Social Bonding Theory

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What the lamented former president of the American Sociological Association, James Coleman referred to as "social capital," a term used to describe relationships attained through investments of time and emotion, was clearly a lacking commodity in Richard's life up to the time of his mother's murder.  This is made abundantly clear by both Richard's testimony of his social and domestic situations, but also to a paramount extent by his willingness to take his own life.  It must be noted that Richard's social sequestration, as well as the physical and mental brutalization he faced at home, do not allow for merely one determinative theory as adequately explanatory of his actions, and easily overlaps both the developmental and process schools of thought.  That said, the determinants of Richard's criminal act are perhaps better described by the social development school, specifically Travis Hirschi's social bonding theory.  Because Richard meets all the criteria described by Hirschi's four interrelated factors (i.e. attachment, commitment, involvement, and belief; Barak, 2009, p.262) and is ergo better delineated by social bonding theory than other potential fits.

Richard's lack of attachment is multifaceted.  Richard describes his father as both physically and psychologically abusive, and his mother as both emotionally abusive and unavailable.  Through years of dialectical therapy, Richard has come to terms with what he describes as a "dissociative disorder," a cognitive response to the distress he was subjected to in which his mind would detach itself from reality.  Dissociation would be a fair depiction of his social life as well.  Of his peer interaction at school, Richard described himself as "the little kid who sat in the corner...all by himself".  What's more, Richard's academic exceptionalism led to eventual boredom, which caused his attachment to education to attenuate.  

Richard's lack of attachment with regards to his parents, friends, and school, fitting perfectly within Hirschi's attachment model, inevitably affected his involvement in conventional activity, sports being the prime example.  In addition to describing himself as "depressed" and having "no social skills," Richard added that he had been bullied and had "no interest in sports...[nor] experience in sports".  He claimed that this was primarily due to his father's not being a "sports fanatic".  This, in addition to his lack of popularity aided in his being picked last for sporting activity, being proverbially tossed back and forth between sympathetically parsimonious team captains.  It is difficult not to see the attachment/involvement connection here.

Richard's inability to connect with peers, much less his parents, rendered his ability to commit to even the most conventional of goals as exceedingly difficult.  The lack of attachment (at home and school) was likely the ultimate cause of Richard's academic boredom.  Though he depicts himself in his younger years as being every teacher's dream, whose boredom, caused by the lack of academic rigor, caused him to act out in an effort to gain attention, it seems more likely that his desire for attention is predominately caused by his lack of attachment--and of course, commitment.  It can be further inferred that this boredom byproduct is more specifically due to the lack of external feedback by his parents in response to his performance, in addition to a lack of any competitive sense with respect to his peers.  In any case, Richard more than adequately fits the third of Hirschi's four social bonding factors.

As is covered in a plurality of criminological theories, belief can be strongly affected by social interactions, the lack of which, often has profoundly negative effects on the (proto)criminal mind; Richard's lack of the three aforementioned factors, ineluctably affected his belief system, at least as far as his societal values are concerned.  It could be argued that Richard's desire to commit suicide falls under a lack of commitment, but this seems myopic as all four factors are interrelated and all participated in a collective impetus to lead up to his suicidal decision; not the least of these is belief.  It would be incorrect to say that Richard's beliefs were distorted (from the norm) by the brutality of his parents, but it would not be so to say that such brutality would have surely produced, in Richard, irregular beliefs.  As Richard was raised in this environment, and his interaction with others was minimal, it is quite possible that he believed his upbringing to be the norm, however unpleasant.  Whatever his beliefs were, they were certainly not conventional.  The combination of being unattached, uncommitted, and uninvolved, made the consequences of his decision to kill himself less severe.  When aggravated by his mother for the last time, his mind was already in an ostensibly irrational place--the murder occurring only after his agitated mind was already focused on death.

Richard's actions can be argued to fall under a number of criminological theories, yet none seem to fit so strikingly as social bond theory.  Indeed, it would be difficult to argue that Richard's circumstances do not fit perfectly into the four facets of Hirschi's model.  As in the model, all four facets in Richard's case are interrelated.  The abuse he faced at home, extended to his social life at school which in turn led to a lack of involvement and ergo commitment.  All of these contributors to his distance are sure to have affected the manner in which he reacted to things and in turn, affected his beliefs.  It is therefore the conclusion of this study, if one may say, absent intent of cruel tone, that this is one instance in which Richard fits in perfectly.


Barak, G. (2009). Criminology: an integrated approach. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.