"To be able to fill leisure intelligently is the last product of civilization." (Bertrand Russell)

    Control theories take the opposite approach from other theories in criminology.  As their starting point, instead of asking what drives people to commit crime, they ask why do most people not commit crime.  Control theorists generally argue that there is no problem explaining why people commit crime since all human beings suffer from innate human weaknesses which make them unable to resist temptation.  They focus on restraining or "controlling" factors that are broken or missing inside the personalities of criminals.  If these restraining factors are thought to involve society in some way, as with the sociological notion that norms are internalized, then the theory is said to be a "social" control theory, and is most probably a social bond theory.  Most control theories, however, are a blend of psychiatric, psychological, and sociological ideas.  The most well-known figure in control theory is Travis Hirschi, who emerged around 1969 from his "hellfire and delinquency" studies (Hirschi & Stark 1969) on religion and crime as a pioneer in social control theory and the method of self-report studies.  Hirschi's (1969) book contained the first fully developed social bonding theory.  Hirschi, along with co-author Michael Gottfredson then re-emerged in 1990 with yet another control theory, this one becoming known as low self control theory.  Reconciling Hirschi's two control theories has attracted the attention of theorists (Felson 1997) as much as Hirschi's earlier social bond theory attracted the attention of researchers anxious to measure the four elements of the social bond -- attachment, commitment, involvement, and belief (Wiatrowski et. al. 1981).  

    The relationship between RELIGION and the social bond has attracted the attention of criminologists for years, and sociologists for many years beforehand.  Among social bond theorists in criminology, those who postulate the primary importance of family factors usually emphasize the attachment element of the social bond, while those who postulate the primary importance of religion usually emphasize other elements of the social bond, such as commitment (along with commitment in the school setting), belief, or religion as a composite or fifth element of the social bond.  Regarding religion, the slight majority of research is in agreement that religion is a moderate insulator from delinquency and crime (Burkett & White 1974; Albrecht 1977; Tittle & Welch 1983; Baier & Wright 2001; Johnson 2001).  However, there are many studies which have NOT supported this conclusion (Hirschi himself in Hirschi & Stark 1969; Jensen & Erickson 1979; Evans 1996; and Benda & Corwyn 1997).  Most limitations reported in the literature center around the problems of how to measure "religiosity" as well as what kind of crime to measure.  So-called "hellfire" by itself (usually measured as beliefs about the consequences of bad behavior) does NOT tend to insulate unless the crime being studied has some personal health issue associated with it (such as alcohol, drugs, smoking, and premarital sex).  Religion does not appear to have much of an effect at influencing less-trivial crime, and the reason may be that living in secular society (which condones much bad behavior) "washes out" the religion effect.   

    The earliest known control theory was presented by Reiss in 1951 who argued that delinquency was the result of a failure of personal and social controls.  Personal control problems stemmed from the juveniles' inability to refrain from meeting their needs (in a psychiatric sense).  Social control problems were measured by Reiss as the degree to which school authorities labeled the juveniles as behavior problems.  This particular theory launched a series of studies into insulation and vulnerability factors affecting delinquency, as in the work of Reckless and Dinitz at Ohio State during the 1960s which became known as containment theory, a conception of social controls consisting of "pushes" and "pulls" with self-concept as the main "insulator" from delinquency.

    Another early theory was provided by Toby in 1957 who introduced the concept of "stakes in conformity" -- how much a person has to lose when he or she breaks the law.  He argued that some youths risk more than others because they do not care about jeopardizing their future careers.  This particular study, besides popularizing the stakes in conformity concept, launched a series of studies into suburban and urban differences in juvenile delinquency.

    In 1958, Nye published a study claiming the family was the single most important source of social control.  He found that delinquents were more likely to come from homes where there was complete freedom or no freedom at all.  The family connection became important in the history of control theory because it was suitable as a device to explain both personal and social forms of control.  Nye also pioneered the use of self-report data -- using questionnaires to ask delinquents themselves what behaviors they had engaged in.

    Modern control theory can be said to begin with the framework provided by Matza (1964).  His ideas are called Drift Theory, and the key notion is that delinquents "drift" in and out of crime on an occasional basis, most of the time conforming, some of the time offending.  In addition, most offenders "age out" of crime and settle down to law-abiding lifestyles.  Their part-time involvement in crime is due to their "neutralizing", not rejecting, society's standards.  Drift is caused by a broad sense of injustice and a sense of irresponsibility, both reinforced by the potential delinquent's perceptions of conventional legal standards for justice.

    The theorist most closely identified with control theory is Hirschi (1969) and his book Causes of Delinquency which launched a whole research revolution (the use of self-report data collection) in addition to dominating ideas about social control for many years.  His model of the family, the school, and peers as the most important factors became (and still is) the Justice department's model for considering grant applications.  While Hirschi's social control theory deserves more treatment than it will be given here, the following table summarizes components of what he calls the "social bond" -- things that keep people from committing criminal acts:

Attachment: affection and sensitivity to others
Commitment: investment in conventional society or stake in conformity
Involvement: being busy, restricted opportunities for delinquency
Belief: degree to which person thinks they should obey the law

    The elements of Hirschi's social bond theory have become the subject of considerable attention by criminologists.  Attachment, for example, has come to be associated with research into family factors.  Commitment has come to be associated with peer relationships, in the sense that stakes in conformity are passed through intimate channels of communication, usually in a school context.  Involvement has also come to be associated with school factors, study habits, working, dating, and time spent watching TV.  Finally, Hirschi found a strong association between self-reported delinquency and agreement with the statement "It's OK to get around the law if you can get away with it", and this and related statements became measures of the belief component.  Most literature on the subject holds that involvement and belief are two of the weakest parts of Hirschi's social bond theory (although there are many arguments over this among control theorists).  Some sample measurement items for a simple test of social control theory are presented below:

1. There's always someone to turn to in time of need
2. I have a lot of close friends
3. I am not eager to move out from my parents
4. My parents are good role models
1. Haven't smoked
2. Haven't drinked
3. Haven't skipped school
4. Haven't missed much church
5. Have dated a lot
6. Have participated in school activities
1. Haven't been wasting time
2. Have spent time with family
3. Have participated in extracurricular school activities
4. I generally keep busy
1. It is important to own a home
2. It is important to respect police
3. Teachers are good people
4. Generally, the law should be obeyed
Self-Reported Delinquency questions:
1. Have you ever taken little things (worth less than $2) that did not belong to you?
2. Have you ever taken items (between two and fifty dollars) that did not belong to you?
3. Have you ever taken items (worth over fifty dollars) that did not belong to you?
4. Have you ever taken a car for a ride without the owner's permission?
5. Have you ever banged up something that did not belong to you on purpose?
6. Not counting fights you may have had with a brother or sister, have you ever beaten up on anyone or hurt anyone on purpose?


    Family structures and functioning have crucial impacts on socialization, the capacity for symbolic interaction, self-concepts, and to the extent that psychogenic theories are true, personality characteristics.  Families are primary agents of socialization, and as such, are tempting to consider as direct causal agents of crime. All except a handful of jurisdictions recognize the immediacy of this connection in "contributing to delinquency" statutes, parental liability laws, and a number of other restitution schemes. In both proximate and distal terms, many criminological theories (social disorganization, social learning, and especially social control) grant the family causal significance. Ample empirical work has demonstrated statistically significant causal relationships between family contexts and both juvenile and adult crime. This lecture reviews that empirical evidence.

    Seven (7) family conditions are considered: parental imprisonment, divorce, stepfamilies, adoption, punitive parenting, incompetent parenting, and single parenting. The first four come primarily from what is called the "broken home" (family structure) literature. Punitive and incompetent parenting have been taken from the literature on dysfunctional families, which are in fact "functionally broken". Single parenting refers to unwed mothering, either by misfortune or choice, the latter not qualifying as either broken or dysfunctional but deviating from the cultural standard of nuclear family structure. Six (6) behavioral outcomes are considered: property crime, violent crime, mental disorder, alcoholism, drug addiction, and status offenses. Where significant, variation by age, gender, ethnicity, social class, and neighborhood support will be mentioned.

    Parental imprisonment studies stem from the classic works of Dugdale and Goddard (pedigree theorists) on the genetic transmission of crime. Dugdale found a 14% transmission rate of property crime by tracing descendents of the Juke family, and Goddard found a 9% transmission rate of violent crime among Kallikaks. Larger percentages were obtained by the Gluecks (1974) who found that 40% of delinquent boys had paternal criminal heritage and 55% had maternal criminal heritage with respect to serious crime, suggesting a "like mother, like son" effect. Pedigree studies have also found significant transmission rates for alcoholism, drug dependence, mental disorder, and sexual deviance. Few studies have looked at how children adjust to criminal parentage, with the possible exception of Moerk (1973) who compared the effect of an incarcerated father with the effect of divorce.

    Divorce is the most studied broken home variable and is often compared to death of a parent. West & Farrington (1973) and Wadsworth (1979) are both longitudinal studies of homes broken by divorce, desertion, or separation. The results showed that such homes were more likely to produce serious delinquency than homes broken by death. Wadsworth indicates impact is greatest when the child is young, while Needle et al. (1990) find greater impact in teenage years, with Power et al. (1974) arguing that age at time of break has no impact at all. The causal direction of divorce impact appears mostly in the direction of property crime (Berger & Simon 1974; Belson 1975). Divorce has not been strongly associated with alcoholism and status offenses like runaway behavior (Saucier & Ambert 1983; Rankin 1983), however, Byram & Fly (1984) found DUI and joyriding significantly related to the impact of divorce on white males. Being African-american and from a broken home is strongly associated with drug dependence (Dembo et al. 1979), but not so for hispanics. In general, the effect of a broken home on person and property crime is greater for blacks than nonblacks (Matsueda & Heimer 1987). Social class seems to play a greater role in the divorce-serious crime relationship (Gove & Crutchfield 1982). Gender-specific effects include females tending toward status offending and males leaning toward felony offending (Datesman & Scarpitti 1975; Canter 1982). Austin (1978) concludes that white females are the most affected by the broken home. Meta-analyses of the literature on divorce (Loeber & Stouthamer-Loeber 1986; Wells & Rankin 1986) reveal a consistent statistical relationship between parental absence and delinquency, and interpret this finding as support for a lack of supervision explanation.

    Stepfamilies have been found to increase delinquency. Johnson (1986) reports that white male stepchildren, in particular, are more involved in serious crime than those raised in other types of broken homes. The effect of a stepfather on drug dependence by white males is also indicated by the literature (Blechman, Berberian & Thompson 1977). In fact, the majority of studies show a greater effect of stepfamilies on drug dependence than for other forms of behavior (McCarthy et al. 1982; Flewelling & Bauman 1990). Other studies have linked stepfamily influence to runaway behavior (Rankin 1983) and antisocial personality disorder (Steinberg 1987). Rebelliousness among white male stepchildren appears to be the predominant explanation, and the stepfamily-drug dependence effect is greatest for those with middle-class status (Blechman et al. 1977; Needle et al. 1990).

    Adoption studies are of interest, of course, to genetic researchers, but here, we are concerned with reactions to being adopted as a precursor to delinquency. Goldfarb (1955) has observed that adoption as a broken home effect occurs only if adoption occurs after the child is age three, and other studies have indicated the importance of age at impact of finding out that one is adopted. Johnson (1986) finds a significant relationship between adoption and serious crime, but this finding is not supported by any other studies in the literature. Loeber & Stouthamer-Loeber (1986) suggest a "sleeper effect" for awareness of being adopted. The strongest evidence exists for a connection with alcoholism (Fishbein 1990), drug dependence (Tec 1974), and mental illness (Bowlby 1951). For drug dependence, being white and adopted increases the effect (Johnson 1986; Blechman et al. 1977). For mental illness, being female and adopted increases the risk of disorders in thinking, feeling, and relating (Wilkinson 1980). Maternal rejection is often the explanation for these effects, relying upon psychoanalytic interpretations that can seldom be tested directly. Taking antisocial personality disorder as the main effect (it occurs before drug dependence, conforms to a "sleeper effect", and if due to adoption, explains recidivism (Buikhuisen & Hoekstra 1974)), explanation may simply be loss of attachment (Ainsworth 1982; Hirschi 1983). Problems in creating and maintaining significant (deep and meaningful) relationships would be explained by the symbolism in the loss of a significant other. With adoption, the criminogenic effect is presently foursquare in the center of the family structure-family function debate (Rosen 1985; Van Voorhis et al. 1988).

    Punitive parenting is most strongly related to violent delinquent behavior. The consensus of scholars is that violence breeds violence according to comprehensive reviews of the literature (Widom 1989). Older, black males with punitive parents tend to become murderous, while young, white females under the same conditions tend to develop depressive mental disorders (Bryer et al. 1987). Punitive parenting, of course, correlates highly with runaway behavior (Gutierres & Giovannoni 1981). The cycle of violence explanation that predominates in this literature comes full circle with the recent emergence of the phenomenon of reactive patricide (Sorrells 1977).

    Incompetent, ineffective, or inconsistent parenting is most strongly related to larcenous delinquency (Wilson & Herrnstein 1985), but the majority of studies (McCord & McCord 1959; Robins 1966; and Patterson 1982) indicate that erratic discipline is also directly related to the development of sociopathic personality disorder. The significance of this effect is even more alarming when one realizes it holds even if the home is intact and only functionally discordant. Sociopathy, due to inefficient techniques of child-rearing, has been termed "the best predictor of all in criminology" (Loeber & Dishion 1983). Since some sociopathy traits subsume the symptoms of antisocial personality disorder, some have argued that the most important effect overall for broken homes, whether structural or functional, is the inability to relate (Rutter 1972).

    Single parenting has only been studied recently. The non-nuclear structure predicts no effect on serious crime or delinquency (Cashion 1982). Other studies have estimated the effects from situations in which the father is unknown or the mother decides to eliminate male figures from her life. These studies (McCarthy et al. 1982; Rankin 1983; Flewelling & Bauman 1990) predict a greater involvement in status offenses (smoking, truancy, and runaway behavior) and "home delinquency" (damaging and stealing family property, and hitting mothers). Several studies have begun researching the mediating effect of neighborhood context (attachment to neighbors) under these kinds of conditions (Kraus & Smith 1973; Johnstone 1986; Laub & Sampson 1988), but the results are inconclusive on neighbors as family surrogates, other than the finding that there is no variation by ethnicity (Free 1991).

The following table summarizes the information on family factors:

Family Factor: Strongest Criminogenic Effect:
Criminal Parentage Property Crime
Divorce Serious Crime
Stepfamily Rebelliousness/Drugs
Adoption Mental Illness
Punitive Parenting Violence/Mental Illness/Status
Incompetent Parenting Property Crime/Mental Illness
Single Parenting Status Offenses


    Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990) believe that classical theories are control theories and also general theories. General theories (as opposed to middle-range theories) purport to explain the varieties of crime (street, suite, female, juvenile) and theoretically equivalent events (fires, accidents, traffic jams, etc.). Low self-control (LSC) theory attempts to do this while describing what is right and wrong within the field of criminology.  Most tests of LSC theory are essentially tests of Hirschi's social control theory (attachment, commitment, involvement, belief) with some personality variables thrown in.

    The authors hold that logical consistency and parsimony are more appropriate than testability, claiming that the low self control concept is an improvement over older concepts such as impulsiveness and spontaneity, and that their theory avoids the criticism of all temperament theories -- which came first, the trait or the criminality?  This issue takes up most of the discussion, as the authors modify classical theory to include family factors, but appear unwilling, as others have done (Wilson and Herrnstein 1985), to grant the possibility of a societal trend toward greater parental permissiveness.

    It is important to note that LSC theory makes individualistic causal arguments; that is, each and every act of criminal behavior is the result of unique individual factors such as traits, which are semi-permanent enduring personality characteristics.   Individuals possess three (3) sets of traits: (1) traits composing low self-control; (2) traits predicting involvement in crime; and (3) other traits that are the result of socialization. LSC traits appear in the first six or eight years of life, and include only "factors affecting calculation of the consequences of one's acts". The second set of traits include low intelligence, high activity level, physical strength, and adventuresomeness. The third set of traits include impulsivity, insensitivity, and inability to delay gratification. Letís consider these in reverse order.

Traits That Are The Result of Socialization

    Impulsivity is sometimes defined as acting on impulse without reflecting upon consequences (Chaplin 1985). Impulsiveness connotes irrationality and an inability to profit from experience.

    Insensitivity, or lack of guilt, is a trait associated with psychopathy (Cleckley 1976) and has been included in scales measuring social control (Wiatrowski, Griswold, and Roberts 1981; Agnew 1985). Guilt is painful and lack of guilt is pleasurable. This modified hedonism in LSC theory is consistent with control theories in general which assume that pleasures are constant and motivation unproblematic. The authors are concerned, however, with the consequences of a lack of guilt for the individual, not the emotional poverty from an inability to form relationships. They appear to be saying that individuals miscalculate or devalue the pain of guilt, and that this is something one gets from their parents.

    Immediate gratification is also associated with psychopathy and means self-absorption in one's own needs which vehemently demand satisfaction (McCord and McCord 1964). LSC theory treats it as an individual decision process. There is some support for this in the work of Mischel (1976) who equates self-control with self-regulation during the waiting period when rewards are delayed. This author says that the ability to keep oneself occupied and to tolerate frustration are the skills that self-control demands.

Traits Predicting Involvement in Crime

    Adventuresomeness, or spontaneity is defined as self-initiating behavior occurring without the necessity of external stimulation (Chaplin 1985).  It's the only non-biological factor in this second category of traits in LSC theory.  It's a personality trait that loosely differentiates between delinquents and nondelinquents (Wilson and Herrnstein 1985). It is furthermore a valued trait given the societal trend toward greater tolerance for self-expression and assertiveness. While possibly related to extroversion, spontaneity per se is nothing more than a weak predictor because it suggests concern, not insensitivity, for others and also suggests self-esteem, or a concern for a positive image of one's self.  A person could be adventuresome and still not have LSC traits.

LSC Traits

    Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990) offer the concept of shortsightedness as an LSC trait which is consistent with a conception of decision processes during a waiting period. Shortsightedness refers to a lack of foresight, poor judgment and planning, and is apparently a defect that appears early in life. It subsumes certain capacities for calculation.

    Other LSC traits are: the inability to profit from experience; poor judgment with respect to delay time; and miscalculation of pain prospects. Inability to profit has also been treated as a sociological variable in Hirschi's (1969) bond of attachment since people or institutions are sources of learning. LSC theory, by contrast, is more behavioral to the extent that profit means the calculation of benefits minus the likelihood of detection. LSC theory is classical to the extent that profit maximizing is implied. LSC theory is general to the extent that learning to profit is imperfectly manifested in most people, implying that all are not equally social or moral.

    Poor judgment has some relationship to Hirschi's (1969) bonds of commitment and involvement since it refers to activities engaged in while one is deferring gratification. LSC theory is rational choice to the extent that choice over delay activities is implied. LSC theory is classical in the image of a rational calculator with abilities to see into the future. LSC theory is general as it applies to self-activity during "downtime". Staying busy, or restrained, is an obvious deterrent to crime, but certain personalities apparently have difficulty with this "busywork" approach to self-expression.

    Miscalculation of pain also has some relationship to Hirschi's (1969) bond of belief in the moral validity of norms. LSC theory is classical in the sense that the risk of penalties serve as a crime deterrent, although the authors are pessimistic about deterrence. LSC theory is general to the extent that self-protection is implied. Not guilt, but fear, is the salient emotion. Some individuals seem to discount the risk of injury from victims and guardians.

    The LSC personality configuration is, then, composed of self-seeking, self-expression, and self-protection. It presents an image of the potential (predictable) offender at odds with society and ignoring or foiling caretakers at every turn. Hirschi (1986) has, in fact, characterized this image of the offender as that of the loser, one who chooses to enter a (nonexistent) career in crime that goes no place but downward.


    Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990) believe that there are stable individual personality differences in offending patterns, but they also believe in versatility.  Versatility means that any kind of crime can be predicted from evidence of LSC early in life.  It also means that crime can be reliability measured by various forms of deviance, given that there is no other evidence of offender specialization.  Excluded from the general theory are what the authors call "exotic crimes". LSC personalities are destined for failure, either through crime or theoretically equivalent events, such as financial ruin. The whole argument is compatible with the social contract assumption that everyone has equal chances for ruin or failure.

    LSC theory is also somewhat tautological, in that the only way to determine if people have LSC is to see if they engage in LSC behavior. What the authors are after is a logical deduction of the properties of individuals who are fit an opportunity model of crime without specifying a priori a list of necessary conditions (situations, targets, victims) for committing the crime.  Suitably motivated (insufficiently restrained) offenders are taken for granted, but the opportunity model is the weakest part of LSC theory. Opportunities are taken for granted and treated as distal (distant) causes (Gottfredson and Hirschi 1990:24). Their general qualities consist of immediacy, brevity, and effortlessness. Thereís no calculation of opportunities. Opportunities are viewed as plentiful and interchangeable. Proximate causes are the actualizing (will to behave) conditions of control theory. The ability to avoid choosing crime is a variable psychological matter while pleasures are constantly surrounding the individual. This treatment of individual decision-making successfully transforms criminal inclinations (motives) into pain-reduction strategies (cost-calculations) for the individual.

    The example of female crime (Gottfredson and Hirschi 1990:148) illustrates the point that social control of pain is a necessary element for the production of self-control. Girls are not portrayed as more criminally inclined, only that their misbehavior is more costly. On the one hand, there is the socializability (proximate cause) factor; on the other hand, there is the supervision (distal cause, or minimization of opportunities) factor. The authors are clear on the point that supervision does not affect differences in self-control, but provide some leeway for arguing that some female deviant behaviors are less "proximately" related to crime.

    The "logical structure of crime" device (Gottfredson and Hirschi 1990) is used to define crime as ordinary, requiring little in the way of effort, planning, preparation, or skill. The basic pattern of the device is to transform complexity into simplicity. Minimal, technical requirements include factors such as "there must be a weapon", "there must be an automobile", "there must be an attractive victim", and "there must be a drug". Crime simply requires the interaction of an offender with people or property. This is parsimony at its best. It allows almost any research that fits their model to be offered as support of the model. Almost any description of the criminal act is exactly similar to a description of criminality. The nature of individual characteristics are derived from the nature of criminal acts. Crime is characterized by being simple and easy; hence criminals are characterized by being simple and easy. The advantage of this device is that surplus terms, like aggression, frustration, and relative deprivation, are avoided. The problem is that it leads to notions such as "only crime can predict crime". 

    Consider the logical structure of drug use. Here, even drugs that do not affect mood (tobacco) are correlated with crime because they share features that satisfy both criminality and the requirements of crime. Both crime and drug use provide short-term, immediate, and easy pleasure, and more importantly. In this view, drug use is not attributable to peer pressure, but to the fact that it is prohibited and has an adverse impact on health. LSC personalities must logically come prior to criminality because they are predisposed to disregard legal prohibitions and negative consequences for their own health. Drug users are people who "tend toward criminality", and may self-destruct in any number of ways. Another way of saying this is that LSC is the domain and criminality only covers a portion of this domain. LSC allows almost any deviant act that is "logically" possible.

    LSC personalities are predisposed to criminality to the extent that there are no other personality factors that interfere with this predisposition. Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990:90) mention charm and generosity as factors that may offset LSC traits. A person does not simply "age out" of criminality. LSC can be dealt with early on, but criminality is forever. LSC theory is a pessimistic, mechanistic theory. There would appear to be nothing society can do about it except rise to the challenges of early identification and selective incapacitation. Perhaps new child-rearing techniques might work, but Gottfredson and Hirschi might say not everyone is fit to be a parent. Parents may have to give up some freedom to raise their kids any way they want. Collectively, action may be needed to elevate values such as charm, generosity, and discipline over the present climate of self-expressiveness and assertiveness.

The following table summarizes the factors of LSC theory:

LSC traits: Shortsightedness, Inability to Profit, Poor Judgment, Miscalculation of Pain
Predictor traits: Adventuresomeness, Low IQ, High Activity Level, Physical Strength
Socialized traits: Impulsivity, Insensitivity, Immediate Gratification
Other (insulating) traits: Charm, generosity, discipline

DeMelo's Criminology Page
Sociological Theories of Deviance

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