Social Control Theory

II. Attachment

Social control theory assumes that people can see the advantages of crime and are capable of inventing and executing all sorts of criminal acts on the spot—without special motivation or prior training. It assumes that the impulse to commit crime is resisted because of the costs associated with such behavior. It assumes further that a primary cost of crime is the disapproval of the people about whom the potential offender cares. To the extent that the potential offender cares about no one, he or she is free to commit the crime in question. Sociologists often explain conformity as the result of such sensitivity. Psychologists as often explain deviation as the result of insensitivity to the concerns of others. Together, they tell us that sensitivity is a continuum and that some people have more than others and some have less than others. This is the position adopted by control theorists. They focus on the extent to which people are sensitive to the opinion of others and predict that this variable will predict rates of crime and delinquency.

Sensitivity suggests feeling or emotion, and this element of the social bond indeed attempts to capture the emotions (or lack thereof) involved in conformity and deviance. The words are many: affection, love, concern, care, and respect, to name only some. Social control theorists use attachment as an abstract summary of these concepts.

The evidence is clear that family attachments are strongly correlated with (non)delinquency. In their famous book Unraveling Juvenile Delinquency, Sheldon and Eleanor Glueck (1950) indicated that, according to their research, affection of the father and the mother for the child were two of the best five predictors of delinquency. They found, too, that in the other direction, the emotional ties of the child to the parent tended to be weaker among delinquents. From this, we may conclude that family attachments play a role in the socialization of the child as well as in maintaining his or her subsequent conformity to the rules of society. Researchers have reported that family attachments may account for the apparent effects of other variables. For example, the item “Do your parents know where you are (and what you are doing) when you are away from home?” has been often found to predict levels of self-reported delinquency. These correlations are of course taken as evidence of the importance of parental supervision. They are better seen as evidence of the importance of communication between parent and child. Scandinavian scholars have shown that parents know where their children are to the extent that their children inform them of their whereabouts. In other words, well-supervised children are those who supervise themselves, those who in effect take their parents with them wherever they happen to go.

Attachment to school is also a well-established predictor of delinquency. Students who report liking school and caring about the opinion of teachers are far less likely to be delinquent regardless of how delinquency is measured. Indeed, it is practically a truism that “delinquents don’t like school.” The general principle would seem to be that withdrawal of favorable sentiments toward controlling institutions neutralizes their moral force. Rebels and revolutionaries may dispute this principle, but that says nothing about the element of truth it contains (and they prove it by their actions).