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General Theory of Crime

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In the relatively short period of time since its publication, A General Theory of Crime (1990) has seemed to attract an impressive amount of attention from criminologists. Travis Hirschi, in collaboration with Michael Gottfredson, moved away from his classic social bonding formulation of control theory and developed A General Theory of Crime (1990). In Hirschi’s original social bonding theory (1969), he emphasized the importance of “indirect control”—which allows parents to have a “psychological presence” when youths are not under their surveillance, additionally, this theory contained four elements of control: attachment, commitment, involvement, and beliefs. However, Gottfredson and Hirschi argue “direct control” is the key to the most effective parenting. For this reason, they proposed a theory of crime based solely on one type of control alone—self-control. They offer self-control theory as a generalized theory that explains all individual differences in the “propensity” to refrain from or to commit crime, which they point out includes all acts of crime and deviance at all ages, and circumstances (Akers and Sellers, 2004:122). Gottfredson and Hirschi begin with the observation that:

Individual differences in the tendency to commit criminal acts… remain reasonably stable with change in the social location of individuals and change in their knowledge of the operation of sanction systems. This is the problem of self-control, the differential tendency of people to avoid criminal acts whatever the circumstances in which they find themselves. Since this difference among people has attracted a wide variety of names, we begin by arguing the merits of the concept of self-control (Gottfredson and Hirschi, 1990: 87).

First, it should be noted that Gottfredson and Hirschi differentiate between “criminality,” which is the propensity to offend, and “crime,” which is an actual event in which a law is broken. They recognize that a propensity cannot be acted on unless the opportunity to do so exists. Consequently, they see crime as a by-product of people with low self-control, who have high criminogenic propensities, coming into contact with illegal opportunities. Still, given the most offenses are easy to commit and opportunities for crime are constantly available, over time people with low self-control inevitably will become deeply involved in criminal behavior. That is, self-control, not opportunities, will be the primary determinant of people’s involvement in crime across their life course (Agnew and Cullen, 1999:175).

It is seen that low self-control develops early in life and remains stable into and through adulthood. Gottfredson and Hirschi trace the root cause of poor self-control to inadequate childrearing practices. Parents or guardians who refuse or who are unable to monitor a child’s behavior, who do not recognize deviant behavior when it occurs, and who do not punish that behavior will produce children who lack self-control. As Dennis Giever explains, “children who are not attached to their parents, who are poorly supervised, and whose parents are criminal or deviant themselves are the most likely to develop poor self control” (1995). Consequently, a lack of self-control occurs naturally in a child when steps are not taken to stop its development.

Gottfredson and Hirschi suggest that high self-control effectively reduces the possibility of crime –namely, those possessing it will be substantially less likely at all periods of life to engage in criminal acts (Gottfredson and Hirschi, 1990:89). In contrast, the lower a person’s self-control, the higher his or her involvement in criminal behavior and in acts analogous to crime. These individuals often have a tendency to respond to tangible stimuli in their immediate environment, specifically, having a “here and now” orientation. As Gottfredson and Hirschi most notably state, they derive satisfaction from “money without work, sex without courtship, revenge without court delays” (1990:89). People lacking self-control also tend to lack diligence, tenacity, or persistence in a course of action. To these individuals criminal acts tend to be exciting, risky, or thrilling and they maintain an adventurous point of view. In addition, these crimes provide few or meager long-term benefits, require little skill of planning, and often result in pain or discomfort for the victim. “In general, there is a fairly consistent support for Gottfredson and Hirschi’s theoretical predictions—a fact that ensures that their self-control theory will remain an important theoretical perspective in the time ahead” (Agnew and Cullen, 1999: 175).

Gottfredson and Hirschi stress that there is great versatility in the types of crime and analogous behavior committed by persons with low self-control. Self-control, according to the theory, accounts for all variations by sex, culture, age, and circumstances and “explains all crime, at all times, and, for that matter many forms of behavior that are not sanctioned by the state” (Gottfredson and Hirschi, 1990:117), and is “for all intents and purposes, the individual-level cause of crime” (Gottfredson and Hirschi, 1990:232, emphasis in original). This is a bold claim made by both Gottfredson and Hirschi in which they attempt to support by reviewing known official and unofficial distribution and correlates of crime and delinquency, interpreting them as consistent with the concept of self-control.

Despite much criticism, the body of empirical tests of the general theory of crime has been fairly consistent in revealing a link between self-control and crime (Pratt & Cullen, 2000). Grasmick et al. (1993) provides influential research to the area of control theory using a community sample of 395 adults from Oklahoma City to probe six different dimensions of self-control derived from Gottfredson and Hirschi’s theory. The six different dimensions included were: (1) impulsivity; (2) a preference for simple tasks; (3) risk-seeking; (4) physicality; (5) self-centeredness; and (6) a bad temper. Of 24 items that they proposed to tap the self-control concept, the principle components analysis suggested that 23 clung together to form a reliable and unidimensional self-control scale (Crombach's Alpha= .81). Similarly, Alexander Vazsonyi and his associates found that the self-control scale developed by Grasmick et al. (1993) had a similar predictive power when they analyzed self-control and deviant behavior with samples drawn from a number of different countries (Hungary, Switzerland, the Netherlands, the United States, and Japan). They found that low self-control is significantly related to antisocial behavior and that the association can be seen regardless of cultures or national settings (Vazsonyi et al., 2001). Additionally, Pratt and Cullen (2000) conducted a meta-analysis of 21 cross-sectional and longitudinal studies directly testing the relationship between low self-control and crime, some of which used behavioral and others of which used attitudinal measures of self-control. On average, the self-control variables explained 19 percent of the variance in delinquent and criminal behavior, which were consistent in the expected direction. “Low self-control must be considered an important predictor of criminal behavior,” but studies do not support the argument that self-control is the sole cause of crime or that the “perspective can claim the exalted status of being the general theory of crime” (Pratt and Cullen, 2000:953).

However, some critics argue that the theory is tautological or involves a certain degree of circular reasoning. For example, one begins with the definition of low self-control as the failure to refrain from crime and then proposes low self-control as a cause of law violation, thus one’s proposition is tautological (Akers and Sellers, 2004:6). Given this definition of low self-control, the very thing it is hypothesized to explain defines it; hence, the proposition can never be proven false. A general theory of crime hypothesizes that low self-control is the cause of the propensity toward criminal behavior. Specifically, in regard to the theory’s testability, Gottfredson and Hirschi do not define self-control separately from this propensity. Incidentally, “they use ‘low self-control’ or ‘high self-control’ simply as labels for this differential propensity to commit or refrain from crime. They do not identify operational measures of low self-control as separate from the very tendency to commit crime that low self-control is supposed to explain. As a result, the propensity toward crime and low self-control appear to be one and the same” (Akers and Sellers, 2004:125).

Akers (1991) illustrates that to avoid this tautological problem, conceptual definitions or operational measures of self-control must be developed that are separate from measures of criminal behavior or propensity toward crime. However, additionally the theory of low self-control is seen as being logically consistent, parsimonious (conciseness and abstractness of a set of concepts and propositions), and having a wide scope. It has generated enormous interest and attention in the field of criminology and some contend that it may supersede social bonding as the principal control theory. Thus far, the tautology issue has not been resolved, but some research is propelling toward that direction by measuring self-control independently of measures of crime propensity. While some research reports continually contradict the theory, and the broad claims of being the explanation of criminal and deviant behavior cannot be sustained, on balance the empirical evidence supports the theory (Akers & Sellers, 2004:129).

Perrone, Sullivan, Pratt, and Margaryan (2004) conducted an empirical test of the general theory of crime in which they examined the relationship of parental efficacy, self-control, and delinquency. The data was obtained from a nationally representative sample of adolescents (the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health). This study aims to address two important questions, 1) whether parental efficacy is a significant predictor of youths’ levels of self-control, and 2) whether self-control mediates the relationship between parental efficacy and delinquency. In regard to the second question at hand, “the current analysis has important implications for the comparative validity of self-control theory versus social learning and developmental/life-course perspectives—both of which are capable of providing a more convincing explanation of the existence of direct and indirect (through self-control) effects of parental efficacy on delinquent behavior” (Perrone, Sullivan, Pratt, & Margaryan, 2004:301).

Conducted by researchers at the Carolina Population Center, the data for this research was drawn from the first wave of the Add Health study (the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health). By use of a stratified random sample of all high schools in the United States, initially, researchers chose 80 high schools from clusters based on several characteristics: region, urbanization, school size and type (public or private), race, and grade span. More than 70% of the originally sampled high schools agreed to participate in the study in which adolescents from grades 7 to 12 were randomly selected from the school provided rosters. In addition, data from the wave I in-home sample was used by means of qualitative study. The in-home component of this study was used because it includes data for adolescents and their parents assessing a variety of different measures. A total random sample of 15,243 adolescents was selected for the in-home portion of the Add Health study (Resnick et al., 1997).

When conducting the in-home interview portion of the study, preference was given to resident mothers or other female caretakers, as previous studies found that mothers were more knowledgeable about their children’s health and behavior than fathers (Bearman et al., 1997). The following measures were assessed for both adolescents and parents:

Delinquency Scale. Which consists of 6-items created to measure delinquent behavior on the part of adolescents (α = .66,M= 2.76, SD = 1.776). “The Delinquency Scale included questions on lifetime use of cigarettes and alcohol, and the number of times the adolescent smoked marijuana. Furthermore, the adolescents were asked the number of times they ‘lied to their parents,’ ‘engaged in a serious physical fight,’ and ‘behaved disorderly in a public place’ within the past year. A score of 1 was given if the individual responded yes to this behavior and a score of 0 was given if he/she did not. The scale is composed of the average response across the six items” (Perrone, Sullivan, Pratt, & Margaryan, 2004:302).

Self-control. “Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990) described six dimensions of self-control: impulsivity, a preference for simple tasks, the favoring of physical over mental activities, self-centeredness, and a temper component. However, their unidimensional factor contains five items that tap into five of Gottfredson and Hirschi’s six self-control dimensions. Given the potentially tautological nature of behavioral measures of self-control, we combined attitudinal and behavioral measures. For instance, adolescents were asked to respond to the following statements: Have they ‘had problems keeping their mind on what they were doing,’ have they ‘had trouble getting their homework done,’ and have they had difficulty ‘paying attention in school.’ These questions tap into the simple tasks, physical activities, and impulsivity components of self-control. Respondents were also asked whether they had trouble getting along with their teachers, which captures self-control’s temper dimension. Another question tapped the self-centeredness of the respondents by asking them to respond to the following statement: ‘you feel you are doing everything just about right.’ Because a response of ‘yes’ to these items indicated a low level of self-control, higher values on our self-control measure indicate lower levels of self-control (Perrone, Sullivan, Pratt, & Margaryan, 2004:302).

Parental efficacy. “Our unidimensional parental efficacy factor is made up of four items that address a mother’s attachment to her child (e.g., ‘Do you get along with your child?’) As well as the mother’s effectiveness in recognizing problematic behavior and responding to this behavior (e.g., ‘Does the mother discuss child’s wrongs with him or her?’). High scores on this scale indicate higher levels of parental efficacy” (Perrone, Sullivan, Pratt, & Margaryan, 2004:302).

In addition, control variables were also taken into account by researchers. They controlled for a host of additional demographic and social characteristics for each respondent to isolate the effects of parental efficacy on self-control and the effects of parental efficacy and self-control on delinquency.

As stated above, the current study had two purposes: to examine (1) whether parental efficacy is a significant predictor of youths’ levels of self-control and (2) whether self-control mediates the relationship between parental efficacy and delinquency. In regard to the first question, parental efficacy was found to be a significant predictor of youths’ levels of self-control. Furthermore, these findings are consistent with propositions set forth by Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990) regarding the development of self-control in children. Secondly, assessing whether self-control mediates the relationship between parental efficacy and delinquency, findings indicate that, at best, self-control only partially mediates this relationship. Additionally, this finding is in direct opposition with Gottfredson and Hirschi’s (1990) proposition that self-control should fully mediate the parental efficacy-delinquency relationship.

Accordingly, the central purpose of the current study was to re-examine the dynamics of parental efficacy, self-control, and delinquency using a large, nationally representative sample of youths with more temporally proximate measures of parenting. In doing so, the results of their analysis yielded four major conclusions. First, which was consistent with Gottfredson and Hirschi’s (1990) framework, parental efficacy is a major precondition for self-control in youngsters. Secondly, “although the parental efficacy-self-control link was quite robust, their measures of race and family structure (along with age and sex) were significantly related to self-control. These findings highlight two important issues relevant to criminological theory and research. First, this analysis indicates the importance of family context, not simply patterns of parental monitoring and supervision, to the explanation of delinquency” (see also Chase-Lansdale, Gordon, Brooks-Gunn, & Klebanov, 1997; Klebanov, Brooks-Gunn, Chase-Lansdale, & Gordon, 1997; Sampson, 1986).

Third, and related, their results indicate that the dynamics of race and self-control may be much more intricate than indicated by previous research. “Specifically, the over-sampled middle- and upper-middle-class Blacks in the sample exhibited relatively high levels of self-control. Finally, their fourth major conclusion was that the ability of self-control to mediate the relationship between parental efficacy and delinquency was, at best, limited” (Perrone, Sullivan, Pratt, & Margaryan, 2004:307). “Thus, when taken together it appears that parental efficacy affects delinquency in ways that are not easily explained by Gottfredson and Hirschi’s (1990) theory. These findings also have important implications for continued theoretical development and integration in criminology” (Perrone, Sullivan, Pratt, & Margaryan, 2004:307). Remarkable is the fact that Gottfredson and Hirschi pretend to have 'A General theory of crime' (1990); this vision implicates that all other criminology theories are inferior.


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