Social Control Theory

VIII. A Critical Issue

One question that social control theory has faced from its inception relates to the role of delinquent peers. Walter Reckless (1961), a prominent theorist whose work is usually associated with control theory, concluded from the Gluecks’s (1950) data that “companionship is unquestionably the most telling force in male delinquency and crime” (p. 10). If this conclusion were allowed to stand unquestioned, whatever debate there might be between social control theory and social learning theory would be settled in favor of the latter. From the beginning, control theorists have questioned the meaning of the admittedly strong correlation between one’s own delinquency and the delinquency of one’s friends. Their major counterhypothesis was that advanced by the Gluecks, who interpreted their own data as showing that birds of a feather flock together, so to speak. In control theory terms, this argument is that weak bonds to society lead to association with delinquents and to delinquent behavior. Companionship and delinquency thus have a common cause. The limits of this argument were readily apparent. The correlation between companionship and delinquency was so strong that no combination of its supposed causes could possibly account for it. Social learning theorists naturally saw this as evidence against social control theory and in favor of their own theory. A compromise solution was to integrate the two theories, the idea being that lack of social control frees the adolescent to be taught crime and delinquency by his or her peers.

Hirschi resisted this compromise, observing that the two theories, if combined, would contain fatal internal contradictions. Social control theories assume that crime is natural. Social learning theories assume crime must be learned. The two assumptions cannot peacefully coexist, because one assumption must necessarily negate the other. Yet the delinquent-peer effect would not go away. Its presence forced social control theorists to confront a fact seemingly in contradiction to the theory’s internal logic. Attempts were then made to explain the role of delinquent peers without violating the assumptions of control theory. Perhaps peers do not teach delinquency, but they make it easier or less risky, thus increasing the temptation to crime by lowering its costs. Assaults and robberies and burglaries are, after all, facilitated by the support of others, just as they are facilitated by muscles and guns and agility.

Another tack was to question the validity of the measures of peer delinquency. If the data collection methods were faulty, then the seemingly strong evidence supporting the delinquent peers–delinquency correlation could also be faulty. Most studies of the delinquency of peers ask the respondents to describe their friends. The results, some researchers argued, could reflect the phenomenon of projection, whereby study respondents, apparently describing their friends, are in fact describing themselves. Dana Haynie and Wayne Osgood (2005) tested this hypothesis. They reported that standard data do contain a good quantity of projection. Using measures of delinquency collected directly from the peers in question, they found that what was once the strongest known predictor of crime turned out to have only a modest effect, an effect that could be accounted for by alternative theories of crime. This story teaches several lessons. Persistent attention to a theoretical problem may produce unexpected results. The facts that are at the root of the problem may themselves fail to survive, and the end results of criticisms of a criminological theory do not necessarily take the form imagined by its critics.