Social Control Theory

IX. Theoretical and Research Extensions

In its social disorganization form, social control theory was what is now called a life course theory. The idea was straightforward: Individuals are controlled by ties to the significant people and institutions in their lives. As they move through the various stages of life, these people and institutions automatically change. Their significance and the strength of the individual’s ties to them may change as well. The favorite example was the transition from the family of orientation, with parents and siblings, to the family of procreation, with a spouse and children. In principle, the transition from one family to the other could be a period of deregulation, of relative freedom from social bonds and a consequent high rate of delinquency. In principle, successful completion of this transition was problematic. The adolescent could end up securely wrapped in the arms of job, church, community, and family, or he or she could end up in a stage of protracted adolescence, with weak and fleeting ties to the central institutions of adulthood. Adolescent delinquents could easily end up as law-abiding adults, and adolescent conformists could easily end up as late-starting adult offenders.

The social control theory described was based on data collected at one point in time. It could not therefore deal directly with questions of change and transition. It was designed, however, with the change and transition problem firmly in mind. If the connection between juvenile delinquency and adult crime depended on events that could not be foreseen, this posed no problem for the theory. It assumed that strong bonds could weaken, or break, that the people and institutions to which one was tied could change their character or cease to exist. It assumed, too, that weak bonds could strengthen, that they could be established where none previously existed. Social control theory was thus seen as the only major theory capable of dealing with variation in levels of crime and delinquency over the life course.

Readily available data suggested, however, that the facts were not so complicated. The data suggested that differences in levels of delinquency were relatively constant across individuals, that the form of the age distribution of crime was the same from one group to another. As a result, in 1983, Hirschi and his colleague Michael Gottfredson explicitly rejected the life course perspective on crime, declaring that criminality, once established in late childhood, stabilized and did not change. Put another way, they said that if a researcher ranks children on their propensity to commit criminal acts at age 8, he or she will find the same rank order when the children are 15 and any age thereafter. They concluded that no criminological theory, including social control theory, could explain the relation between age and crime.

Shortly thereafter, Robert Sampson and John Laub came into possession of the data originally collected by Sheldon and Eleanor Gluecks in the famous study described earlier. After reworking and supplementing these data, they were able to follow the Gluecks’s (1950) participants into adulthood and, by so doing, restate and test the life course (or longitudinal) version of social control theory, which they called a theory of informal social control. Analyses reported in their book Crime in the Making (1993) confirm the Gluecks’s findings about the correlates of delinquency and move on to a focus on stability and change in levels of delinquency during adulthood. Their analyses (and subsequent analyses based on even more extensive data) confirm the importance for delinquency involvement of such adult social bonds as income, marriage, attachment to spouse, job stability, and commitment. It should be mentioned that their analyses of full-life histories reveal a substantial decline in crime with age that their bond measures cannot explain.