Control Theories of Crime and Deviance

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

‘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.

Control theory doesn’t so much ask the question “Why do they do it?”. The question control theorists asks is “Why don’t we do it”.

This post looks at Hirschi’s Bonds of Attachment Theory, developments of this theory, supporting evidence and finally criticisms of control theory.

Control Theory: Key Points:

  • Most people don’t commit crime because they are firmly attached to and controlled by social institutions.
  • Crime occurs when an individual’s attachment to social institutions are weakened.
  • The fewer family, work and other social commitments an individual has, the more likely they are to commit crime.
  • Thus the unemployed, the young, and men should be more likely to commit crime.
  • This theory cannot explain domestic violence or corporate/ state crime.
  • This remains one of the simplest theories of crime today.

Hirschi: Bonds of Attachment

‘Delinquent acts result when the individual’s bond to society is weak or broken’ (1969:16) 

Hirschi, T. (1969). Causes of delinquency. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Travis Hirschi (1969) 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.

  • Attachment – a person’s sensitivity to the opinions of others. 
  • Commitment – flowed from an investment of time, energy and reputation in conformity. 
  • Involvement stemmed from engrossment in conventional activity
  • Belief was a person’s conviction that they should obey the legal rules. 

Hirschi later developed control theory with Gottfredson – they claimed crime flows from low self-control. It provides an immediate gratification of desires that appeals to those who cannot postpone pleasure. 

In the main it requires little skill or planning and it can be intrinsically enjoyable because it involves exercising cunning, agility, deception or power. Required lack of sympathy for the victim but did not provide long term benefits like those from more orthodox careers. 

Thus crime committed by those who were impulsive, insensitive, and short-sighted.

Who commits crime according to Control Theory…?

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.

An image showing a youth in a hoodie on a housing estate.
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 argued that ‘lads need dads’ and David Cameron 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’.

Developments of Control Theory

Harriet Wilson (1980) researched socially deprived families in Birmingham. She concluded that parents who closely chaperoned their children was the key variable in preventing offending. Some parents were convinced their local neighbourhood was so dangerous and contaminating that they kept their children under close supervision. They escorted them to school, kept them indoors as much as possible and prohibited them from playing with other children they thought were undesirable. Wilson called this practice ‘chaperonage’ and children subjected to it had lower rates of offending. In short, parents who controlled their children more prevented them from offending. 

Gender is the most significant variable in predicting rates of offending. Women are much less likely to offend compared to men. Feminist criminologists have tacitly adopted control theory to explain why women do not offend. 

Hagan et al theorised that deviance which involves fun and excitement in public spaces was more open to men than women. Women are less likely to engage in risk-taking behaviour in public because they are more subject to control at home. This works in two ways: firstly it means women are less visible to formal agents of social control such as the police, so less likely to be processed formally as deviants or criminals. Secondly, women are more likely to subject themselves to internal control: they are less likely to engage in deviant acts in public because they are more likely to be shamed for doing so. 

An extension of this theory is that the more firmly structured and hierarchical the family and the clearer the distinction between male and female roles, the greater the difference between rates of male and female offending. This is the basis of Pat Carlen’s ‘gender deal’ theory. Women are more likely to offend when they leave the formal constraints of being in a traditional female gender role subject to male control. 

Control theory has also been applied to life-course studies. For example Sampson and Laub (1993) Crime in the Making and Laub and Sampson (2003) Shared Beginnings, Divergent Lives. 

Both of these works studied men over decades of their lives. They examined how deviance emerges and why some men stopped being deviant. They paid special attention to the role of the family, friends, employment and military service. 

They argued that marriage, employment and military service can act as a changing point in the life-course. At these times men develop new connections, new responsibilities and reflect on their lives. 

The study reinforced the idea that it is the fundamental, formal connections to society which usually help prevent deviance. 

Conversely, the study can be used to criticise prison which breaks the ability of men to form these new bonds. Prison also introduces men to other deviants which can reinforce more deviance. 

One criticism of this study is that it ignored domestic violence and offending within the military.

Contemporary Supporting evidence for 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:

Crime and Deviance A-level sociology revision bundle.
  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. Labelling 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

Social Control Theory is a major component of consensus theories of crime, usually taught as part of the Crime and Deviance module within the AQA’s A-level sociology specification

Find Out More

This is an article which offers a more in depth account of Hrischi’s Bonds of Attachment Theory.