In sociology, the control theory attempts to explain an individual’s social bonds in relation to their behavior. When deviant behavior is studied, typically scientists and investigator’s look for what causes that behavior. In control theory, the opposite is true. The investigator wants to find out what causes conformity instead of what causes deviance. It is believed that an individual with weak social bonds, is more likely to commit some type of devious act. According to Travis Hirschi, “the delinquent is relatively free of the intimate attachments, the aspirations, and the moral beliefs that bind” (1969, preface).
As one of the strongest advocates for control theory, Hirschi, claims that every individual has the potential to commit devious acts (Tischler, 2010). But what makes us decide to commit these acts or restrain ourselves? Hirschi and Gottfredson (1993) have honed in on a particular type of control-self-control, that may answer this question. The answer also lies in the individual’s history. “One important variant considers the effectiveness of child rearing or the adequacy of socialization as the key to delinquency” (Hirschi, 1977, p. 330).
Overview of Control Theory
“Hirschi suggests that the more attached persons are to other members of society, the more they believe in the values of conventional society, and the more they invest in and are involved in conventional lines of activity, the less likely they are to deviate” (Chriss, 2007 ,p. 692). In his book Causes of Delinquency, Hirschi (1969) lists four ways in which an individual forms a bond with society, thus leading to accepted behavioral practices. These are:
1. Attachment to others. Forming bonds to others helps solidify one’s attitude toward society as a whole. As an individual becomes attached to a parent and his/her peer’s, they will want to display a behavior that is accepted by society.
2. Commitment to conformity.
Investment in conventional society by getting an education or pursuing a career, further shows an individual’s desire to be a part of society.
3. Involvement in conventional activities. By engaging in conventional activities, the individual is too busy to engage in delinquency. Idol hands often lead to trouble.
4. Belief in the moral validity of social rules. Having a strong belief system is key to obedience. An individual that has a strong sense of morals will obey the law and steer clear of delinquency.
When these four elements are developed in an individual, they will be more prone to
following societal norms; however, if these elements are not properly formed, the individual will have little regard for the conventional rules set by society (Tischler, 2010).
Another important factor is self-control. Hirschi and Gottfredson (1993) introduced the self-control theory as means to further understand an individual’s propensity to commit crime. In this theory, it is assumed that “all behavior is motivated by self-interest and the pursuit of pleasure, the theory postulates that those with low self-control are insufficiently restrained from acts that are immediately gratifying, simple, exciting, and easy” (Latimore, Tittle, & Grasmick, 2006, p. 344).
Where does self-control come from? Hirschi and Gottfredson argue that “self-control develops early in life, through socialization pressures applied both by caregivers and by institutions involved in socialization processes, like the school” (Latimore, Tittle, & Grasmick, 2006, p. 346). If a child fails to arrive at this development, then there is an increased risk of the child engaging in delinquent acts. Low self-control makes it difficult for the individual to resist the temptation, and when conventional means to get what he/she wants fails, then the individual will move on to illegal ways of attainment (Ezinga, Weerman, Westenberg, & Bijleveld, 2008).
The impact of the control theory in relation to deviant behavior is tremendous. Thanks to the research of people like Travis Hirschi and his colleagues, we are able to peer into some of the causes of delinquency and crime. Understanding deviance and criminal behavior begins with understanding its relationship to self-control. Thus, “…self-control is salient in child and adolescent development and adjustment, and thus begs some resolution and new insights to the high degree of observed covariation with deviance during childhood”( Vazsonyi & Huang, 2010, p.255).
Chriss, J. (2007). The functions of the social bond. Sociological Quarterly, 48(4), 689-712. doi:10.1111/j.1533-8525.2007.00097.x.
Ezinga, M., Weerman, F., Westenberg, P., & Bijleveld, C. (2008). Early adolescence and delinquency: Levels of psychosocial development and self-control as an explanation of misbehaviour and delinquency. Psychology, Crime & Law, 14(4), 339-356. doi:10.1080/10683160701770070.
Latimore, T., Tittle, C., & Grasmick, H. (2006). Childrearing, self-control, and crime: Additional evidence. Sociological Inquiry, 76(3), 343-371. Retrieved from America: History & Life database.
Hirschi, T. (1977). Causes and Prevention of Juvenile Delinquency. Sociological Inquiry, 47(3/4), 322-341. Retrieved from Academic Search Complete database.
Hirschi, T. (2002). Causes of Delinquency. Retrieved April 24, 2010, from
Tischler, H. (2010). Introduction toSociology(10th edition). Belmont, CA:Wadsworth, Inc
Vazsonyi, A., & Huang, L. (2010). Where Self-Control Comes From: On the Development of Self-Control and Its Relationship to Deviance Over Time. Developmental Psychology, 46(1), 245-257.doi:10.1037/a0016538.