Social Control Theory

IV. Involvement

In television courtrooms, one task of the prosecutor is to establish that the defendant had the opportunity to commit the crime of which he or she is accused. Crimes are events that take place at a given point in time. Conditions necessary for their accomplishment may or may not be present. Control theorists, like most other theorists, have seized on this fact and tried to incorporate the notion of opportunity into their explanation of crime. They do so through the concept of involvement, which is short for “involvement in conventional activities.” The idea is that people doing conventional things—working, playing games, watching sporting events or television, doing homework, engaging in hobbies, or talking to parents—are to that extent unable to commit delinquent acts, whatever their delinquent tendencies may be.

Despite its firm place in the common sense of criminology, the idea of involvement/limited opportunity has not fared well when put to the test. More than one researcher has found that adolescents with jobs are more rather than less likely to be delinquent. Also, counts of the hours of the day the adolescent is doing an activity that is inconsistent with delinquent acts have proved disappointing.

There are two problems with the concept of involvement. First, it is based on a misconception of the nature of crime. Most criminal acts, perhaps especially those available to adolescents, require only seconds or minutes for their completion—the pull of the trigger, a swing of the fist, a barked command, a jimmied door, a grab from a rack or showcase. This fact allows the commission of large numbers of criminal acts by a single offender in a short period of time. (It also makes ridiculous attempts to estimate the average number of offenses committed by individual offenders in an extended period of time.) Because opportunities for crimes are ubiquitous, the hope of preventing them by otherwise occupying the potential offender has proved vain.

A second problem with this concept is that it neglects the fact that opportunities for crime reside to a large extent in the eye of the beholder. Objective conditions matter, but so do the perceptions of actors. Control theory claims that people differ in the strength of their bonds to society. It therefore predicts that people who are strongly bonded are less likely to engage in activities that provide opportunities for delinquency and are less likely to see them should they arise.