Social Control Theory

VII. Similarities and Differences Between Social Control Theories and Other Major Theories of Crime

As we have seen, the underlying assumptions of social control theory are in many respects similar to those of classical theories of crime, theories that have come down to us under such names as deterrence theory and rational choice theory. The differences among them are often differences in emphasis. Deterrence theory claims that the key to crime control is found in the swiftness, severity, and certainty of the punishments administered by the legal system. Rational choice theory focuses on the costs and benefits of crime. Control theorists accept the importance of punishment, but they ignore the punishments of the legal system and thereby question their role in the control of crime. They do the same with benefits of crime—that is, they ignore them on the grounds that the benefits of crime are the same as the benefits of non-crime.

The assumptions of control theories contrast sharply with those of other sociological explanations of crime. Cultural deviance or social learning theories assume that there is no natural capacity for crime. In their view, all human action, whether crime or conformity, is the product of a combination of socializing influences. Peers exert influence on the individual, as does the family and, more broadly, the prevailing culture. Where the sum total of influences directs the individual in particular instances to engage in crime, then that person will do so. Where these influences are absent, crime cannot occur. The offender is thus a conformist, albeit not to the rules of the dominant society.

Strain theories (sometimes called anomie theories) assume that an individual is naturally inclined to conform to standard cultural values but can be pushed into crime when the social structure fails to provide legitimate opportunities to succeed. These theorists emphasize the influence of the American Dream, which produces aspirations and desires that often (all too often, scholars say) cannot be satisfied within the limits of the law. These sociological perspectives have proved popular and adaptable. They continue to provide a foundation for critiques of social control theory.