Crime Prevention and the Social Control Theory

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People who engage in harmful activities and criminal behavior impair society by damaging the lives of other citizens and by providing the affected communities with a detrimental atmosphere of fearful distrust. As a result, the US government has established laws that codify the values of society and determine the acceptable behavior patterns that citizens must obey. Although society stigmatizes criminals who break these laws by confining delinquents in prison to punish them for their crimes and to deter other citizens from repeating the detrimental behavior, the most effective method of protecting citizens from crime is to prevent people from becoming criminals. For this reason, many psychologists and criminologists have analyzed the different factors and motivations that can cause people to commit crimes. In contrast to this approach, the influential criminologist Travis Hirschi instead focused on establishing the motivations that encourage people to obey the law so we can use those factors to prevent citizens from becoming delinquents. The social control theory asserts that we can encourage citizens to obey laws and avoid criminal activities by establishing a strong social bond between the individual, the culture, and the official values and laws that govern society.

During the 20th century, the psychological and criminology communities began to flourish and perpetuate many different theories to help understand the nature of crime. The primary focus of many social processing theories was to determine why people commit crimes and to explain what motivations can cause a normal citizen to engage in delinquent behavior. However, a significant problem that prevents this approach from helping to understand crime is that there are several diverse motivations that can encourage people to harm others, many circumstances can facilitate criminal activity, and almost every human can become motivated to commit a crime for a wide variety of reasons. For instance, social or economic disenfranchisement is a common reason that causes people to engage in delinquent behavior (Social Control Theories). People who live in low-income communities that are impaired by a drastic lack of resources and hindered by a lack of opportunities tend to commit crimes at higher levels because some people in the disenfranchised communities perceive that engaging in illegal and criminal activities is the only method of acquiring money and feeding their families. Thus, low-income communities tend to experience relatively high crime rates because the inability of many people in the communities to attend college, obtain prestigious employment, or earn reasonable salaries motivates them to commit crimes as a strategy of acquiring money.

In contrast, because wealthy families in affluent neighborhoods possess sufficient resources to receive an education and fulfill prestigious employment positions, most financially stable people do not need to break the law to obtain money and generally refrain from taking the unnecessary risk of engaging in street crime. Although such individuals may refrain from participating in street crime for resources, financially comfortable people can still be motivated to commit crimes by many other factors, such as emotional outbursts, pent up rage, romantic endeavors, family conflicts, or a sociopathic appreciation for the rush of adrenaline and excitement that can accompany criminal activities. Additionally, greed can cause eminent businessmen to commit a financial crime for profits and can motivate governmental figures to commit political corruption crimes for power (Social Control Theories). Thus, understanding crime by analyzing the possible motivations of delinquent behavior can be a difficult challenge because there is such an abundance of diverse and complicated motivations that have the potential to cause every citizen to engage in delinquent activities.

Frustrated by the flaws associated with analyzing the motivations for criminal activity, Travis Hirschi began scrutinizing criminal activity from a different perspective. Hirschi was born in 1935 in Utah, earned his bachelor’s degree in sociology, and then went on to obtain a master’s degree from the University of Utah and a Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley. The admiration Hirschi possessed for scholars such as Hobbes and Emile Durkheim encouraged him to engage in criminological studies, which eventually helped him develop and establish his concepts for crime causation, juvenile delinquency and the social control theory (Social Control Theories). While many of his contemporaries in the psychological and criminological fields were concentrating on the motivations for committing crimes, the social control theory of Hirschi instead emphasizes the motivations for obeying the laws and the importance of understanding why ordinary citizens refrain from engaging in criminal activity. The social control theory proposes that crimes are committed when the connecting bond between the offender and society has been eliminated, and thus we can prevent juveniles from engaging in criminal activities by establishing a strong bond between the children and the values of society.

The theory aligns with the ideas perpetuated by Thomas Hobbes, the 17th-century British philosopher. Hobbes believed that society must have a functioning government and must establish official laws to prevent people from committing crimes and harming other citizens, for without any culturally binding laws people would injure others to fulfill many different motivations, the state of anarchy would cause dramatic levels of crime, and the strongest sectors of society with the most resources would destroy the weaker sectors of society with the least resources (Social Control Theories). Hirschi’s view of mankind is similar to that of Hobbes, for Hirsch asserts that humans are capable of a nearly limitless range of behavior patterns, and without laws and standards binding us to society many individuals would engage in criminal activities. Thus, Hirschi believed that society must establish official laws to codify the standards of the culture, complete the socialization process for each individual, and prevent children from resorting to criminal activities.

Hirschi incorporates many essential elements into the social control theory, and these elements help elaborate on what types of qualities form strong bonds between the individual and the society. The first element of the social control theory is attachment. Hirschi proposes that a child who possesses a strong attachment to society and is concerned about the opinions of other citizens will be less likely to engage in criminal activities, for the individual would risk suffering from a diminished reputation and would risk being stigmatized by the community. The attachment element of social control is especially evident in smaller communities where the various citizens are all familiar with each other. In these types of communities, a man would be reluctant to commit crimes and harm others because engaging in delinquent activity would cause other people to garnish a detrimental opinion of him, would make the community distrustful of him, and would discourage other people from working or socializing with him. Additionally, Hirschi emphasizes that parents are important facilitators of the attachment socialization process, for many people refrain from engaging in any behavior that would disappoint or infuriate their parents (Hirschi, “Causes of Delinquency”). Thus, the attachment element of social control emphasizes the importance of the superego or conscience of the individual, for individuals who care about the opinions of others are reluctant to commit crimes, violate the values or standards of society, and stigmatize their reputations with disgraceful shame.

The next element of the social control theory focuses on the concept of commitment. The commitment element of the bond between an individual and society is established by the consequences that a person would suffer if they do commit the crime. Because many different motivations and influential factors can entice people to engage in deviant behavior, understanding that severe consequences will result from the behavior encourages people to resist those deviant urges, obey the law and avoid committing crimes. The threat of prison is a significant consequence that can prevent people from fulfilling criminal activities. The punishment for many crimes is that the offender must be confined in a prison cell for an extensive period of time, and this threat of punishment causes many individuals to determine that the slight reward for committing a crime is significantly outweighed and superseded by the severe risk of imprisonment that can result from the crime. Reputation also influences the commitment element of the social control theory. For instance, when a man has committed an abundance of time and effort to establish a successful business and acquire a sound reputation among the community, he will be reluctant to engage in deviant behavior, for doing so can cause him to lose the business and reputation that he has invested so much energy into throughout his life. Employment also facilitates the commitment bond of the social control theory, for the potential consequences of losing a job and experiencing financial struggles encourages people to behave in accordance with the standards of society and the requirements of the job (Hirschi, “A Control Theory of Delinquency”). Additionally, married people also must act in accordance with society’s marital values, for violating those cultural standards can entail the serious consequences of a divorce from the marriage. Thus, the commitment aspect of social control suggests that people obey the law because transgressing against the codes of society would destroy the endeavors they are committed to and would result in dramatically painful consequences.

Involvement is the third strategy for enhancing the strength of the connection between an individual and society. Hirschi believed that people who were idle and who lacked involvement in productive activities were more likely to spend their excessive free time fulfilling destructive and criminal actions. For instance, young people who are passionately devoted to education will most likely spend their time acquiring the advanced knowledge and superior skills required to thrive with a successful career that is conducive for their passions, rather than spending their time committing crimes (Key Idea). Additionally, youths who are consistently engaged in legitimate and productive athletic or artistic endeavors are also less likely to participate in delinquent behavior. Although these youths might commit crimes when they are not engaged in their productive activities, the youths will not be fulfilling delinquent actions during the periods of time in which they are involved in their athletic or artistic endeavors. Furthermore, many studies demonstrate that being consistently engaged in productive activities diminishes the likelihood that an individual will become a delinquent (Hirschi, “Causes of Delinquency”). Thus, society can help facilitate the socialization process and prevent children from resorting to criminal behavior by ensuring that they spend their time productively and are frequently involved in a legitimate activity.

Belief is another important element of the social control theory as developed by Hirschi. This element asserts that the socialization process is only successful when that individual believes in the validity and legitimacy of the laws established by the given society. Every culture establishes different laws that are most appropriate for the particular values, customs, and lifestyles of that culture. As a result, the stigmatization of a behavior as deviant is arbitrarily determined by the specific culture, different behaviors are considered deviant according to different societies, and an action that is considered acceptable in one society might be considered as deviant in another. Although there is a diverse range of value systems among separate cultures, the goal of socialization is to bind the individual to the laws and values of the society in which he lives and to ensure that the individual believes that those cultural laws are correct (Hirschi, “Causes of Delinquency”). For instance, the socialization process is not successful if the individual does not have a conviction regarding the validity of the cultural laws, for the indifference or disagreement can cause the individual to break those laws and violate the standards of the society. In contrast, an individual who does passionately believe in the merit of the laws that have been established by his culture will be more inclined to abide by the standards of society, successfully fulfill the socialization process and refrain from committing crimes.

The social control theory of Travis Hirschi was very influential to the psychological and criminological communities because the theory provides methods by which society can proactively prevent citizens from becoming criminals. Although punishing a criminal who has broken the laws of society with a prison sentence can prevent the offender from harming any other people in the future, this method of crime prevention is inferior because people have already been harmed by the offender’s initial crime. However, understanding the motivational factors that cause people to obey the law can help us better prevent people from becoming criminals and harming others. Thus, encouraging and facilitating the motivational factors that impel citizens to obey the law is the most effective method of preventing people from becoming delinquents, protecting citizens from abuse, and minimizing crime rates to establish a safe atmosphere within the society. Hirschi’s influential social control theory contends that society can prevent crime and encourage people to obey the laws of society by facilitating the socialization process and by maximizing the strength of the bond between the individual and society.


Hirschi, T. (n.d.). A Control Theory of Delinquency. University of Minnesota Duluth. Retrieved February 20, 2014, from

Hirschi, T. (1969). Causes of delinquency. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Key Idea: Hirschi's Social Bond/Social Control Theory. (n.d.). Sage. Retrieved February 20, 2014, from

Social Control Theories. (n.d.). Vanderbilt University. Retrieved February 20, 2014, from