Social Control Theory vs. Self-Control Theory

Social Control Theory vs. Self-Control Theory

According to the idea of control theories, an individual who has for some reason or another cut ties with the “conventional order” so that he or she is now free to commit any criminal or deviant acts (Cullen & Agnew, 2011 P216). Travis Hirschi, in 1969, created the Social Bond Theory of crime, aka Social Control theory; two decades later he joined Michael Gottfredson to create the Self-Control Theory. It seems that, over time, Hirschi’s view on crime had changed, and “that his late[r] work was a marked departure from his earlier theorizing” (Cullen & Agnew, 2011 P202-203).

Hirschi’s theory of Social Control describes what he calls the “Elements of the Bond” that explain the “bond of the individual to society” (Cullen & Agnew, 2011 P217). The first element is attachment; the attachments that we as people form to others of society. Most people of society have “internalized the norms” of said society; meaning that these people (law-abiding citizens) have accepted the laws and norms of society and willingly conform (Cullen & Agnew, 2011 P218).

Those who don’t, however, those who are “insensitive to the opinion of others” are not bound by societal norms and therefore “free to deviate” (Cullen & Agnew, 2011 P218). Hirschi proposes that when an individual is alienated from others in society, it is usually due to “active interpersonal conflict” (Cullen & Agnew, 2011 P217). These conflicts with other people actively weaken social attachments to others, thus alienating the individual which can potentially lead to committing crime (Cullen & Agnew, 2011 P217).

The next element of the bond is commitment. Commitment is the idea that people who are committed to things that hold value in their lives, such as an education, career, marriage, or family, then they are less likely to commit crime; “the person becomes committed to a conventional line of action, and he is therefore committed to conformity” (Cullen & Agnew, 2011 P218). To explain why an individual such as this would commit a criminal act, Hirschi states that “in the sociological control theory, it can be and is generally assumed that the decision to commit a criminal act may well be rationally determined” (Cullen & Agnew, 2011 P218-219).

That is to say, because of the danger and risk associated with crime, a man who commits a criminal act may have acted out of a calculated and seemingly rational decision. Hirschi goes on to explain, “The concept of commitment assumes that the organization of society is such that the interests of most persons would be endangered if they were to engage in criminal acts” (Cullen & Agnew, 2011 P219). This presumably means that if someone commits a crime, they are knowingly and willingly endangering that which they have committed to, thus the criminal act itself must have included such a calculated risk that it be deemed worthy to commit.

The third element of the bond is involvement. This element simply suggests that those who are involved in activities that require a rather large time commitment do not possess the time it would take to actually commit a crime. Hirschi states, “A person may be simply too busy doing conventional things to find time to engage in deviant behavior” (Cullen & Agnew, 2011 P 219). If a person is too involved in any legal, legitimate activity, there will simply not be enough time for him or her to commit any crime.

The final element of the bond is belief. The concept of beliefs, as it relates to control theory, is that arguably most people have some sort of belief system that actively contradicts the notion that any person would commit crime because they genuinely believe it to be a good act, thus crime is good. On the contrary, it seems that most, if not all, believe that to break the law is inherently a bad action. Hirschi admits that, though strain theory was more or less created primarily to answer this question, control theories have a much more difficult time explaining why someone who believes crime to be bad to do it anyway (Cullen & Agnew, 2011 P220). He does, however, believe that there are two ways that control theories can answer this. The first approach that Hirschi addresses basically states that whatever common belief system that a society may have, a deviant individual may accept them at face value, but think of them little more than just words.

It may not mean anything to said individual, he or she does not actively believe that he or she is violating any belief system, therefore they simply just do not consider it to be good nor bad; it is virtually a meaningless action to them. Hirschi explains, “Since they represent no real obstacle to the commission of delinquent acts, nothing need be said about how they are handled by those committing such acts” (Cullen & Agnew, 2011 P220). The second approach that Hirschi argues is that “the deviant reationalizes his behavior so that he can at once violate the rule and maintain his belief in it” (Cullen & Agnew, 2011 P220). This basically means that as long as an individual is able to rationally and legitimately justify such behavior in his own mind, and he genuinely believes in his justification, then he is free to commit whatever the deviant act may be.

About two decades after Hirschi wrote the Social Bond Theory, he seemingly changed some of his views and teamed up with Michael Gottfredson to create the Self-Control Theory. Hirschi and Gottfredson define self-control as “the differential tendency of people to avoid criminal acts whatever the circumstances in which they find themselves” (Cullen & Agnew, 2011 P227). Within this theory of self-control, Hirschi and Gottfredson suggest that there are essentially five “elements” of self-control.

The first of these elements states that “criminal acts provide immediate gratification of desires” (Cullen & Agnew, 2011 P228). This element discusses the argument of immediate vs. delayed gratification. Those who lack self-control prefer immediate gratification because that is something that they can experience right at that moment. Those who possess self-control, however, can see and understand the importance of delayed gratification. They can look ahead and see the potential benefits of a long-term goal paying off.

The second element of self-control states that “criminal acts are exciting, risky, or thrilling” (Cullen & Agnew, 2011 P228). Those who lack self-control tend to be more adventurous; they are always looking for that next adrenaline rush, and they tend to engage in risky behavior. People who possess self-control, on the other hand, tend to take a more cautious and cognitive approach to life, planning things out and playing things safe.

The third element states that “crime provides few long-term benefits” (Cullen & Agnew, 2011 P228). A life of crime is simply not equivalent to having a job or a career. Crime actually interferes with long-term commitments, thus those with low self-control tend to have “unstable marriages, friendships, and job profiles” (Cullen & Agnew, 2011 P228). They are simply disinterested in the long term, whereas those with self-control focus on their goals and where they are headed in the future; they actually have goals and aspirations to look forward to.

The fourth element of self-control suggests that “crimes require little skill or planning” (Cullen & Agnew, 2011 P 228). In this element, Hirschi and Gottfredson argue that criminals have no use for academic or manual skills. People with self-control plan for the future by getting an education to learn academic or manual skills to look for long-term employment; those who lack self-control are not interested in learning such things so they never bother to actually learn a legitimate skill set. Since they possess no skill that could help land them a job, they can easily fall into a life of crime.

Finally, the fifth element states that “crimes result in pain or discomfort for the victim” (Cullen & Agnew, 2011 P228). Those lacking in self-control tend to be insensitive or indifferent towards those who suffer. However, they are not always unkind; those who lack self-control can often be seen as charming if they see it benefitting them in any way.

Hirschi and Gottfredson add a sort of caveat towards the end, however, as somewhat of a reminder to see a bigger picture in a way. They point out that people who lack self-control do not always pursue immediate pleasures that are criminal; they often engage in and develop habits of smoking, drinking, gambling, illicit sex, etc. (Cullen & Agnew, 2011 P228). They also suggest that “the major benefit of many crimes is not pleasure but relief from momentary irritation” (Cullen & Agnew, 2011 P229). People with low self-control tend to have a shorter fuse; they tolerate less and are often more likely to settle a conflict physically rather than talking it out. Therefore, people with low self-control do not always end up committing crime; they simply are extraordinarily more likely to.

Because there seems to be no contradictions between Travis Hirschi’s two theories discussed above, I do not believe that his and Gottfredson’s Self-Control Theory discounts his Social Bond Theory. Instead, I see it as a sort of supplement or extension, in a way, to further explain why more people may commit crime. When Cullen and Agnew briefly touch on the matter in the textbook, they explain, “whereas Hirshi’s social bond theory located control in a person’s relation to society, self-control theory moved the locus of control inside the individual” (Cullen & Agnew, 2011 P202). Simply put, Social Bond Theory is a Macro level theory that explains why society may commit crime, while Self-Control Theory is a Micro level theory that works to explain why an individual may commit crime. Therefore, when looking at the two theories like this, one can see that they really complement each other and can work hand in hand, in a way.

Works Cited

  • Cullen, F. T., & Agnew, R. (2011). Criminological Theory: Past to Present. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.