9 Pages


A great number of criminological theories start from an assumption that offenders are in some way fundamentally different from other members of society. Such perspectives then attempt to identify those factors or causes that account for such individuals’ criminal propensities. These underlying causes might variously be biological, psychological, social or economic in nature. Control theories, in contrast, approach the question of crime in a rather different manner. Instead of asking why they (the offenders) turn to crime, control theorists ask instead why we (the majority of people) do not offend. In other words, they seek to uncover the factors that prevent or inhibit most people, most of the time, from breaking the laws and rules of society. Their interest lies in understanding the mechanisms that produce conformity with norms of behaviour. In other words, they are oriented towards those features of society that control our everyday behaviour. Control theories are based upon the assumption of human nature

as fundamentally self-interested and pleasure seeking. As such, society needs to place constraints and limits upon its members if their actions are to be regulated. This view originates in the work of the philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), who suggested that human life in its ‘state of nature’, before social regulation was in place, would be a ‘war of all against all’. In other words, each and every individual would be interested only in satisfying their own desires, whatever the cost to others. This understanding was echoed by the sociologist Emile Durkheim, who held that individuals possessed potentially ‘infinite desires’, and it was only society’s norms that set limits on their yearnings. If such limitations failed in their effectiveness, criminal and deviant behaviour would likely result. In short, control theorists take a rather ‘pessimistic’ view of human beings, in that we are all by nature inclined to criminal behaviour, and it is only the controls put in place by society that prevent us from acting upon our inclinations. One of the earliest instances of a control perspective in criminology

was that proposed by Albert J. Reiss (1951). Through an examination of probation records for juvenile offenders, he concluded that those diagnosed as having ‘weak egos’ were most likely to be drawn into repeat offending. Such individuals suffered from a weakness of personal controls that would ensure they sought to satisfy their needs in a manner consistent with the rules of their community. F. Ivan Nye (1958) shifted the focus from personal to social controls over behaviour. In his book Family Relationships and Delinquent Behavior, Nye identified a range of different forms taken by control mechanisms:

direct controls, indirect controls, internalised controls and controls over opportunity. Direct controls are those formalised constraints over behaviour imposed by law-enforcement and other institutions. Indirect control refers to those informal social relationships, especially close ties to family members, which serve to shape an individual’s conduct. Internal controls, on the other hand, comprise beliefs and values learned by the individual and regulate actions through the workings of conscience. Finally, controls over opportunity shape behaviour by making available more or less viable chances to offend. Nye stressed that, on the whole, the most influential of these factors were the indirect and internal controls. It was family relationships and learned codes of behaviour, rather than law and law enforcement, that played the crucial role in deterring young people from offending. A similar perspective was developed by Walter Reckless (1961) in his article ‘A New Theory of Delinquency and Crime’. Reckless suggested that there were internal factors that would insulate juveniles from offending. These included a positive self-image; a goal-oriented personality, which gave individuals clearly defined ambitions; a clear set of moral beliefs; and a high tolerance to frustration when individuals found their goal-achieving efforts temporarily thwarted. Similarly he proposed a number of important external control factors. These included the provision of a consistent set of values by parents and other influential agents; the presence of positive, law-abiding role models; the clear demarcation of the limits of acceptable behaviour and of the individual’s responsibilities to others; and a developed sense of belonging amongst peers and the wider community. Weakness across a combination of these dimensions would make delinquent and criminal behaviour more likely. The most influential formulation of the control perspective

appeared in Travis Hirschi’s book The Causes of Delinquency (1969). In his social bond theory, Hirschi proposed four dimensions of control which taken together would serve to direct young people away from offending: attachment, involvement, commitment and beliefs. Attachment denotes the individual’s sensitivity to the needs and interests of others. The stronger this sense of attachment, the less likely the individual will damage others through offending. Particularly important here are the young person’s emotional ties to parents and family members. The youth who is sensitive, responsive and emotionally close to their family will fear the disapproval, rejection and upset that offending may cause, and so will be less likely to act on temptations to delinquency. Commitment refers to the individual’s investment in realising conventional goals and aspirations. If he or she has sacrificed time, energy and other resources in pursuit of such goals (for example through educational achievement), they will be loath to jeopardise

this through improper behaviour. The more they have to lose, the less likely they will put it at risk. Involvement refers to the amount of time spent in conventional activities. The more of the person’s time that is committed to these, the less will be available for potential participation in delinquent acts. The fourth and final dimension, that of beliefs, denotes the strength of an individual’s identification with obeying society’s rules and regulations – the weaker this is, the less inhibitions he or she will have about breaching such requirements. Hirschi tested his theory by questioning some 4,000 Californian juveniles about their family relationships, friendships, studies, hobbies and other activities. He claimed that the strength of social bonds uncovered in the study was central as to whether or not the boys offended. Contrary to common criminological understandings, Hirschi found that neither social class nor ethnic background were significant indicators of an individual’s likely involvement in offending. Much more important was the overall strength of bonds, in particular that of attachment, which Hirschi concluded was the single most important control mechanism. Hirschi’s theory, while highly influential, has been criticised on a

number of grounds. First, like many other social control theorists, Hirschi’s attempts to empirically verify his claims centre upon the study of juveniles who engage in relatively low-level offending. Consequently, there is little evidence that the perspective could successfully explain adult offending and/or participation in more serious crimes. Second, Hirschi’s exclusive focus upon males means that the perspective remains gender-specific, and does little to illuminate the ways in which social bonds might impact upon female offending rates. Third, it has been suggested that while Hirschi may be correct in identifying a correlation between weak bonds and delinquency, he may well have mistaken the nature of the causal relationship between them. In other words, it is plausible to argue that it is not weak social bonds that lead to delinquent behaviour, but that it is engaging in such conduct that subsequently causes the individual’s bonds to become weakened (for example as family and friends seek to distance themselves from the offender, and the offender himself feels increasingly disinvested from conventional ways of life). Fourth, there are some counter-examples that challenge the claim that strong bonds (such as those of attachment and commitment) necessarily insulate individuals from the temptations of crime. An obvious instance of this kind is that of white-collar crime, where persons with strong family attachments (including children), community ties and professional careers at stake nevertheless choose to abuse their occupational

position by turning to crime. How can the social bond theory account for such offending? A recent attempt to deal with such weaknesses, especially the latter,

is Charles Tittle’s control balance theory (1995). Tittle argues that it is not so much a weakness of control that leads to offending as an imbalance between two types of control – the degree of control an individual is subject to from others, and the degree of control the individual can exert over others. If the individual is highly controlled, but has little capacity for exercising control or influence over others, this will lead to feelings of powerlessness. Consequently, this may result in what Tittle calls repressive deviance, as the individual seeks to establish more autonomy or control over their situation. Examples of repressive deviance would include predation upon others (e.g. assault, robbery) and defiance of others’ norms and values (e.g. sexual promiscuity, drug taking, vandalism). On the other hand, if an individual enjoys considerable control over others, but is not subject to a great deal of control by others, this may result in what Tittle calls autonomous deviance. Here individuals have the capacity to exploit, abuse and humiliate others while they themselves are relatively free from control over their behaviour. By splitting the concept of control in this way, Tittle’s perspective can help account for a wide range of offences, ranging from the rebellions of the over-controlled youth to the abuses perpetrated by large and powerful corporations.