Control Theory and Crime

Before evaluating the contribution of control theory, the understanding of crime and criminality needs to be explained. “What is crime?” “Who commits crime?” These are questions that we will address. Crime or unaccepted social behaviour stems back many years but it is the political element of introducing defined laws that has had a significant effect on the population. Criminality is the etiology of those that defy the laws and do not conform to social norms.

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and Cesare Beccaria (1738-1794) were earlier influences from the eighteenth century and their thinking about crime gave birth to what is now known as the ‘Classical School’.

The classical thought did not put any emphasis on the individual and took everybody as being equal in his or her decision to act criminally. Other theories developed from this period and looked more into the individual and social causes. This was known as the positivist approach. Biological and psychological theories of criminality tended to take this approach.

Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) developed one of the early sociological theories.

We will look at this early approach to crime and how it has progressed into modern criminology. These disciplines are in the main trying to find the answer to the question, “Why do people commit crime?”

Control theory asks the question, “Why do people not commit crime?” This is a parallel contrast to most other theories whereby the interest is on the causation of the offender. Control theory assumes that everyone is subject to temptations to engage in rewarding criminal behaviour, what needs to be understood is what stops most people, most of the time, from succumbing to such temptations.

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Some of the main voices of this field are Travis Hirschi, Michael Gottfredson, Walter Reckless, and Ivan Nye. We will look at their contributions in detail especially that of Gottfredson and Hirschi.

Finally we will discuss the worth of control theory and evaluate what implications it has had on modern society along with whether it is regarded as being axiomatic.

Crime and Criminality

Prior to the seventeenth century the law was greatly influenced by that of monarchical and religious authorities. Crimes committed against the establishment and /or the church were dealt with by brutal and bloody punishments.

The origins of the concept of crime are found in the classical tradition. A conception of crime presupposes a conception of human nature. (Gottfredson and Hirschi 1990) These were represented by Hobbes, Bentham and Beccaria.

“Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure” (Bentham 1970)

Thomas Hobbes (1588- 1679) wrote the book Leviathan and described his laws of nature. He believed in the absence of social condition, every action we perform, no matter how charitable or benevolent, is done for reasons, which are ultimately self-serving. Hobbes believed that any account of human action, including morality, must be consistent with the fact that we are all self-serving. Hobbes speculates how selfish people would behave in a state of nature, prior to the formation of any government. He begins noting that humans are essentially equal, both mentally and physically, insofar as even the weakest person has the strength to kill the strongest.

Classical criminology grew out of a reaction against the barbaric system of law, justice and punishment that was in existence before 1789. It sought an emphasis on free will and human rationality. The Classical School was not interested in studying criminals, but rather law-making and legal processing. Crime, they believed, was activity engaged in out of total free will and that individuals weighed the consequences of their actions. Punishment is made in order to deter people from committing crime and it should be greater than the pleasure of criminal gains. Classical theory emphasized a legal definition of crime rather than what defined criminal behaviour.

Two famous writers during this classical period were Cesare Beccaria (1738-1794) and Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), both led the movement to human rights and free will. Beccaria thought that crime could be traced to bad laws, not to bad people. A new modern criminal justice system would be needed to guarantee equal treatment of all people before the law. His famous book, On Crimes and Punishment presented a new design for the criminal justice system that served all people. His book dubbed him the “father of modern criminology.” It was the first attempt at presenting a systematic, consistent and logical penal system. Beccaria suggested that fixed punishments for all offences should be written into law and that the law must apply equally to all citizens and all who are guilty should suffer the same prescribed penalty. Prison sentences were held to be preferable, with prison work being both beneficial to both supply compensation to victims of crime and to deter potential offenders.

Bentham’s concern was upon utilitarianism, which assumed the greatest happiness for the greatest number. He believed that individuals weigh the probabilities of present and future pleasures against those of present and future pain. Thus people acted as human calculators, he believed, and that they put all factors into a sort of mathematical equation to decide whether or not to commit an illegal act. He believed then that punishment should be just a bit in excess of the pleasures derived from an act and not any higher than that. The law exists to create happiness for all, thus since punishment creates unhappiness it can be justified if it prevents greater evil than it produces.

Bentham described four general sources of pleasure and pain, or sanction systems: physical, political, moral and religious. Bentham used these four sanction elements to write a foundation for reforms of the criminal law and public crime control policy. Bentham eventually focused on the political sanctions and his work as well as that of the classical school came down to us as a political science rather than a behavioural science.

The nineteenth century saw the development of the biological and medical sciences and the scientists clashed with the classical school of thought. The scientists argued that their fields of study and expertise could account for individual differences with regards to why crime was committed. They did not believe that everyone was the same and should be dealt with on a fixed punishment system. This lead to a more positivistic approach to the explanation of the causation of the offender rather than just concentrating on crime and the criminal justice system itself. In criminology the term positivism is often applied to approaches that tend to differentiate people or social groups from one another according to objective categories, which somehow determine their behaviour.

Positivists, unlike the classical reformers, sought to explain the world around them. They saw behaviour as determined by biological, psychological, and social traits. They focused on a deterministic view of the world, on criminal behaviour instead of legal issues, and the prevention of crime through the reformation of offenders. The use of scientific techniques was important to the positivists. Data was collected in order to explain different types of individuals and social phenomena. Naturalists and anthropologists formed the theory of evolution, which was a very critical component to the study of human criminal behaviour by the positivists.

The focus on positivism then is on systematic observations and the accumulation of evidence and objective fact within a deductive framework, thus moving from a general statement to a more specific one.

The origins of scientific criminology are usually traced beck to the workings of Cesare Lombroso (1835-1909). Lombroso replaced the notion of free will and rationality with the notion of determinism. He developed the positivist school of criminology, which sought explanations for criminal behaviour through scientific research and experimentation. Lombroso believed in the “criminal born” man and woman.

He believed they had physical features of ape like creatures that were not fully developed as humans were. Lombroso believed that criminality is a trait produced in humans as a consequence of a particular form of genetic inheritance. Lombroso`s work aimed to identify a difference between criminals and non criminals. It soon became clear that not all offenders would fit the initial theory. They were not homogeneous and differences occurred between them and the different crimes they committed. This led Lombroso to sub divide the criminal population into types of offender. These typologies varied and may be on frequency, seriousness, object and characteristics of the offender, thus leading onto other theories of a positivist persuasion.

All too frequently the idea that acts have causes is translated via the research literature into the idea that specific acts have specific causes. For biological positivism, this leads to the search for a genetic component to account for variation in specific acts. (Gottfreddson 1990)

This problem is not unique to the biological approach and both psychological and sociological sciences debate over the specific differences of the individual criminal acts. The psychological approach is apparently a study of behaviour and the individualistic causes of why a person commits crime. One such theory is that of social learning, that behaviour is learnt through the social group around the individual. Albert Bandura provided empirical studies on observational learning. Hans Eysenk is prominent in his research on conditioning and his personality trait theory. He believed that we are either capable of being conditioned and learning the behaviour acceptable in the social environment or that we have internal problems and are unable to reform. Eysenks suggests that those people who are not able to be conditioned have a problem with self control.

The sociological approach looks at the environment surrounding the individual and what affects this has in relation to causation of crime. Peer groups and the family have a major role to play in this science. Several theories look to identify the social structure of the individual. Such theories look to establish pressures that are asserted on the individual that cause them to turn to crime in order to solve their problems. (Strain Theory and Robert Merton’s Anomie Theory). Such pressures are placed on the individual by the class of society they live in, and goals that are set within the society which are unobtainable, unless through deviant means. (Albert Cohen’s Subculture Theory).

One of the earliest applications of Control theory came from Ivan Nye in 1958. Nye attributed delinquency to the failure of personal and social controls. Nye’s conception of social control involved four clusters of attitudes, behaviour patterns, and/or social contexts. First, there was direct control imposed from without by means of restriction and punishment. Second, there was internalised control exercised from within through one’s conscience. Third, there was indirect control related to affectional identification with parents and other non-criminal persons. Fourth, was the availability of alternative means to goals and values. Nye emphasized that the most important source of controls were indirect, resulting from family relationships.

As for direct control, this would include the monitoring behaviours of parents, teachers, and police officers (among other adults). That is, some adults tend to watch youth and when they become delinquent, punishment can be forthcoming. Internalised control, the second area, basically refers to one’s conscience or belief in the prevailing morals of a society. For example, people who believe that shoplifting is wrong would probably feel guilty about doing it. They know that there is a social norm against that behaviour and they have internalised that norm. To violate one’s conscience results in unpleasant feelings of guilt, shame, and remorse.

The third area is control derived through affectional identification with one’s parents (primarily). Since essentially all parents disapprove of delinquent behaviours, children run the risk of upsetting them by being deviant. Yet children vary in the extent to which they are attached to their parents and respect them. Children who are strongly attached to their parents tend to care about what they think and therefore avoid behaviours that would upset or offend them. On the other hand, children who are relatively unattached would be more likely to engage in delinquent acts because they tend not to care about what their parents think. The final area is the availability of alternative means to goals and values. Juveniles tend to share similar goals and values, but they vary in the extent to which they have the opportunity to achieve these goals.

In 1961 sociologist Walter C. Reckless proposed Containment Theory, which explains delinquency as the interplay between two forms of control known as inner (internal) and outer (external) containments. Containment theory assumes that for every individual a containing external structure as well as a protective internal structure exist. Both buffer, protect, and insulate an individual against delinquency. Reckless wanted his theory to explain not only delinquency, but also conformity.

Containment theory shows that society produces a series of pulls and pushes toward the phenomenon of delinquency. It suggests that these inner and outer containments help to buffer against one’s potential deviation from legal and social norms and work to insulate a youth from the pressures, pulls, and pushes of deviant influences.

Of the two, Reckless suggested that inner containments are more important. It is these inner containments, he argued, that form one’s support system. The stronger one’s inner containments, the least likely one would commit crime; the weaker one’s inner containments, the more prone to crime one would become.

Inner containments, simply put, are “self” components. They are the inner strength of one’s personality. These include a good self-concept, strong ego, well developed conscience, high sense of responsibility, and high frustration tolerance. Outer containments refer to one’s social environment. These are normative constraints in which society and groups use to control its members. Outer containments include belonging (identification with the group), effective supervision, cohesion among group members (togetherness), opportunities for achievement, reasonable limits and responsibilities, alternative ways and means of satisfaction, reinforcement of goals, norms values, and discipline.

Internal pushes are personal factors, which include restlessness, discontent, rebellion, anxiety, and hostility. External pulls include deviant peers, membership in a deviant/criminal gang, and pornography. Finally, external pressures refer to the adverse living conditions which give rise to crime. These include relative deprivation, poverty, unemployment, insecurity, and inequality.

The most influential version of control theory is that of Travis Hirschi presented in a book titled “Causes of Delinquency.” Hirschi theorized that conformity is the result of a bond or tie to four elements in conventional society. As the bond weakens, the probability of deviance increases. So the strength of the bond explains the probability of an individual becoming involved in delinquency. When the bond is stronger, delinquency would be less likely and visa versa.

The first element of the bond is attachment to significant others. The extent to which a person is attached to others can be measured independently of his deviant behaviour. People are thought to internalise norms and values because they respect close friends and family members. If a person does not care about the wishes of other people, he will be free to deviate. So the extent to which a person has important relations with others will affect his or her level of deviance. Hirschi views parents, schools, and peers as important social institutions from which a person develops these attachments.

The second element of the bond is commitment and it involves time, energy, and effort placed on conventional lines of action. This is the rational component in conformity. In other words, partaking in social activities ties an individual to the moral and ethical code of society. Hirsch’s control theory holds that people who build an investment in life, property, and reputation are less likely to engage in criminal acts, which will jeopardize their social position. A lack of commitment to such conventional values will free an individual to partake in delinquent or criminal acts.

The third element is involvement. This addresses a preoccupation in activities that stress the conventional interests of society. Hirschi argues that an individual who is heavy involved in conventional activities does not have enough time to engage in delinquent or criminal acts. He believes that involvement in school, family, and recreation insulates a juvenile from potential delinquent behaviour that may be a result of idleness.

The fourth and final element is belief and it deals with the individual’s agreement with a society’s value system. This entails respect for laws, and the people and institutions that enforce such laws. Control theory assumes that there is a common (shared) value system in any society. However, there is variation in the extent to which people believe they should obey the rules of a society. The less a person believes he or she should obey the rules, the more likely he or she is to violate them. If beliefs are weakened, or absent, one is more likely to engage in antisocial acts.

Gottfredson and Hirschi wrote a General Theory of Crime in 1990. In this book they suggest a theory that self control is the general concept around which all of the known facts about crime can be organised. A General Theory of Crime purports that other theories pay insufficient attention to the facts about the nature of crime, which are that crimes are committed in pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain. As with Hirschi`s former theory of criminality, this one is a classical theory aswell.

“Classical theories on the whole, then, are today called control theories, theories emphasizing the prevention of crime through consequences painful to the individual”. (Gottfredson and Hirschi 1990)

They define crime as “acts of force or fraud undertaken in pursuit of self interest”. Low self control is supposed to explain an individuals propensity to commit or refrain from committing crimes, just as high self control explains an individuals likelihood of conforming to social norms and laws. The main characteristics of low self control relevant to the commission of criminal acts are crimes that provide simple and immediate gratification, acts which offer excitement and risk, acts that require little skill or planning and acts that result in pain and discomfort for the victim.

The theory allows for diversity in criminal acts and suggests that there are no exceptional criminals. According to the theory, crime involves the pursuit of immediate pleasure and people lacking in self control will also tend to pursue pleasures that are not criminal, they will tend to smoke, use drugs, gamble and engage in illicit sex. (Gottfredson and Hirschi 1990). The theory describes certain traits of people who lack self control. These are impulsivity, insensitivity, low intelligence, physical aggression and being self-centred. People with low self control also enjoy risk taking, are short sighted and nonverbal, and they will tend to therefore engage in criminal and analogous acts. These traits are established early and persist through life.

The major cause of low self control is that of ineffective child rearing and lack of appropriate punishment.

“low self control is not produced by training, tutelage, or socialisation. As a matter of fact, all of the characteristics associated with low self control tend to show themselves in the absence of nurturance, discipline, or training. (Gottfredson and Hirschi 1990)

The family environment plays an important role in ensuring the child adheres to social norms and non deviant acts. According to Gottfredson and Hirschi the minimum conditions for adequate child rearing are for someone to monitor the child’s behaviour, recognise deviant behaviour when it occurs and to punish such behaviour. If any or all of these conditions are not carried out then the child can develop a low self control. The theory purports that parenting is the most important factor which will determine ones level of self control. Children whose parents care about them and supervise and punish their misconduct will develop the self control needed, through socialisation, to resist the easy temptations offered by crime. This in turn will help them in future school, work and relationships.

The theory argues that a lack of self control is neither a sufficient nor a necessary condition for crime to occur, because other properties of the individual, or the situation may counteract one’s likelihood of committing deviant acts. Self control theory applies itself to age, gender and race variations in crime, peer groups, schools, and the family, cross-cultural comparisons, white collar crime and organised crime. There are differences among racial and ethnic groups, as there are between the sexes, in levels of direct supervision by the family. Thus, there is a crime component to racial differences in crime rates, but, as with gender, differences in self control probably outweigh differences in supervision in accounting for racial or ethnic variations. (Gottfredson and Hirschi 1990).


We began by discussing how crime and criminality became more political during the seventeenth century onwards and the influence of Hobbe`s. The works of Bentham and Beccaria towards establishing a better criminal justice system in the eighteenth century gave birth to the classical school of thinking. This then developed into other sciences looking into criminality and the concerns that society was not equal and that behaviour was affected by individual and environmental factors. This began the positive school of thinking. This was debated through the years in the professions of biology, psychology and sociology. Each science had its own specialists who in turn had their own interpretation of the etiology of criminality. The main emphasis of most of the theories was that behaviour was determined by traits associated by each discipline.

We then concentrated on the social control theory and the contributions of Nye, Reckless, Hirschi and Gottfredson. This theory purports to ask the question, why do people not commit crime? They all suggest that an internal factor conscience/self control is the main causation for people to commit/not commit deviant acts. They all suggest that this is concerned with paternal relationships at an early age. Moving on through Nye, Reckless, Hirschi and Gottfredson the theory seems to become more evolved, although still tautological. The most recent theory being, that of Hirschi and Gottfredson and their General Theory of Crime, which relates to self control.


A large number of empirical studies generally support the social control theories, especially that of Hirschi and Gottfredson. The theory allows for diversity in crimes and suggests that most crimes are associated with opportunity and immediate gratification. The theory believes that there are no specialist criminals and that offenders will commit crimes of the same nature only because it involves little planning and the availability of targets.

The theory is heavily paternistic and puts great emphasis on the relationship of the family. Its concerns are with the development of the child and that a traditional family environment with two parents and correct discipline would enable the child to develop a high self control and thus not commit deviant acts. The theory also encompasses the role of other guardians throughout the life of the child, these including teachers, police and the community itself. The theory has guided modern public policy reformations and it supports policies on parenting programmes and recreational programs for young children and teenagers.

Critics of the theory believe that it does not adequately explain violent and ethnic crimes, and that it is tautological in explaining self control and criminality.

Control theory seems to be regarded as an explanation for non serious offences and especially for those carried out by the age group, between the mid teens to early twenties, the delinquent years. Nye, Reckless and Hirschi concentrated on delinquent crime causation for their theories. Gottfredson and Hirschi developed these earlier theories and assessed other social and psychological theories to conclude with their general theory of crime, which evolves around self control. The theory is tautological in its explanation of criminality and self control and suggests that self control is criminality and vice versa. Self control is defined by certain traits, which many other theories apply to the causation of criminality, low intelligence, impulsivity and defective child rearing.

The theory does not adequately explain the relevance of age, gender and race variations in crime. It tries to suggest that many theories use these variants to specifically explain the propensity to commit crime. It purports that there will always be variants in the age, gender and race debates and that self control is a constant factor throughout all of them. Other theories tend to offer a more suitable explanation to the maturation reform. David Matza wrote his drift theory and proposed that juvenile males drift out of deviant activity by the time they are in their early twenties.

Gordon Tasler wrote about a situational theory that suggested that many young people strayed away from deviancy because of family commitments and employment opportunities of their own. Much data relates to there being an age period which results in high crime rates being committed and this is in the mid teens to early twenties and that this peak then decreases from that time. Statistics would suggest that age has a significant contribution to the cause of criminality. Many people who offend at this age still offend throughout their lives and others start up again several years later in life. One simple explanation for this age factor might be down to the more stringent punishments that are delivered to persons who are over eighteen years and that this alone brings halt to many offenders.

On the gender issue, it is generally regarded that males commit more crime than females, especially that involving violence. If a female does commit crime it could be seen as being doubly deviant as her behaviour is also against that of social norms. Ann Lloyd. It would therefore suggest that a female would need to have lower self control than a male. Control theories purport that females tend to be more carefully watched over in their childhood years and that this allows there self control to be developed and thus not want to indulge in deviant acts.

The race debate seems to be less able to be defined by control theory and suggests only that the self control element is the only invariant. Other sociological theories try to address the race debate with more explanation. (Anomie and Strain Theory).

Overall the control theories offer a good assessment of the majority crimes and those who commit them, young males. In asking, why do we not commit crime, the theory purports that we are all capable of criminality, but that most of us have internalised controls to prevent non conformity. The theory does not offer adequate explanation for individual propensities and for violent crimes. The theory does propose an explanation for the causation of criminality, self control, this being at an early age and due to ineffective parenting. This is similar to other theorists (David Farrington) and somewhere that public policies should direct their attentions. If a young person can be guaranteed a stable and caring environment then there may be a diminution of criminals and a proliferation of socially accepted adults.

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Control Theory and Crime
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