort of thing, then you might like my Crime and Deviance Revision Bundle

Crime Deviance A-Level Revision.png

It contains

  • 12 exam practice questions including short answer, 10 mark and essay question exemplars.
  • 32 pages of revision notes covering the entire A-level sociology crime and deviance specification
  • Seven colour mind maps covering sociological perspective on crime and deviance

Written specifically for the AQA sociology A-level specification.

Related Posts

Sources used to write this post:

Haralambos and Holborn: sociology themes and perspectives, edition 8.

Sociological Theories of Crime and Deviance – A Very Brief Overview

A brief summary table covering structural and action, consensus and conflict, and modern and post-modern perspectives on crime and deviance. Not sure how well it will cut and paste mind!

Students will obviously need to know more than this, but it’s still important to review the basics from time to time to check your understanding and how all the bits fit together!

Theory

Key Name

Key concepts

Criticism

  1. Functionalism

Durkheim (1895)

  • Social Integration

  • Social Regulation

  • Social chance

C.

Assumes the laws are created through value consensus.

  1. Bonds of Attachment

Hirschi

  • Bonds of attachment

  • Commitment, attachment, involvement, belief

C.

Lack of attachment does not automatically lead to people becoming criminals. There are also ‘pull factors’ such as peer group pressure.

  1. Strain Theory

Merton (1938)

  • There is a strain between the success goals and the legitimate means to achieve those success goals

C.

Exaggerates working class crime – Ignored non-utilitarian crime.

  1. Subcultural Theory –

Albert Cohen (1955)

  • Lack of success leads to Status Frustration

  • Leads to a a Delinquent subculture

  • Deviance is collective not individual response

C.

Willis’ research criticises this – status frustration does not lead to a subculture – boys form a subculture because they think school is irrelevant to their future lives

  1. Subcultural Theory “Delinquency and opportunity”

Cloward & Ohlin (1962)

  • – Illegitimate opportunity structure Criminal, conflict and retreatist subcultures ……

C. TW + Y say this theory still assumes people are committed to achieving wealth. Some, e.g. hippies, aren’t.

  1. New Right / underclass theory

Charles Murray (1989)

  • Long term unemployed, live off benefits

  • High numbers of lone parents.

  • High rates of crime

C.

Marxists would argue that Long term unemployment is a structural failing of the Capitalist system

  1. Interactionism – Labelling Theory

Becker (1963)

  • Agents of Social Control stereotype and marginalise minority groups

C. Blaming authorities absolves criminals of responsibility

  1. Interactionist – Labelling Theory

Becker (1963)

Labelling can lead to crime –

  • Master Status

  • Self fulfilling prophecy

  • Deviant career

  • Deviant subculture

C.

  • Too deterministic

  • Why are some people more likely to be labelled than others?

  1. Trad Marxism

Gordon

  • Capitalism Competition Dog eat Dog society;

  • Prison for W/C neutralises opposition vs system

C.

Crime was still present in communist societies.

  1. Trad Marxism

Chambliss

  • All classes commit crime

  • Inequality in capitalist system is linked to crime

C.

Crime in the UK has been decreasing while inequality has been increasing

  1. Trad Marxism

Snider

Many of the most serious deviant acts are “corporate crime” (M/C)

C.

Left Realists argue that Marxist focus too much on corp. crime; burglaries cause more distress and victims = W/C

  1. Neo Marxism – The New Criminology

Taylor, Walton and Young (1973)

  • Fully Social Theory of Deviance.

  • Criminals are ‘political heroes’

C.

  • LR’s say W/C criminals are romanticised

  • LR’s say victims neglected

  • Fems say that focus is only male crime.

  1. Realism in general

Taylor Walton and Young (LR) and Wilson (RR)

  • We should abandon the grand narratives of previous theories and focus on practical solutions to crime

c.

Marxists argue these are ignoring the root cause of crime

  1. Left Realism

Lea + Young

  • 3 causes of crime – relative deprivation/ subculture and marginalisation

C. Marxists argue these are ignoring the root cause of crime

  1. Left Realism

Lea and Young

  • Solutions to crime include Reducing inequality and more community policing

C. Community policing is really about the state controlling people’s lives.

  1. Right Realism

James Q Wilson

  • Cost/benefit cause of crime

  • Broken windows/

C.

Jones (92) says that lack of investment is more important than Z.T. in preventing crime.

  1. Right Realism

James Q Wilson

  • Solutions to crime include target hardening and situational crime prevention

C.

Crime displacement

  1. Postmodernism

Robert Reiner

  • Increase in consumerism is a fundamental reason behind increasing crime

Can’t explain decrease in crime since the mid-1990s

  1. Late Modernism

Jock Young

  • The vertigo of Late Modernity- Crime today is linked to anomie/ crisis of masculinity

C. Is this any different to Strain Theory?

Sensationalisation of Crime in the Media

The selection of dramas below is a good illustration of just how much the media sensationalises crime –

Media and Crime

Crime drama seems to make up huge percentage of the BBC’s output – and all of the recent dramas above focus on the most horrific crimes – kidnapping and murder seem to be the most popular. Many of these dramas also have multiple victims – Happy Valley had about five – in one quiet region of Northern England, in the space of the few weeks the series was set over.

Just a quick post as I wanted something in place to introduce media and crime when we do the topic early next Academic year.

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