Social Bonding and Control Theories Essay

Social Bonding and Control Theories


Some proponents insist that control theory is entirely different from all other theories of because rather than trying to determine why some people deviate from social and legal norms, it asks: Why does anyone conform? Why don’t we all violate the rules?

In control theories, [this] question has never been adequately answered. The question remains, why do men obey the rules of society? Deviance is taken for granted; conformity must be explained. (Hirschi, 1969:10)

The answer offered by control theory is that we conform because social controls prevent us from committing crimes. Whenever these controls break down or weaken, deviance is likely to result (Reiss, 1951). Control theory argues that people are motivated to conform by social controls but need no special motivation to violate the law. That comes naturally in the absence of controls. This “natural motivation” assumption does not necessarily refer to inborn tendencies to crime. Rather, it refers to the assumption that there is no individual variation in motivations to commit crime; the impetus toward crime is uniform or evenly distributed across society (Agnew, 1993). Because of this uniform motivation to commit crime, we will all push up against the rules of society and break through them unless we are controlled. Thus control theorists assert that their objective is not to explain crime; they assume everyone would violate the law if they could just get away with it. Instead, they set out to explain why we do not commit crime. For instance, Travis Hirschi, the leading control theorist, stated

The question “Why do they do it?” is simply not the question the theory is designed to . The question is “Why don’t we do it?” There is much evidence that we would if we dared. (Hirschi, 1969:34; emphasis added)

Later statements by Hirschi and Michael Gottfredson have similarly drawn a sharp contrast between control theory and all other theories of criminal behavior, which they have referred to as “positivistic.” They describe positivistic theories as having nothing to do with what prevents crime but only with what factors positively motivate people to commit crimes. In their view, positivistic theories assume that everyone will conform in the absence of that motivation; in contrast, control theories assume that crime will occur unless prevented by strong social and personal controls (Gottfredson and Hirschi, 1990). This assumption of universal motivation to crime has been incorporated into other recent theoretical models (see Wilcox, Land, and Hunt, 2003).

We disagree with this stark distinction between control theory and positivist theory. It is true that all versions of control theory tend to focus more on social relationships that curb crime than on those that promote crime. However, different control theories vary considerably in the extent to which they limit or exclude the study of the positive motivations behind crime. Not all control theorists simply assume that everyone is equally motivated to deviate, nor do all confine themselves only to the problem of identifying influences toward conformity. Some control theorists have specifically incorporated the crime-motivating factors of personality, social environment, or situation into their own theories (Reckless, 1967; Briar and Piliavin, 1965).

F. Ivan Nye (1958) argued for a multi-causal model that treats most crime as a result of the failure of social controls but allows that “such ‘positive’ factors [personality or a delinquent subculture] sometimes combine with delinquent behavior as the product” (Nye, 1958:5). Hirschi (1969) himself rejected the assumption of an inherent impulse to . He proposed that the “natural motivation” assumption in control theory must be modified to recognize that there are some inducements to delinquency, such as the approval of delinquent peers, that must be considered in addition to the inhibitors of delinquency. The assumption that everyone is naturally motivated to commit deviant acts is not crucial to any version of control theory. In fact, some control theories deliberately include factors that induce crime. Hirschi’s social bonding theory and Gottfredson’s and Hirschi’s self-control theory have some motivational and positivistic elements in them (see Cochran et al., 1998; Wiebe, 2003).

Consequently, there is really not much difference between control theory and other theories in the type of questions about crime that each tries to answer. Whatever their other differences, all theories of crime, including control theory, ultimately propose to account for variations in criminal and delinquent behavior. They do not attempt, for example, to account for variation in occupational behavior, meritorious achievement, or prosocial contributions to the welfare of society. Thus control theories have the same dependent variables (crime, delinquency, and deviance) as other criminological theories. Empirical tests of control theories measure these variables in exactly the same way (with official and self-report data) as do tests of other theories. If the concept and measurement of the dependent variable are essentially the same, what difference does it make whether one claims that the central question involves committing a crime or that it involves refraining from a crime? In on control and other theories, criminal or delinquent behavior is defined as the commission of some act(s) in violation of the law; conformity is defined as the absence of those acts. Conformity and crime are two sides of the same coin. It makes no meaningful difference which of the two a theory claims to explain, because to account for one accounts for the other. Theories vary in the extent to which they emphasize one side of the coin, whether it be the motivation for crime or the restraints on crime. It would be fair to contrast the stress on motivations to crime in some theories with the stress on inhibitors of crime in control theory (Agnew, 1993). But the difference is a matter of degree, not a qualitative difference. For this reason, it is difficult to divide explanations of crime into two mutually exclusive categories based on whether they try to explain either conformity or crime.


Reiss’s and Nye’s Theories of Internal and External Controls

The sociological concept of social control includes both socialization, in which a person acquires self-control, and the control over the person’s behavior through the external application of social sanctions, rewards for conformity, and punishments for deviance, with the understanding that the applications of sanctions is a major process by which socialization occurs. Albert J. Reiss (1951) provided one of the earliest applications of this concept to criminology by attributing the cause of delinquency to the failure of “personal” and “social” controls. Personal controls are internalized, whereas social controls operate through the external application of legal and informal social sanctions. Nye (1958) later expanded on this and identified three main categories of social control that prevent delinquency:

1.Direct control, by which punishment is imposed or threatened for misconduct and compliance is rewarded by parents.