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Crime Causation: Sociological Theories

Control Theory

Strain and social learning theorists ask, Why do people engage in crime? They then focus on the factors that push or entice people into committing criminal acts. Control theorists, however, begin with a rather different question. They ask, Why do people conform? Unlike strain and social learning theorists, control theorists take crime for granted. They argue that all people have needs and desires that are more easily satisfied through crime than through legal channels. For example, it is much easier to steal money than to work for it. So in the eyes of control theorists, crime requires no special explanation: it is often the most expedient way to get what one wants. Rather than explaining why people engage in crime, we need to explain why they do not.

According to control theorists, people do not engage in crime because of the controls or restraints placed on them. These controls may be viewed as barriers to crime—they refer to those factors that prevent them from engaging in crime. So while strain and social learning theory focus on those factors that push or lead the individual into crime, control theory focuses on the factors that restrain the individual from engaging in crime. Control theory goes on to argue that people differ in their level of control or in the restraints they face to crime. These differences explain differences in crime: some people are freer to engage in crime than others.

Control theories describe the major types of social control or the major restraints to crime. The control theory of Travis Hirschi dominates the literature, but Gerald Patterson and associates, Michael Gottfredson and Travis Hirschi, and Robert Sampson and John Laub have extended Hirschi's theory in important ways. Rather than describing the different versions of control theory, an integrated control theory that draws on all of their insights is presented.

This integrated theory lists three major types of control: direct control, stake in conformity, and internal control. Each type has two or more components.

Direct control. When most people think of control they think of direct control: someone watching over people and sanctioning them for crime. Such control may be exercised by family members, school officials, coworkers, neighborhood residents, police, and others. Family members, however, are the major source of direct control given their intimate relationship with the person. Direct control has three components: setting rules, monitoring behavior, and sanctioning crime.

Direct control is enhanced to the extent that family members and others provide the person with clearly defined rules that prohibit criminal behavior and that limit the opportunities and temptations for crime. These rules may specify such things as who the person may associate with and the activities in which they can and cannot engage.

Direct control also involves monitoring the person's behavior to ensure that they comply with these rules and do not engage in crime. Monitoring may be direct or indirect. In direct monitoring, the person is under the direct surveillance of a parent or other conventional "authority figure." In indirect monitoring, the parent or authority figure does not directly observe the person but makes an effort to keep tabs on what they are doing. The parent, for example, may ask the juvenile where he or she is going, may periodically call the juvenile, and may ask others about the juvenile's behavior. People obviously differ in the extent to which their behavior is monitored.

Finally, direct control involves effectively sanctioning crime when it occurs. Effective sanctions are consistent, fair, and not overly harsh.

Level of direct control usually emerges as an important cause of crime in most studies.

Stake in conformity. The efforts to directly control behavior are a major restraint to crime. These efforts, however, are more effective with some people than with others. For example, all juveniles are subject to more or less the same direct controls at school: the same rules, the same monitoring, and the same sanctions if they deviate. Yet some juveniles are very responsive to these controls while others commit deviant acts on a regular basis. One reason for this is that some juveniles have more to lose by engaging in deviance. These juveniles have what has been called a high "stake in conformity," and they do not want to jeopardize that stake by engaging in deviance.

So one's stake in conformity—that which one has to lose by engaging in crime—functions as another major restraint to crime. Those with a lot to lose will be more fearful of being caught and sanctioned and so will be less likely to engage in crime. People's stake in conformity has two components: their emotional attachment to conventional others and their actual or anticipated investment in conventional society.

If people have a strong emotional attachment to conventional others, like family members and teachers, they have more to lose by engaging in crime. Their crime may upset people they care about, cause them to think badly of them, and possibly disrupt their relationship with them. Studies generally confirm the importance of this bond. Individuals who report that they love and respect their parents and other conventional figures usually commit fewer crimes. Individuals who do not care about their parents or others, however, have less to lose by engaging in crime.

A second major component of people's stake in conformity is their investment in conventional society. Most people have put a lot of time and energy into conventional activities, like "getting an education, building up a business, [and] acquiring a reputation for virtue" (Hirschi, p. 20). And they have been rewarded for their efforts, in the form of such things as good grades, material possessions, and a good reputation. Individuals may also expect their efforts to reap certain rewards in the future; for example, one might anticipate getting into college or professional school, obtaining a good job, and living in a nice house. In short, people have a large investment—both actual and anticipated—in conventional society. People do not want to jeopardize that investment by engaging in delinquency.

Internal control. People sometimes find themselves in situations where they are tempted to engage in crime and the probability of external sanction (and the loss of those things they value) is low. Yet many people still refrain from crime. The reason is that they are high in internal control. They are able to restrain themselves from engaging in crime. Internal control is a function of their beliefs regarding crime and their level of self-control.

Most people believe that crime is wrong and this belief acts as a major restraint to crime. The extent to which people believe that crime is wrong is at least partly a function of their level of direct control and their stake in conformity: were they closely attached to their parents and did their parents attempt to teach them that crime is wrong? If not, such individuals may form an amoral orientation to crime: they believe that crime is neither good nor bad. As a consequence, their beliefs do not restrain them from engaging in crime. Their beliefs do not propel or push them into crime; they do not believe that crime is good. Their amoral beliefs simply free them to pursue their needs and desires in the most expedient way. Rather then being taught that crime is good, control theorists argue that some people are simply not taught that crime is bad.

Finally, some people have personality traits that make them less responsive to the above controls and less able to restrain themselves from acting on their immediate desires. For example, if someone provokes them, they are more likely to get into a fight. Or if someone offers them drugs at a party, they are more likely to accept. They do not stop to consider the long-term consequences of their behavior. Rather, they simply focus on the immediate, short-term benefits or pleasures of criminal acts. Such individuals are said to be low in "self-control."

Self-control is indexed by several personality traits. According to Gottfredson and Hirschi, "people who lack self control will tend to be impulsive, insensitive, physical (as opposed to mental), risk-taking, short-sighted, and nonverbal" (p. 90). It is claimed that the major cause of low self-control is "ineffective child-rearing." In particular, low self-control is more likely to result when parents do not establish a strong emotional bond with their children and do not properly monitor and sanction their children for delinquency. Certain theorists also claim that some of the traits characterizing low self-control have biological as well as social causes.

Gottfredson and Hirschi claim that one's level of self-control is determined early in life and is then quite resistant to change. Further, they claim that low self-control is the central cause of crime; other types of control and other causes of crime are said to be unimportant once level of self-control is established. Data do indicate that low self-control is an important cause of crime. Data, however, suggest that the self-control does vary over the life course and that other causes of crime are also important. For example, Sampson and Laub demonstrate that delinquent adolescents who enter satisfying marriages and obtain stable jobs (i.e., develop a strong stake in conformity) are less likely to engage in crime as adults.

In sum, crime is less likely when others try to directly control the person's behavior, when the person has a lot to lose by engaging in crime, and when the person tries to control his or her own behavior.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawCrime Causation: Sociological Theories - Strain Theory, Social Learning Theory, Control Theory, Labeling Theory, Social Disorganization Theory, Critical Theories