Control theories are unique in the field of criminology in that they intend to answer a different question than do most other theories. While most criminological theories are intended to explain why criminals offend, control theories seek to identify the reasons why persons refrain from criminal activity. Thus the assumptions are that crime is not innate, and that criminal offenders are not dramatically different from non-offenders. All people are capable of offending, but some never do. For control theorists, the latter population is of most interest. Additionally, some control theories address why offenders stop engaging in criminal activity.
Psychoanalytic theory was an early form of control theory. Developed by Sigmund Freud, psychoanalytic theory proposes that human personalities are made up of three parts: the id, the ego, and the superego. The id comprises our impulses; it must be restrained by other parts of the personality to enable persons to fit into society. The ego offers a sort of check on the impulsive id, in that it brings to the personality realism and organization. The superego fulfills the critical and moral functions. Thus the ego and the superego work together to restrain the id. Freud asserted that the ego and the superego develop through socialization, so that early learning experiences with the family, peers, and school systems help override the id’s impulsivity. Freud’s ideas are so abstract that they are nearly impossible to test.
Another control theory was developed by Walter Reckless. Reckless called his work containment theory. He asserted that low self-esteem and low self-concept are associated with delinquency. In contrast, high self-esteem help constrain delinquency. Reckless theorized that individuals experience both inner and outer pressures to engage in delinquent acts. By extension,it is the development of both inner and outer pressures that can help an individual resist these forces. High self-esteem, which is developed through positive childhood socialization, is the key inner constraint. Primary groups help provide outer constraints. Some research has found that delinquents’ self-esteem is, indeed, considerably lower than that of nondelinquents.
One of the most well known control theories is also one of the most widely used in the field of criminology. Travis Hirschi developed social control theory in 1969. He asserted that the primary mechanism that constrains delinquency is social bonds. Social bonds are composed of four components: attachment, commitment. involvement, and belief. Individuals who do not have these components or who have very weak bonds are prone to delinquency. In contrast, strong social bonds act to thwart delinquency.
Attachment refers to a person’s emotional commitment and connection with individuals and groups. According to social control theory. youths who have attachments to individuals and groups will be socialized into norms that promote positive, prosocial behavior. Attachment also involves an individual’s sensitivity and ability to empathize with others. Hirschi considered attachment to be the most important social bond, as the individual internalizes these norms. Commitment is the investment in and orientation to reference groups. Because the individual is accepted by these groups, he or she achieves a sense of connection and will be unwilling to risk losing it for sake of committing a delinquent act. Involvement refers to the time an individual spends interacting with prosocial groups and in prosocial activity. Belief is the individual’s internalizing of positive social norms and his or her adherence to conformity.
Hirschi’s theory is one of the most thoroughly tested in criminology, with some studies finding support for it and others failing to do so. One difficulty arises in operationalizing the four bonds Hirschi described. Researchers have grappled with the best way to define and measure attachment, for instance. Additionally, it is not clear how much attachment, commitment, involvement, and belief a particular individual needs to constrain delinquent activity. Hirschi found that students’ attachment to school and school grades was linked to delinquency, although other important variables may exist that were not assessed in his study. In generally, evaluation studies have found control theories to be better at predicting property and drug offenses than violent crime. Critics often point out that specific delinquent groups have all four qualities, but these bonds are directed toward a delinquent lifestyle. For instance, gang members are emotionally committed to one another, are invested in one another, see one another as a reference group, spend a great deal of time interacting with one another, and internalize specific group-based social norms.
In 1990, Hirschi teamed with Michael Gottfredson to develop a different control theory called the general theory of crime (GTC). GTC asserts that it is the coupling of low self-concept with opportunity that leads to delinquency. According to this theory, when they are tempted in a given social environment, individuals lacking a strong self-concept will be unable to resist.
The idea that some of the most violent school and campus shooters lack self-concept and social bonds sounds logical, but does not necessarily hold up upon further investigation. Instead of low self-esteem, many of these individuals seem to have almost narcissistic personalities. Further, while some have unstable home lives and are not involved in school, others do not come from this type of background.
- Agnew, R. (1991). A longitudinal test of social control theory and delinquency. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 28(2), 126-156.
- Gottfredson, M., & Hirschi, T. (1990). A general theory of crime. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
- Hirschi, T. (2001). Causes ofdelinquency. Somerset, NJ: Transaction.
- Pitarro, M. (2007). School violence and social control theory: An evaluation of the Columbine massacre. International Journal ofCriminal Justice Sciences, 2(1), 1-12.