What is Self-control theory? Self-control theory—often referred to as the general theory of crime—has emerged as one of the major theoretical paradigms in the field of criminology. This is no small feat, given the diversity of criminological perspectives that exist in general and the ever-growing roster of recently sprouted control theories in particular.
- I. Introduction
- II. Self-Control as a General Theory of Crime
- A. The Context of the 1980s
- B. The Nature of Low Self-Control
- C. The “Development” of Low Self-Control
- D. Self-Control and Crime
- IV. Critiques of Self-Control Theory
- A. Adult Social Bonds and Life Course Criminology
- B. The Enduring Importance of Deviant Peers
- C. Sources of Self-Control
- VI. Conclusion
Self-control theory—often referred to as the general theory of crime—has emerged as one of the major theoretical paradigms in the field of criminology. This is no small feat, given the diversity of criminological perspectives that exist in general and the ever-growing roster of recently sprouted control theories in particular. To be sure, scholars have developed models of formal social control (e.g., rational choice/deterrence theories), informal social control (e.g., social disorganization, collective efficacy), indirect control (e.g., social bond theories), power control, and so on, yet self-control theory has arguably become the most influential member of the control theory family since its publication by M. R. Gottfredson and Hirschi in 1990.
Accordingly, the purpose of this research paper is fourfold:
- (1) to provide an overview of the core theoretical propositions specified by self-control theory (i.e., what causes crime, according to this perspective?);
- (2) to critically assess its empirical status (i.e., what does the body of studies testing this theory have to say about the degree to which Gottfredson and Hirschi were right?);
- (3) to highlight the criticisms leveled against it (i.e., where do there appear to be “holes” in the theory?); and, finally,
- (4) to specify directions for future research within the self-control tradition.
II. Self-Control as a General Theory of Crime
Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990) sought to accomplish a number of goals when they formulated their theory of self-control and crime. At the most fundamental level, they reinterpreted and reintroduced the classical school of thought in combination with a positivistic methodological orientation. More specifically, they intended to create a theory on the basis of what was known from research about criminal events and criminals rather than to rehash empirically vague sociological theories. Finally, they sought to develop a theory that would explain crime generally, that is, across times, persons, and situations.
To these ends, their general theory constituted a reassertion of the classical school’s initial contention that individuals seek personal pleasure while avoiding pain (Beccaria, 1764/1963). In short, people are motivated by self-interest. Furthermore, positivism attempts to understand human behavior through the scientific method. In its use of the scientific method, however, Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990) claimed that positivism went too far in creating needless disciplinary fissures, redundant theories, and contrived typologies. Moreover, positivist criminology confounds crime, delinquency, and other antisocial behavior. Gottfredson and Hirschi suggested that, by combining the methodological approaches handed down from positivist science, but in using the classical school as an overriding framework, criminologists could arrive at a general theory of crime.
Doing this, however, would require a good look at criminal acts and criminals, something that Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990) claimed criminologists had not really done. They suggested that criminologists have instead focused their efforts on explaining crime in light of artificial statutory definitions and a rejection of individual choice. Accordingly, this has led to an abundance of theories that have succeeded in accounting for only a small proportion of the variance in crime; blindness to deviant behaviors that are analogous to crime; and misapprehension of criminals as being specialists, as opposed to generalists. Thus, to develop the general theory, Gottfredson and Hirschi started by looking at what criminologists do know about crime and criminals. Their research revealed that criminal events are generally based on immediate gratification or removal of an irritant, are easy, and are varied. Similarly, they found that criminals displayed characteristics similar to crime events: Criminals were found among individuals seeking immediate and easy gratification and whose behavior included numerous types of crime and other deviant behaviors. Gottfredson and Hirschi therefore claimed that the crime and the criminal were contiguous elements.
At the heart of criminal events and criminals was one stable construct: low self-control. This, Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990) claimed, explained criminal acts and behavior across time, gender, ethnicity, and crime types. Beyond crime, low self-control was further evident in behavior analogous to criminal acts, such as antisocial (but not illegal), deviant, and risk-taking behavior (e.g., smoking, excessive drinking, riding a bike without a helmet, skydiving). This, according to Gottfredson and Hirschi, constituted a general theory of crime: Low self-control was the general, antecedent cause of forceful/fraudulent acts “undertaken in pursuit of self-interest” (p. 15).