Social control theory assumes that people can see the advantages of crime and are capable of inventing and executing all sorts of criminal acts on the spot—without special motivation or prior training. It assumes that the impulse to commit crime is resisted because of the costs associated with such behavior. It assumes further that a primary cost of crime is the disapproval of the people about whom the potential offender cares.
VIII. A Critical Issue
The social control approach to understanding crime is one of the three major sociological perspectives in contemporary criminology. Control theorists believe that conformity to the rules of society is produced by socialization and maintained by ties to people and institutions— to family members, friends, schools, and jobs. Put briefly, crime and delinquency result when the individual’s bond to society is weak or broken. As social bonds increase in strength, the costs of crime to the individual increase as well.
The intellectual roots of social control theory reach back several centuries, but it was not until the middle of the 20th century that this theory began to generate broad interest among crime researchers. Since then, it has been among the most frequently tested in the scientific literature and has garnered substantial empirical support. Its research and policy implications have generated perhaps the most debate of any modern theory of crime. The influence of social control theory on actual crime control policy has been less impressive. Social control theories do not support expansion of the criminal justice system. They do not favor larger police forces or lengthy incarceration as crime control policies. They favor instead policies designed to establish stronger bonds between individuals and society.
The first task of the control theorist is to identify the important elements of the bond to society. The second task is to say what is meant by society—to locate the persons and institutions important in the control of delinquent and criminal behavior. The following list of elements of the bond— attachment, commitment, involvement, and belief—has proved useful in explaining the logic of the theory and in summarizing relevant research. It has also provided guidelines for evaluation of delinquency prevention programs.