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Containment Theory

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Containment Theory asks the question, “In a deviant society, why and how do people avoid deviance?” One of the most popular criminological theories in the 1950’s and 1960’s was Walter Reckless’ Containment Theory. It is a theory that says all humans are subject to criminal behavior, but many of us can resist this deviant behavior with the 2 buffers of inner and outer containment, and also that the probability of deviant behavior increases when the internal and external constraints weaken (Social Control Theories.) He suggested that people can be “insulated from crime if properly socialized by their parents and peers, and control himself” (Containment Theory.) This is to say that the person will prevent himself or herself from committing criminal or unjudicial behavior by containing their impulses. If the individual fails at containing this impulse, then the second buffer, of families or peers, will attempt to dissuade them by counseling and talking to them. Reckless believed that in society there is are external or outer factors, and internal or inner social factors. .. The outer society factor holds society and individuals in line and the inner factor is there to protect against deviation. The external factor is provided by groups in society, the state, tribes and villages, family and other nuclear groups of that manner. It is in place to provide scope for the individual and show how large the community is in comparison to their small self. There has to be certain responsibilities and guidelines for the individual, and these are provided by the external containment. It depends very heavily on the certain social roles that apply to people all over (Dodder.) There needs to be a sense of belongingness and being able to identify with other members. Also, having a chance to achieve a certain status is necessary. There needs to be joint cohesion in the group and togetherness, as well as consistent moral values and role models to show these behaviors. There must also be “reasonable limits and responsibilities” (Containment Theory.) Inner containment is thought to be the more powerful force. For the inner factors, it is important that one has a favorable image of oneself in comparison to others members of the groups and persons. It is necessary that the person is able to follow the norms and rules of society to better understand the big picture. For the inner factors to function correctly one must have very strong morals and ethics, must be very goal oriented and focused, and have a well developed ego and super ego. These qualities help one to hold up under pressures from the outside world and handle frustration and adversity. Being able to manage your frustration shows high control and focus. These two factors, the inner and outer, serve as buffers against crime. They are non causal, and merely try to show what can help to prevent crime.

Reckless said that we are all put through pushes and pulls that push or pull an individual into deviant behavior. “We can see such pushes when children are threatened by other children to join a gang. An example of a pull is when a child sees that, in order to get money to buy things, he or she can join a gang and reach their objective. They are pulled into the gang by its attraction as a way of earning status and making money” (Containment Theory.) Some examples of pushes are unhappiness with living conditions and family issues or conflicts, overt aggressiveness, anger, and hostility, socioeconomic problems, frustration, boredom and racism. Some pulls can be delinquent peers, family members, subcultures, and groups ("Social Control Theory".) Containment Theory comes from Social Control Theory, which maintains that all humans have the capacity and potential to violate the law and that in society they are presented with many opportunities for deviant behavior. Reckless did a series of studies with youths conducted in school settings and found that nondelinquent youths are better able to maintain a positive self concept when faced with societal and environmental pressures towards deviant behavior. Another study, conducted by Dr. Richard A. Dodder, of Oklahoma State University, and Janet R. Long, of Oklahoma City University. In this study, they operationalized all seven variables of Containment Theory, in order to determine which combination of them related beset to self-reported delinquency and to official involvement with the law (Dodder.) It was done by administering questionnaires in 4 high schools and 3 state correctional facilities in the state of Oklahoma. The seven compononets that were being used are as follows: for outer containment, you must have internalization of rules and limitations, meaningful role models, and group reinforcement; and for internal containment there must be a favorable self concept, goal orientation, frustration tolerance and retention of norms(Dodder.) The study was done with male youths and found when young males have a favorable self concept it tends to insulate them from crime, while at the other end of the spectrum a poor self concept provides little insulation to delinquent subcultures, peers, and deviant behavior. There have not been very many studies conducted to test the theory of Containment, and this is its major problem.

There are four ways to assess a theory, and Containment Theory can be tested both on the internal factors and the external factors. According to Reckless, the theory is not to be applied at the extremes of deviant behavior and is best suited to look at cases where legal and social norms have been neutralized (Hamlin.) The first aspect that one must use to assess a theory is internal consistency. There are clear inner and outer containment factors that seek to explain how to control delinquency. This theory is very sound logistically because it has very well defined factors and structures. However this theory, to me, is a very obvious answer to society. Of course it makes sense: if young people are left with no rules, no positive role models, low socioeconomic benefits, and no positive self image, then they are going to get into trouble because they’ve never been taught anything else. On the other hand, if a child is raised in an environment where they are taught love and respect, are well taken care of and have positive role models and well enforced rules and limitations, then they have a much better chance of growing up with a clean slate and staying out of trouble. Another is by testing the scope. This theory is relatively wide in scope because it tries to examine why people do deviant things and the ways in which this behavior can be prevented. The scope consists of all theories of crime, because it is competing with these to be the operating crime deterrence model. A third judge of validity is parsimony, which says that one should use the least complex explanation for observations. Containment Theory is very parsimonious, because it is succinct in its explanations. There are very clear explanations of inner and outer containment, as well as the pushes pulls one experiences in society. However, I don’t necessarily think that it is a clear in its explanations as it could be. The theory suggests that by having a positive self image one will be able to steer clear of deviant behavior. But does it take into account that some people may just have urges to commit criminal behavior? Or that some criminals have very positive self images, and committing crimes boosts that ego? Or that youths that were raised without the benefits of a strong outer containment like role models and rules, may still be able to escape crime? Finally, the theory must be testable. This is where Containment Theory gets harder to defend. There hasn’t been very much testing done to decipher the results of the theory. The studies that have been done show there is correlation between a strong inner containment and the ability to abstain from crime, but there is simply not enough empirical evidence to be a true believe. One critical assessment of containment theory is the principles of the theory Psychology of Mind. “POM views Reckless's control mechanisms (e.g., pushes, pulls, inner, and outer containments, self-concept) as having no constant meaning outside of personal interpretation. They are not, as containment theory suggests, the expressions of fixed inner psychological impulses and drives, just negative feeling habits kept alive moment-to-moment by believed conditioned thought” (Kelley.) Also, there is a severe lack of empirical evidence concerning the relative importance of the seven variables making up inner and outer containment in their relationships to illegal behavior(Dodder.) Another critique is that the data gathered was all on young males and a lot of evidence suggests that there are major socialization differences between males and females and thus, they may act completely different in regards and methods to delinquency.

There are a few intervention programs that have merit for Containment Theory. One that has been met with great success is the program Head Start, which began in the 1960’s by President Lyndon B. Johnson. In its beginnings, Head Start was a summer program for children about to enter formal schooling, to help give them a boost. It was a program that “embraced the whole child” (Office of Head Start.) including education, health, parental involvement, and social services. The children were provided with education and toys designed to enrich their environment that middle class children receive without even thinking about it, but lower class children miss out on. In addition to education, they were given free healthcare, including immunizations, dental work, nutritional services, and mental health evaluations. Head Start also attempted to get the parents of the children more involved in their educations. They educated the parents on many aspects of their childrens lives. Lastly, Head Start provided social services to the families like community outreach and the recruitment of more children for the program, as well as emergency crisis intervention and assistance. The program continues today and has an annual budget of $6.5 billion. It educates parents on many things and provides important socialization for children. The results for children that participate in Head Start are very encouraging and show beneficial academic results in comparison to their non Head Start peers. This success can be linked to lack of criminal behavior in children who have attended the program (Office of Head Start.) Another intervention program is the diversion programs that are aimed at removing juvenile and adult offenders from the normal channels of the justice system. Diversion programs place these offenders in programs designed to rehabilitate them and avoid the stigma that comes from jail time (Siegal 241.) Restitution allows offenders to pay back the victims of the crime they committed or do some type of community service or useful community activity instead of jail time.

To conclude, Containment Theory is a branch of social control theory founded by Walter Reckless. It contends that there are two components to prevent criminal behavior in society. One is the outer containment, which is about community socialization and the application of social norms and rules. The inner contaiment is the controlling of the self, by a favorable self concept frustration tolerance and the ability to follow norms. This theory was born in the 1950’s and was very popular then, but research and acceptance of the theory dropped of and it is now not really applied in modern social science. There has not been much empirical research done, and what has been done has proven succesful in testing the theories points. As the researchers Dodder and Long stated, “the substantial relationships found in this research also indicate that Containment Theory, whether it is ideologically pleasing or not, may correspond, even to a considerable extent, to the world of reality. Few exsisting theories have been researched and found to relate as strongly to delinquency as did Containment theory in this research. In any case, Containment theory has been prematurely laid to rest” (Dodder.) I believe this quote expresses most researchers feelings about the theory-it has very strong correlations but hasn’t been studied enough to truly understand the results.


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Hamlin, John. "Criminological Theory." Sociology 2311 . 1 November 2005. University Of Minnesota. 26 Jul 2007 <>.

Kelley, Thomas M. "A critique of social bonding and control theory of delinquency using the principles of Psychology of Mind." Adolescence Volume 31, Issue 122.Summer 1996. 1. 27 July 2007 <>.

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