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Power-Control Theory

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Power-Control Theory

            Gender is the central issue at hand when it comes to feminist theories of crime. These theories seek to explain the gap and inadequacy of criminological theories in regard to targeting women and how the theories apply to explaining female criminal behavior. One significant theory integrated into feminist thought is John Hagan’s power-control theory. The creation of this theory stems from the women’s liberation movement. More importantly, the effect that women’s increased entry into the workforce had on the gender gap in crime rates (Akers & Sellers, 2009).  Power-control theory sets out to explain the gender differences in delinquency based on the power play going on in the family structure, as well as the parental controls exercised on boys versus girls.  Hagan’s theory can also be connected to Gottfredson and Hisrchi’s perspective of self-control. Both theories involve a preference for taking risks due to a lack of self-control. Second, this self-control is established by the nature of parenting in the family. While Hirschi and Gottfredson focused on parenting being either good or bad, Hagan focused on how the balance of power and control between parents affects the child’s preference for taking risks and delinquency (Ball, Cullen, & Lilly, 2011).

            Hagan says that the main issue in the power-control theory is the mother’s occupational authority versus the father’s occupational authority. This power balance is exemplified through two main types of family: patriarchal and egalitarian. In a patriarchal family the father’s job puts him in a “command” role. This means that he will give orders to others. In this type of family a mother does not work outside of the home, but if she does, she assumes an “obey” role where she takes orders from others (Akers & Sellers, 2009). In patriarchal families the parents try to socialize their children to reproduce gender relations. Thus daughters are taught to be feminine and prepare to be homemakers. Sons on the other hand are taught to be breadwinners and are allowed to experience the world (Ball et al., 2011). The other type of family Hagan mentions is the egalitarian household. This means that both the mother and the father have a job in which they assume either the “obey” or “command” positions. Or an egalitarian family might be a single parent household where the father is absent. In egalitarian families gender differences between sons and daughters are not as pronounced. Patriarchal and egalitarian families show the difference of controls placed on sons versus daughters, mainly in regard to maternal controls over children.  In patriarchal families mothers exert greater control over their daughters than they do their sons. Because sons are less controlled, they have more freedom to engage in risky behavior. In Hagan’s earlier version of the power-control theory, it is presumed that boys will be involved in more delinquency than girls for three reasons. First, boys have fewer controls placed on them. Second, boys may view the act of risk-taking as pleasurable. Third, boys perceive fewer negative consequences in response to their behavior. In egalitarian families mothers may exert either less control over daughters or more control over sons (Akers & Sellers, 2009).  According to Hagan, “as mothers gain power relative to husbands, daughters gain freedom relative to sons.” Through the egalitarian family structure, daughters are seen as more equal and can enter the workforce. Since less control is exerted on the daughter in the egalitarian family, they are given more room to engage in delinquent behavior, just as the sons are in patriarchal families. But, boys are still more likely to engage in risky behavior.

            Hagan states that the “fundamental premise of power-control theory is that mothers relationally and instrumentally control their daughters more than sons” (Hagan, Gillis, Simpson, 1988). Instrumental controls involve basic supervision over the child. Relational controls involve the emotional bonds that ward off deviant behavior by the child. Instrumental and relational controls are exerted more by mothers than fathers in both patriarchal and egalitarian families (Akers & Sellers, 2009).  Hagan says the relationship between gender and maternal relational control is stronger in patriarchal families and thus the relationship between mothers and daughters is intensified in these families. On the other hand, sons experience more relational control from their fathers (Hagan et al., 1988).

            Hagan later revised the power-control theory to account for the changes in modern industrial societies as more women entered the workplace and power dynamics between men and women became more equal. According to Baier, Boehnke, Hadjar, and Hagan (2007), the revised theory states the links between power structures in the parents’ workplace, parental controls, and the affinity for the child’s risky behavior stem from the preferences each parent has for gender roles and the parents hierarchic self-interest (HSI). HSI is the individual expression of societal dominance. HSI is predominant in modern industrial societies that encourage competitiveness.

            There is some criticism circulating about Hagan’s power-control theory. Some of this criticism is based on ideas that have not been assessed by theory. According to Ball et al., (2011) Hagan’s theory does not factor in other circumstances besides power balance in the household that might influence delinquency, such as power and class in society as a whole. An example of this would be single mother families in impoverished areas. Ball et al. also explain that the theory was only used to explain what they call “common” or minor delinquent behavior, not chronic criminal offenders. Finally, they say Hagan’s theory has not really been tested against other major theories, so it is difficult to conclude if Hagan’s findings are legitimate. According to Delisi, Hewitt, and Regili (2010), a major critique of power-control theory is that the gender differences within delinquent behavior have little to do with socialization or paternal controls. They say that the gender differences are simply due to the biological differences between males and females and their propensity for aggressive and antisocial behaviors.  

Hagan’s most significant study helped provide support for his original theory as well the revised theory. Hagan and his colleagues analyzed data from 319 families across West Berlin, East Berlin, and Toronto. These families consisted of a mother, father, and two opposite-sex siblings between the ages of thirteen to eighteen. The authority between parents in the workplace was measured by questioning parents about their profession and then asking outside sources to evaluate certain professions on their prestige. Gender differences in parenting were measured my evaluating each parent’s instrumental control on the son versus the daughter. Next, the risk-taking preferences for each gender were measured by asking the children two questions: “I like to take chances” and “The things I like to do best are dangerous.” These items were rated on a range from one to five (five being the high-risk preference). Then, delinquent behavior was evaluated on propensity for four items: physical aggression, verbal aggression, relational aggression, and threatening behavior. To include the revised power-control theory, parents were asked to assess their competitiveness and Machiavellism, which refers to how they govern or exert their authority. The results of this study support the assumptions of power-control theory, although they vary between the three cities analyzed. Evidence of a link between structural patriarchy and parental control was found in East Berlin. This is congruent with the early power-control theory. Evidence of gender-role attitudes were found in West Berlin and Toronto. These findings are congruent with the revised theory. In all three city samples, girls were found to be controlled more than boys. Also, in all three cities there was a stronger control of daughters tied to the gender differences in delinquent behavior. East Berlin was the only location in which structural patriarchy could be strongly connected to gendered parenting. No causal indication could be found in West Berlin or Toronto, but the researchers attest that his does not hinder the validity of the power-control theory (Baier et al., 2007). In conclusion, this study demonstrated that mothers lacking occupational power still control daughters more than sons. Mothers with high occupational power controlled sons more than daughters. For middle-class mothers, occupational power was somewhat unrelated to gendered occupational controls (Akers & Sellers, 2009).

Studies by other researchers did not have findings that would support Hagan’s theory. Blackwell, Sellers, and Schlaupitz, (2002), say studies that used measures similar to Hagan’s did not find significant differences in the gender gap between delinquency across family types. Other researchers discredit the theory because some power-control studies involved testing with inappropriate samples, such as using boys and girls that were not related, but Hagan’s more recent research that uses opposite-sex siblings does offer support for the theory (Akers & Sellers, 2009). Researchers have agreed that this research can predict the gender gap in delinquency across family types for interrelated gender differences.

Not much is known about what policy implications would work for power-control theory, but policies similar to those tied to Hirschi’s control theory could be used. Although the power-control theory is not related to whether parenting is good or bad, similar options can be used to control delinquency. Hagan has noted that the Big Brother/ Big Sister program is a very reputable program in intervening with risky behavior before it becomes a problem leading to delinquency. Making parents aware of their gender specific controls early on may also lead them to be more mindful of their parenting and whether they encourage one child over the other into risky behavior.


Baier, D., Boehnke, K., Hadjar, A., & Hagan, J. (2007). Juvenile delinquency and gender revisited: The family and power-control theory reconceived. European Journal of Criminology, Retrieved from

Ball, R., Cullen, F., & Lilly, R. (2011). Criminological theory:context and consequences. (5th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Bates, K. A., Bader, C. D., & Mencken, F. C. (2003). Family structure, power-control theory, and deviance: Extending power-control theory to include alternate family forms. Western Criminology Review, 4(3), 170-190.

Blackwell, B. S., Sellers, C. S., & Schlaupitz, S. M. (2002). A power-control theory of vulnerability to crime and adolescent role exits-revisited. Canadian Review of Sociology & Anthropology, 39(2), 199-218.

DeLisi, M. Hewitt, J., Regoli, R. (2010). Delinquency in society. (8th ed.). Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett.

Grasmick, H. G., Hagan, J., Blackwell, B. S., & Arneklev, B. J. (1996). Risk preferences and patriarchy: Extending power-control theory. Social Forces, 75(1), 177-199.

Hagan, J., Gillis, A. R., & Simpson, J. (1990). Clarifying and extending power-control theory. American Journal of Sociology, 95(4), 1024-1037.

Hagan, J., Simpson, J., & Gillis, A. R. (1988). Feminist scholarship, relational and instrumental control, and a power-control theory of gender and delinquency. British Journal of Sociology, 39(3), 301-336.

McCarthy, B., & Hagan, J. (1987). Gender, delinquency, and the great depression: A test of power-control theory. Canadian Review of Sociology & Anthropology, 24(2), 153.

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