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Travis Hirschi’s Social Control Theory

Mickey A. Syrquin

Texas Christian University

Travis Hirschi believed that human beings were inherently hedonistic by nature. He said that, “we are all animals and thus naturally capable of committing criminal acts” (Hirschi, 1969:31).  He chose to approach criminology in a completely different way than most of his peers, and in doing so he came up with several ground-breaking theories that are still at the center of the criminological world today. The 1960s was a decade filled with societal non-conformity. Rock and Roll had taken the music world by storm causing drug use and risky sexual behavior to reach an all-time high. From masses protesting the Vietnam War to the civil rights movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. there was an opportunity to behave delinquently around every turn. In 1969 Hirschi released one of his most famous pieces of work, a book called Causes of Delinquency. This book has been a staple in the criminological world for years and is often referred to for theory construction and research in the delinquency field. The piece laid out Hirschi’s social control theory, (sometimes called social bond theory) which is what I will be reviewing in this paper.

              According to Wiatrowski (1981), contrary to popular belief Hirschi’s social control theory implied that since delinquency is actually intrinsic to human nature, it is conformity that must be explained. Hirschi explains conformity as being “achieved through socialization, the formation of a bond between individual and society comprised of four major elements: attachment, commitment, involvement and belief” (Wiatrowski, 1981, p. 525).  All four of these elements are what make up the social bond, and the stronger each of these four elements are, the less likely the individual will be to partake in delinquent behavior. Hirschi’s theory proposes that the weaker the group to which an individual belongs, the less he depends on them. Which causes the individual to depend more on himself and he will eventually realize no other rules of conduct unless they benefit his own private interests (Hirschi, 1969).

              The first element of the social bond is attachment. According to Hirschi, “Attachment corresponds to the affective ties which the youth forms to significant others” (Wiatrowski, 1981, p. 525). These significant ties are often found in the family environment when parents act as role models by teaching their children what is and is not socially acceptable behavior. When Hirschi explains attachment in Causes of Delinquency he uses psychopathy to really help the reader understand how the term should be interpreted. Hirschi mentions in his book that John Martin and Kenneth Fitzpatrick say that a psychopath has characteristics such as, “deficient attachment to or affection for others, a failure to respond to the ordinary motivations founded in respect or regard for one’s fellows” and “excessive aggressiveness” (Martin, 1964). Most people would say that the characteristics of the psychopath come as a result of his lack of attachment, or that his lack of attachment comes as a result of his psychopathy. Hirschi says to lack attachment to others is to be free from moral restraints and means that you have no conscience or superego. If you subscribe to that train of thought then lack of attachment to others is the same thing as lack of conscience. “In this view, lack of attachment to others is not merely a symptom of psychopathy, it is psychopathy” (Hirschi, 1969).

              The second element of the social bond as explained by Travis Hirschi is commitment. According to Wiatrowski, “Commitment is related to the aspiration of going to college and attaining a high-status job” (1981, p.525). The commitment to studying and working hard to reach these goals is considered an investment and the individual puts their investment at risk if they partake in delinquent behavior. According to this theory, youths with well-defined goals are much less likely to engage in delinquent behavior than those who are not looking towards the future. Hirschi believed that commitment is directly correlated to conformity. He said that men have been known to obey the rules for no other reason than because they were afraid of facing the consequences. He said that we label the rational component of conformity as commitment and that people who follow the rules out of fear of the consequences are committed to conformity, thus much less likely to behave delinquently (1969). Hirschi often emphasized education when he talked about commitment much like he emphasized parents when talking about attachment. He said that commitment has to do with time and effort invested in conventional plans of action. These actions could be educational aspirations, school performance, long-term career goals or maintaining ones reputation (1969). Commitment is also associated with the cost factor that is involved when engaging in delinquent activities. We can assume that somebody that is committed has invested a lot of time and effort into whatever it is that they are committed to. Both time and effort can be considered cost factors. If someone has spent years of their life working their way up to the head of a company then there probably is not much time left over to perform deviant acts. Maybe they did not put too much time into their investment but it did require a lot of effort. They probably won’t do anything that could jeopardize their investment because they do not want all of their work to be for nothing (Krohn; Massey, 1980). It is important to keep in mind when thinking about these elements of the social bond that Hirschi’s theory explains why we will NOT commit crimes, rather than why we will.

Involvement is the third of the four elements in the social bond. Involvement is plain and simple; if somebody spends a great deal of time doing conventional things then they will not have time to engage in delinquent behavior. Hirschi believed that somebody that is extensively involved in conventional activities is, “tied to appointments, deadlines, working hours, plans, and the like, so the opportunity to commit deviant acts rarely arises” (Hirschi, 1969). This is when we start to see the connection between the elements of the social bond. For example, if you are committed as a high school student to getting in to a prestigious college so you can eventually graduate and get a high-paying job there is no way to fulfill your commitment without extensive involvement.

              The final element is belief. Belief is the acceptance of the moral validity of the central social-value system. The more rule-bound people feel, the less likely they are to commit a crime or violate those rules (Hirschi, 1969) Due to socialization Hirschi says that everyone, including deviants, recognized the validity of one dominant set of values. The difference between those deviants and the rest of us is that even though they recognize the same set of values they do not feel bound by them due to their lack of belief or weakened social bond (Wiatrowski, 1981). This element brings an interesting question to light. If we all recognize the same set of values, how can someone believe it is wrong to commit a crime while he is committing a crime? Hirschi claims that according to control theory there are two ways deviants get around the rules. One way is by giving no real meaning to their beliefs and considering them to be nothing more than words. The other way is through neutralization. This entails the deviant essentially justifying the act to themselves before it occurs so they can violate the rule and maintain their belief in it at the same time (Hirschi, 1969).

              Just like any other theory, social control theory has several criticisms, but the most widely known criticism actually came from Travis Hirschi Himself. In the year 1990 Hirschi teamed up with another criminologist named Michael Gottfredson and together they came up with General Crime Theory, also known as self-control theory. Instead of explaining deviance through the strength of an individual’s bond with society through the elements of attachment, commitment, involvement and belief, Hirshci’s new theory set out to explain all criminal behavior using just one type of control; self-control. The main idea of the theory is that individuals with high self-control are less likely to behave criminally, and those who possess low levels of self-control are more likely to lead life’s of crime and generally deviant behavior (Gottfredson and Hirschi, 1990). Hirschi often emphasized the importance of attachment to peers, this brought several opposing views. Many people argue that attachment could actually lead to delinquent behavior rather than prevent it. They claim that being attached to peers who are already engaging in criminal behavior could influence the newly attached individual to begin behaving in the same manner. Sociologist Rand Conger (1976) also states that delinquency will be at its highest when an individual’s attachment to a deviant environment is strong. As mentioned above the elements of commitment and involvement can be codependent, because of this there are criminologists that believe that the two should just be combined into one element. Marvin Krohn and James Massey (1980) did just that because they could not see a scenario in which somebody could be involved in something without at least a slight commitment to the activity and vice versa. Other more general criticisms of social bond theory include the idea that an individual’s social bonds will change over the course of a lifetime causing them to keep building them back up again. Also the idea that the scope of social bond theory is restricted when compared to the general crime theory since GCT attempts to explain all types of criminality.

              Thanks to a large number of empirical studies performed since Causes of Delinquency (1969) testing Hirschi’s social bond theory there is a significant body of research on the topic. The results of these studies show strong support for Hirschi’s claim that the stronger an individual’s four elements of the social bond, the less likely to engage in delinquent behavior. I will review several of these studies over the next few paragraphs but in summary the research shows us that youths that are strongly attached to their parents are generally less likely to commit criminal acts. Youths involved in and/or committed to conventional activities are also much less likely to engage in delinquent behavior than those who are involved in unconventional behaviors. Kids who maintained weaker relationships with their peers moved towards delinquent behavior and those who were attached to their peers often shunned unconventional acts. 

A study done by Guang-zhen Wang at the University of Texas – Pan American set out to test Hirschi’s social bond theory by exploring the sex, racial/ethnic differences in tobacco, alcohol, and marijuana/drug use among adolescents. The variables in this study were the four elements of the social bond, attachment (to parents), commitment (to school), Involvement (with their classmates) and belief (content about life). According to Guang-zhen there is extensive literature that demonstrates that children are much less likely to partake in risky behavior when their parents are easy to talk to, and provide adequate supervision (2006). Despite the importance of attachment the results of Guang-zhen’s study showed that commitment, to school in particular, had the most significant impact on the students tobacco, alcohol and drug use. Those with a strong commitment engaged in these conventional activities far less often than those with a weaker commitment. The results were consistent across all six groups of adolescents analyzed in the study (white boys, white girls, black boys, black girls, Hispanic boys, Hispanic girls). This is consistent with research done by Carol Goodenow who argues that doing well in school can positively affect a student’s motivation to perform academically at a higher level. This new motivation could lead them to participate in more positive activities which in turn will keep them away from drugs and alcohol or delinquent behavior (1993). Goodenow’s work also demonstrates how commitment can lead to involvement. Another study by Lamborn and Steinberg (1993) found that children with high levels of emotional autonomy often have healthy, supportive relationships with their parents (strong attachment). Children with unsupportive relationships with their parents (weak attachment) will typically score lower on emotional autonomy. They also found that low levels of emotional autonomy are associated with youth behavioral problems such as underage drinking and smoking. Matsueda and Anderson (1998) did an analysis examining the relationship between delinquent behavior and delinquent peer association, essentially peer attachment when looked at through the eyes of social bond theory. They concluded that there is in fact a reciprocal relationship between the two but they found that the effect of delinquent behavior on peer associations is much greater than the effect of peer associations on delinquent behavior. In other words, the individual is much more likely to be delinquent and find a group of peers that are similar to him, than being turned into a delinquent by his peers. This essentially flies in the face of the critics who claimed that attachment could be a causal factor for delinquent behavior if someone was to become attached to a group who is already engaging in delinquent behavior.

              Policy implications for social control theory are a little bit tricky. We cannot force someone to believe something so there really can’t be any explicit policy implications for belief. Commitment and involvement also come with a certain amount of free will so there is not much that can be done about those either. It is typically agreed upon that the most effective policy implications when it comes to control theories in general, for our purposes social control theory, are those that focus on parenting or the element of attachment. Vito, Maahs and Holmes (2005) claim that parents can have a very strong influence on their child’s level of conformity by the way they raise the child. If parents adequately supervise and communicate with their children during their upbringing they are more likely to form a strong attachment which is proven to lead to less delinquent behavior. There is evidence that the implementation of parent training programs have had some success in reducing delinquent behavior of the children whose parents participated in the programs. The fact is that many parents simply do not know how to be a good parent, not because they don’t care but they just were never taught. Vito also say that, “The popularity of reality television programs such as Supernanny and Nanny 911 suggest that many parents are indeed open to helpful parenting techniques”(Vito; Maahs; Holmes; 2005, p. 191). There are also similar programs in place that train teachers to use teaching techniques that are specifically designed to strengthen children’s bonds with the school. This would increase the child’s level of commitment as well as involvement without forcing either of them on the child. Of course there are also implicit policies that can be implemented to reduce the likelihood of criminal involvement. Some would recommend marriage or quality employment as a policy. If you have these things then you probably have a stable relationship and steady income, both of which relieve many of the stresses of life that can lead to criminal behavior.

While there are plenty of criticisms surrounding this theory including general crime theory essentially adding elements on top of the original four, there is plenty of research out there supporting the original elements of the social bond and the social bond theory. In my opinion the more you simplify social learning theory, the more sense it makes. If you have 10 adolescents with no strong attachment to parents or peers, no solid commitments, no consistent activities they are involved in, and limited to no belief in a set of values; then how many of the 10 do you think would engage in delinquent behavior? They would be blank slates, naturally hedonistic just Like Hirschi claimed, with nothing or nobody to tell them not to be delinquent. My guess is that the vast majority of them would behave delinquently if not all 10, thus rendering Hirschi’s social control theory still relevant despite the challenges it has faced in the last four decades.

References 

Conger, R. (1976). Social Control and Social Learning Models of Delinquency: A

            Synthesis. Criminology, 14; 17-40.

Goodenow, C. (1993), The Psychological Sense of School Membership Among Adolescents: Scale Development and Educational Correlates. Psychol. Schs., 30: 79–90. doi: 10.1002/1520-6807(199301)30:1<79::AID-PITS2310300113>3.0.CO;2-X

Gottfredson, M. R., and Hirschi, T. (1990). A General Theory of Crime. Stanford, CA:

             Stanford University Press

Guang-zhen, W. (2006). Tobacco, Alcohol, and Marijuana/Drug Use among School Children:                                                                              TestinHirschi's Social Bonding Theory. Conference Papers -- American Sociological Association, 1.

Hirschi, T. (1969). Causes of Delinquency. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.

Krohn, M. D., Massey, J. L. (1980). Social Control and Delinquent Behavior: An

             Examination of the Elements of the Social Bond. The Sociological Quarterly, 21;

             529-543.

Lamborn, S.D. and Steinberg, L. (1993). Emotional Autonomy Radix: Revisiting Ryan and Lynch. Child Development, 64; 483-499

Matsueda, R. L. and Anderson, K. (1998), The Dynamics of Delinquent Peers and Delinquent Behavior. Criminology, 36: 269–308. doi: 10.1111/j.1745-9125.1998.tb01249.x

Vito, G. F., Maahs, J. R., Holmes, R. M. (2006). Criminology: Theory, Research, and Policy. Burlington, MA: Jones & Bartlett Learning.

Wiatrowski, M. D., Griswold, D. B., & Roberts, M. K. (1981). SOCIAL CONTROL THEORY AND DELINQUENCY. American Sociological Review46(5), 525-541.

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