Social Control Theory

VI. Historical Development

The intellectual underpinnings of social control theory may be seen in the 17th-century work of Thomas Hobbes. In his famous book Leviathan Hobbes described a set of basic assumptions about human nature and the origins of civil society. Hobbes believed that humans naturally seek personal advantage without regard for the rights or concerns of others. In the absence of external restraints, in a state of nature, crime is a rational choice, a “war of all against all” naturally follows, and the life of everyone is “nasty, poor, brutish, and short.” Fortunately, in Hobbes’s view, a second choice presents itself to individuals capable of calculating the costs and benefits of their actions. They can continue in a state of war, or they can establish a system of laws and a government empowered to punish those who resort to force and fraud in pursuit of their private interests. Given the choice between war and peace, rational people choose to submit to government authority in return for the safety of their persons and property.

Hobbes’s theory of crime is a choice theory. People consider the costs and benefits of crime and act accordingly. The important costs of crime are those exacted by the state—which has the power to deprive citizens of life, liberty, and property. The content of the criminal law is not problematic. There is consensus that the use of force and fraud for private purposes is illegitimate. Crime is real. It is a not a matter of definition; it is not a social construction that may vary from time to time and place to place.

As we have seen, social control theory accepts choice and consensus. People are not forced by unusual needs or desires to commit criminal acts. Belief in the validity of the core of the criminal law is shared by everyone. Control theory nevertheless rejects Hobbes’s view (which is still a popular view among economists and political scientists) that the important costs of crime are the penalties imposed by the state. It can reject this view because of the assumption (and fact) of consensus. Everyone agrees that theft, robbery, and murder are crimes. As a result, victims and witnesses report offenses to interested parties, and their perpetrators embarrass and shame those who know them. Shame and the penalties that follow from it are, according to social control theory, major costs of crime.

Hobbes’s view of human nature does not imply that people are inherently criminal or that they prefer crime; it suggests only that self-interest underlies whatever they do. They harm others because it gives them pleasure or advantage. They steal because stealing provides goods or money. They hit or threaten to hit others because such acts may bring status, a feeling of justice, or control of their behavior. They do good things for self-interested reasons as well. They are trustworthy and helpful because being so brings such rewards as trust and gratitude. From the point of view of their motives, there is thus no difference between offenders and non-offenders, between criminal and noncriminal acts; all reflect the same basic desires. Thus, working from the Hobbesian view of human nature, social control theories do not ask why people commit criminal acts. They ask instead why, given the plentiful opportunities for criminal acts and their obvious benefits, people do not commit more of them.

Sociology is the dominant discipline in the study of crime. Sociologists reject Hobbes’s perspective. They see human behavior as caused rather than chosen. They tend to reject the idea of consensus, preferring the idea of cultural diversity or even culture conflict. Nevertheless, in the early years of the 20th century, sociologists in the United States often talked about social disorganization, the breakdown of society they saw occurring in immigrant communities and the slums of large cities. The high rates of crime and delinquency in these areas were seen as symptoms of this breakdown. In disorganized areas, unemployment is high and families, schools, and neighborhoods are too weak to control the behavior of their residents. The theory of crime implicit in the concept of social disorganization is a variety of social control theory. In the absence of the usual social restraints imposed by jobs, families, schools, churches, and neighborhoods, delinquency flourishes. In other words, delinquency is natural, as Hobbes suggested and, worse— but contrary to Hobbes—the penalties of the criminal justice system are insufficient to contain it.

By the middle of the 20th century, the concept of social disorganization was no longer fashionable. Sociological theories had come to focus primarily on the impact of social class and culture on law-violating behavior. Lower-class adolescents were said to be forced into delinquency in their efforts to realize the American Dream or they were socialized into a lower-class culture that justifies or requires delinquent behavior. As an explanatory factor, the family had fallen from favor and the school was rarely mentioned except as an important source of strain and subsequent malicious delinquency among lower-class boys.

Sociology, however, is more than a theoretical perspective that is brought to bear in efforts to explain criminal and delinquent behavior. It is also a research discipline that attempts to locate the causes and correlates of such behavior. While sociological theories of delinquency were painting one picture of delinquency, research was painting a very different picture, and sociological researchers were forced to use or invent a sociologically incorrect language to describe it.

By the mid-20th century, hundreds of studies of delinquency had been published, and the number was growing at an ever-increasing rate. With respect to its findings, perhaps the most important was the work of a Harvard University couple, Sheldon and Eleanor Glueck. Their book Unraveling Juvenile Delinquency (1950), discussed earlier in this research paper, is unrivaled in the scope and complexity of its results. The Gluecks compared 500 delinquent boys with 500 non-delinquent boys on a large number of carefully measured variables: family structure and relations, school attitudes and performance, physical and mental characteristics, and attitudes and behavior. The Gluecks reported that the five best predictors of delinquency were “family” variables: (1) discipline of the boy by his father, (2) supervision of the boy by his mother, (3) affection of the father (and [4], separately, the mother) for the boy, and (5) cohesiveness of the family.

The Gluecks’s research was said to be atheoretical, and they did not advertise themselves as theorists, but there could be no doubt that their findings supported social control theory. There also could be no doubt that their characterization of their findings reflected acceptance of a control theory perspective—and rejection of then-popular sociological theories. (For example, whereas popular sociological theories assumed that delinquents tend to be eager to succeed in school, the Gluecks reported that truancy and “lack of interest in school work” were from an early age one of their defining characteristics.) In one fell swoop, then, the Gluecks put control theory back on the table.

The Gluecks were not alone; other researchers were reporting results consistent with control theory and using the language of the theory to interpret them. Albert Reiss resurrected the distinction found in the social disorganization literature between personal and social controls. Walter Reckless and colleagues advanced a containment theory of delinquency that was said to account for the behavior of “good” as well as “bad” boys. Jackson Toby introduced the idea of stakes in conformity—the costs of delinquency to people with good reputations and bright prospects—as an important factor in the control of delinquent behavior.

During the same mid-20th century period, social control theory benefited from introduction of an innovative technique of research, what came to be known as the self-report method. Prior to the invention of this method, researchers had been forced to rely on official measures of delinquency, basically police and court records. The new method allowed them to ask juveniles about their delinquent activities regardless of whether they had official records. It allowed researchers at the same time to ask young people about their relationships with parents, their attitudes toward school, and much else of interest to those wishing to explain delinquent behavior. Indeed, this research technique put the explanation of delinquency in a new light. For example, whereas the Gluecks stressed the affection of the parent for the child, it now became apparent—because it could be measured—that the affection of the child for the parent should be equally, if not more, important.

Relying on the terms and assumptions of the social disorganization perspective, F. Ivan Nye (1958) undertook the first major self-report study of delinquency, distinguishing between internal control and direct and indirect forms of social control. Nye’s particular focus was on the family. He showed how parents limit access of their children to opportunities for delinquency (an example of a direct control) and how adolescents refrain from delinquency out of concern that their parents might disapprove of such actions (an indirect control). He illustrated internal control with the concept of conscience, which acts to prevent one from committing acts that are harmful to others.

The various strands of thought and research on social control were brought together in Travis Hirschi’s Causes of Delinquency, published in 1969. This book reports in a study of a large sample of junior and senior high school students using self-report and official measures of delinquency. The theory guiding the study, as well as some of the study’s findings, are summarized at the beginning of this research paper. Hirschi’s study was a small part of a larger study based on ideas compatible with alternative theories of delinquency. Hirschi was therefore able to compare and contrast the predictions of social control theory with those stemming from its major competitors. These comparisons and contrasts have proved useful in providing structure to subsequent research.