Hirschi’s Social Control Theory of Crime

By Charlotte Nickerson, published Feb 04, 2022 | Fact Checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD


  • Social control theory assumes that people, by default, are motivated to and capable of committing crimes. However, the social costs of committing crimes deter would-be offenders from deviance.
  • Travis Hirschi’s social control theory hypothesizes that the stronger one’s social bonds to family and religious, civic, and other groups - the less likely one is to commit crime. Hirchi argues that social bonds promote conformity with the community’s shared values and norms.
  • Social control theory has precedents dating to Thomas Hobbes. The theory became popularized in the 1950s, before being heavily critiqued in the latter half of the 20th century. However, new evidence has emerged, suggesting again that Social control theory may be correct in assessing the causes of some types of crime.
  • Social control theory, unlike many other criminological theories, is able to account for differences in criminality across life stages. However, many sociologists have rejected the idea that criminality varies significantly from early adulthood on.


Social control theory of crime was proposed by Travis Hirschi (1969), and posits that strong social bonds increase conformity with social groups and decrease deviance.

Social control theory assumes that people are motivated to and capable of committing crimes without special training. According to this theory, people are prevented from committing crimes due to the costs of criminal behavior, monetarily, legally, and in terms of disapproval from people that the offender cares about.

Social control theory has intellectual origins dating to Thomas Hobbes. In his most famous book, Leviathan, Hobbes (2020) describes the life of early humans as "nasty, poor, brutish and short," and as a "war of all against all."

He argues that this is the natural state of humanity where crime is the rational choice. Hobbes proposes an alternative to this violent life: a system of laws and a government with enough power to punish those who result to force and fraud in pursuing their private interests.

Preferring the safety of themselves and their property, rational people, in Hobbes's argument, would choose to submit to government authority. Hobbes's theory of crime is a choice theory, where people are motivated by weighing the costs and benefits of crime, acting consequently.

However, in contrast to later self-control theories, Hobbes believed that this control comes from the states. Social control theory believes that the most important costs of crime are the social ones: shame. By the 20th century, sociology became the dominant discipline in studying crime.

Sociologists rejected Hobbes' perspective altogether, seeing human behavior as caused rather than chosen. Nonetheless, the early decades of the 20th century saw the emergence of social disorganization theory as a way to describe the breakdown of societal order they saw in immigrant communities and the slums of large cities.

Sociologists believed that these high rates of crime could be attributed to the fact that families, schools, and neighborhoods were too weak to control the behavior of their residents, allowing delinquency to flourish. As H

Hobbes suggested, delinquency is natural — but, the penalties of the criminal justice alone were not enough to contain it.

The degree of someone's bond to society, and, according to social control theory, their capacity to commit crimes, depends on factors such as attachment, commitment, involvement, and belief.

Hirschi: Bonds of Attachment

Family attachment is one factor that is strongly correlated with delinquency. In their book, Unraveling Juvenile Delinquency, Sheldon and Eleanor Glueck (1950) indicated that the amount of affection that mothers and fathers give to their children is a powerful indicator of delinquency.

Those who had stronger emotional ties to their parents were less likely to be delinquent. How adolescents answered the question, "do your parents know where you are (And what you are doing) when you are away from home?" was another powerful predictor of juvenile delinquency.

As those whose parents know when they are away from home are those who inform their parents about their whereabouts, well-supervised children are those who have close relationships with their parents. Attachment to school is another well-established predictor of delinquency.

Students who report liking school and caring about the opinion of their teachers are less likely to be delinquent (Hindelang, 1973). Meanwhile, those who have negative thoughts about school see it as less effective as a moral force.


In social control theory, commitment is the idea that conforming to one's behavior protects and preserves what one has, while crime and delinquency put it at risk. Delinquents calculate the costs and benefits of crime.

The more that a delinquent has to lose, the greater the potential costs of the crime and thus the less likely it is to be committed. What someone has to lose from committing a crime depends on one's assets, prospects, accomplishments, and aspirations.

One outlet for the display of accomplishment and achievement in school. This is expressed through academic achievement. Indeed, of all the measures of school-related activities, grade point average has been considered to be the best predictor of delinquency.

Students with high grade point averages are likely to aspire to further education and less likely to commit delinquent acts or get into difficulties with the police.

This grade point average connection also forms an indirect connection between IQ test scores and delinquency: those with higher IQs are more likely to obtain a higher grade point average, strengthening their commitment to the school (Heimer & Matsueda, 1994).


Involvement signals involvement in conventional activities. According to social control theorists, people who do conventional things, such as walking, playing sports, doing homework, engaging in hobbies, or talking to parents, are, in doing these activities, unable to commit delinquent acts regardless of their delinquent tendencies.

The idea of involvement has contradicted evidence. Multiple researchers, such as Agnew (1986), have found that adolescents carrying out a seemingly conventional activity — having a job — are more, rather than less likely to be delinquent.

Counts of the amount of time that adolescents spend carrying out conventional acts have also shown little correlation between involvement and delinquency. The concept of involvement in control theory shows little connection to actual rates of delinquency, scholars argue, for two reasons.

First of all, most criminal acts require little time to complete — perhaps minutes, or even seconds. Thuss an offender can commit a large number of offenses in a short period of time. Someone could steal several expensive coats, or several video game cartridges, in a matter of seconds.

Crimes can be committed almost everywhere, making the prospect of preventing them by occupying a potential offender a largely feckless one. The other problem facing the concept of involvement is that it neglects the fact that the opportunities for crime reside in the ability for the offender to find opportunities for crime.

Objective conditions as well as the perceptions of actors matter in whether or not a crime occurs. According to control theory, people differ in the strength of their bonds to society.

People, in this view, who are strongly bonded to society are less likely to both engage in activities that provide opportunities for delinquency as well as seeing these opportunities in the first place as they arise.


There has historically been controversy over the role of beliefs in causing delinquency. While some social scientists believe that they are of central importance, others ignore them, sometimes considering them to be merely words that reflect and justify past behavior while being in no way responsible for it.

Control theories reject the idea that beliefs are causes of delinquency, and that offenders are acting according to their beliefs in committing delinquent acts. Nonetheless, control theory is compatible with the view that some beliefs prevent delinquency while others permit it.

Scholars have studied beliefs as a way of understanding how the bonds of attachment, commitment, and involvement work to prevent delinquency.

For instance, those who believe that those who break the law are almost always caught and punished are more likely to commit delinquent acts than those who do not. However, many have argued that responses to questions such as these are more related to impulse than core beliefs.

Those who think in the short term — saying that most acts are not caught — have a lack of engagement and thus an attitude more conducive to delinquency than those that believe that, in the long term, most criminals will be caught.


Social control theory and life stages

Social control theory originally took the form of what sociologists call a life-course theory. The idea of social control theory was that people are controlled by ties to the significant people and institutions in their lives.

As they move through the stages of their life, people and institutions change, and their ties to institutions change accordingly. For example, as one moves from a child to an adult, the structure of family often changes from that of parents and siblings to spouses and children.

Early theorists believed that this transition from one family to another would cause a period of freedom from social bonds and consequently a high rate of delinquency. Adolescents could have secure attachments to their job, church, community, and family or end up with weak and fleeting ties to the central institutions of adulthood.

Just as adolescent delinquents could wind up as law-abiding adults, adolescent conformists could wind up as late-starting adult offenders. Social control theory, in its original iteration, was based on studies that conducted data at one point in someone's life — a cross-sectional study.

Nonetheless, the theory accounted for the weakening and strengthening of conventional bonds that could lead to varying levels of deviance over the course of a lifespan. Nonetheless, more recent data has suggested that the differences in levels of delinquency were relatively constant across individuals as they aged.

Hischi and Gottfredson (1983), in their analysis of this data, explicitly rejected the life course perspective on crime and declared that criminality, established in late childhood, stabilized and did not change.

Others, such as Sampson and Laub, have reworked the original social control theory study by Gluecks and Gluecks (1950) by following the original participants into adulthood.

Sampson and Laub (1993) confirmed Glueck and Glueck findings and confirmed involvement in social bonds such as income, marriage, attachment to spouse, job stability, and commitment as predictors for delinquency.

Social control theory and adolescent alcohol use

Social control theory can be used as justification for behavior that is not necessarily illegal, such as rates of alcohol consumption.

Johnson (1984) conducted a study investigating the efficacy of social control theory in accounting for how adolescents think of alcohol use.

Their findings suggested that differing informal control mechanisms influence adolescents' alcohol use, and that higher alcohol use is associated with weakened bonds to conventional social structures.

However, these consequences differed depending on the age of the adolescent.

Critical Evaluation

Social control theory has been criticized for how it considers the role of delinquent peers. Notable mid-20th century theorist Walter Reckless (1961), for instance, concluded that friendship is a prominent force in predicting whether or not males committed crimes.

Control theorists have questioned the correlation between one's own delinquency and the levels of delinquency among one's friends. In terms of control theory, weak bonds to society lead to association with delinquents and thus delinquent behavior — companionship and delinquency are both caused by the delinquent's rejection by society.

However, this argument is limited. Social learning theorists saw this strong correlation between delinquency and companionship as evidence against social control theory. Alternatively, learning theorists have offered a compromise that combines the two theories; the lack of social control, according to this theory, frees the adolescent to be taught crime and delinquency by their peers.

The notable criminologist Hirschi (1969) rejected this compromise, believing that it would cause internal contradictions. While social control theories assume that crime is the natural state of humanity, social learning theorists assume that crime must be learned. These postulates are in direct contradiction.

Other theorists have attempted to explain the role of delinquent peers without violating social control theory. Instead of teaching delinquency, according to these theorists, peers make crime easier or less risky, increasing the temptation to commit crime by lowering its costs. Another complicating factor regarding the validity of control theory stems from the validity of measures of peer delinquency.

Most studies about the delinquency of peers ask respondents to describe their own friends. Some researchers have argued that this leaves the potential for projection as respondents describe their friends as they describe themselves.

Haynie and Osgood (2005) tested this hypothesis and found that standard data contains a large amount of projection, and measures of delinquency collected directly from the peers in question found that whether or not one's peers commit crimes has only a modest effect on someone's criminal habits. This finding has brought control theory to the attention of researchers again, shaping its critiques.

About the Author

Charlotte Nickerson is a member of the Class of 2024 at Harvard University. Coming from a research background in biology and archaeology, Charlotte currently studies how digital and physical space shapes human beliefs, norms, and behaviors and how this can be used to create businesses with greater social impact.

Fact Checking

Content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Fact checkers review articles for factual accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. We rely on the most current and reputable sources, which are cited in the text and listed at the bottom of each article. Content is fact checked after it has been edited and before publication.

This article has been fact checked by Saul Mcleod, a qualified psychology teacher with over 17 years' experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in psychology journals including Clinical Psychology, Social and Personal Relationships, and Social Psychology.

Cite this Article (APA Style)

Nickerson, C. (2022, Feb 04). Hirschi’s Social Control Theory of Crime. Simply Sociology. https://simplysociology.com/hirschi-control-theory-crime.html


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