In order to attempt to control crime it is important to understand why people commit crimes

Albert Reiss was one of the earliest criminologists to study control theories. Reiss maintained that present in juvenile delinquents was an under developed super-ego. The super-ego, developed by Freud, is the aspect of the mind which controls conscience. This then resulted in a reduced level of conscience and therefore, led to delinquency. Reiss’ theory was criticised because it’s unquestioned acceptance of Freud’s psychoanalytical theory and, as with many physiological theories, it’s difficult in testing. It is impossible to accurately define someone’s super-ego and is therefore difficult to provide statistical support for the theory.

In 1957 Jackson Toby further developed the idea of control theory in his article ‘Social Disorganization and Stake in Conformity’. Toby’s idea of a ‘stake in conformity’ was that if a person had a high stake in relation to social norms, they would be less likely to commit crimes. Having a lot to lose with respect to society, would provide more reason to abide within the rules of society, whereas a youth with nothing to lose would have less reason. Toby’s theory reflected the different levels of delinquency in different social classes, as the more affluent youths had a higher stake in conformity and committed fewer crimes. The theory failed, however, to explain why some affluent youths were still delinquent and some lower class youths were not. The theory was essentially based on a large distinguishing factor of class which although reflected delinquency, was still a broad concept that could never explain all types of criminal behaviour.

F Ivan Nye developed Toby’s theory in 1958 in his book ‘Family Relationships and Delinquent Behaviour’. Nye considered the family as having social control over its children and being influential in determining whether delinquency occurs. Nye divided the family’s social control into four main areas; internalized controls, direct controls, indirect controls and need satisfaction. Nye’s results were successful in that they accurately predicted delinquency in certain types of family relationships.

Toby was critical of the basis of Nye’s study as the sample used by Nye failed to include significant groups of youths who lived in large cities or who had dropped out of school at 16. These groups would have likely had a large impact on the results of the study as they would arguably been among the most deviant. Toby went as far as to say that the sample Nye had used could be described as non-deviant by many criminologists1. Nye was also criticised for the questionnaire used in his study as it was problematic and possibly produced bias results. What Nye had done, however, was emphasised the importance of the family in understanding why criminals deviate, a factor which is readily accepted by modern day criminologists.

Walter Reckless also attempted to explain crime in terms of buffers against delinquency known as inner and outer containment. Like all of the early theories, however, Reckless’ was problematic. Reckless’ theory was vague and indistinctive and it was unclear why some factors were considered as social pressures and some social pulls. Reckless’ theory was also heavily criticised for the questionable research methods used to gather the data.

In 1969 Travis Hirschi released a book entitled ‘Causes of Delinquency’, which has become the subject of much discussion since its release. In the book Hirschi asserted that a delinquent is free from the social connections that bind most of us into acting within the law. Hirschi described his theory in terms of a ‘social bond’, defined by four different categories; attachment, commitment, involvement and belief. The defining elements of ‘social bond’ represented a person’s links with society and conformity that, if severed or weakened, would result in delinquency.

By attachment, Hirschi referred to people’s sensitivity to the opinion of others and a desire not to hurt or embarrass those who we care about. Who exactly is defined as ‘others’ however, is uncertain. If it assumed that ‘others’ refers to those people for which we feel affection then it could be argued that youths growing up from areas of high criminal activity may in fact engage in acts of deviance in order to avoid causing embarrassment to their peers. This would result in youths copying deviant behaviour from those around them and a theory more similar to Sutherland’s differential association theory2.

Hirschi also included commitment in his definition of the social bond. Commitment refers to the fear of losing what is at stake if we engage in deviance. This, however, is problematic in that it assumes that all criminals are rational thinkers who evaluate the possible consequences of their actions before they act. This assumption is clearly not accurate as a majority of crimes are committed on impulse. There is also a suggestion that involvement in family, jobs etc restricts us from the opportunity to deviate. This, however, does not explain situations where the deviant may be completely bonded with society through a job and family, and yet still commit occupational crimes. This suggests that it is not purely a lack of social bond that can lead to deviance but also opportunities created by that social bond itself.

Hirschi also referred to a lack of belief in the rules of society as a possible cause of deviance. Perhaps one of Hirschi’s main criticisms is the tautological argument. Unconventional or deviant acts are said to be caused by a lack of social bond. The acts themselves, however, are defined by the social bond itself. Therefore, where a criminal is deviant, they are obviously going to be acting outside the social convention and have no social bond and this will obviously lead back to deviance. A circular argument is formed, therefore, and it could be claimed that Hirschi’s theory tells us nothing new of any significance3.

In 1990 Hirschi collaborated with Micheal Gottfredson to write ‘A General Theory of Crime’, which emphasised more on internal self-control coupled with opportunity. Their claim was that external influences experienced whilst young, created an internal self-control that prevented us from committing crimes over the course of our life. This internal self-control could be strengthened through child rearing practices such as close parental relationships and recognizing and punishing unacceptable behaviour

Gottfredson and Hirschi argued that gender differences are down to differing internal controls not influenced by external social controls. They argued that females committed fewer crimes because they were socialised into the family more at a young age. Le Grange and Silverman in 1999 found that females were more likely to be under parental supervision, therefore, reducing the opportunity to commit crimes compared with males4.

Gottfredson and Hirschi also claim that all self-control is developed in early stages of childhood. A recent study by the University of Alberta5 shows that social controls such as family, school and peer relations alter the effect self-control has on crime. This suggests that these self-control may still be altered later on in life through employment, parenthood, and other factors. These contentions are better explained by Jackson Toby in his theory the ‘stake in conformity’ as discussed earlier. Parenthood and employment give provide a lot more to lose and may prevent people from committing crimes especially among the mature. Laub and Sampson also argue that life trajectories have an impact on self-control levels and therefore crime. Their social capital model claimed that personal bonds developed later in life could alter the level of self-control of an individual6.

It could be argued that Gottfredson and Hirschi fail to recognise obvious biological changes that occur. Maturity must have an effect on crime in that the young and immature tend not to appreciate what is at stake when committing crimes. Akers in 1991 argued that because crime declined with age, the theory of self-control being a uniform internal element was inaccurate. The self-control theory is weakened by the undeniable statistical evidence that most crimes are committed by younger people.

It could be argued that opportunities decline with age and that because people have jobs etc, they simply do not have the time to commit crimes. This however does not explain the occurrence of white collar crime and it is difficult to justify against all the statistical evidence.

Gottfredson and Hirschi also fail to explain why different factors show varying results. For example, parent involvement tends to be a much better predictor of criminal behaviour. The uniform approach of Gottfredson and Hirschi may be seen as too simple in that it does not distinguish between different factors as Hirschi did in his earlier work.

The strength of Gottfredson and Hirschi’s work lies in the fact that unlike previous theories, that have accounted for possible individual personality differences and not simply concentrated on large variables such as gender, race, and class. The early childhood development of internal self-controls is a sound predictor of personality traits that have become synonymous with criminals such as impulsiveness, quick tempers and an inclination towards simple physical tasks with immediate rewards.

A possible criticism of the self-control theory, however, is that it concentrates too much on individual levels of self-control without properly acknowledging the statistical association of crime with social class and race. ‘A General Theory of Crime’ attempted combine the influences of internal and external controls to explain all types of criminal behaviour. This is extremely ambitious and possibly unrealistic.

Another leading contemporary theory is the control balance theory put forward by Charles Tittle in ‘Control Balance: Toward a General Theory of Deviance’7. Tittle attempts to predict very specifically deviant behaviour as a result of a control ratio defined by either how much control you have over others or how much control others have over you. This theory is attractive because it can be applied broadly to all members of society and explains not only classic criminal behaviour such as street crime but also occupational crimes which previous theories have failed to address.

Tittle gives examples of criminal behaviour that occur with both control deficit and surplus. Although this gives the theory a broad scope to explain a wide range of criminal behaviour, it can prove problematic. In the case of gender differences, for example, it is statistically known that men commit more crimes than women. If the control theory is applied, despite women likely having a control deficit due to old-fashioned values, crime rates should still be almost equal due to the criminal behaviour predicted in cases of control deficit. The theory seems to apply equally to both men and women and result in criminal behaviour for both. The statistics, however, seem not to support the theory as men undoubtedly commit far more crimes than women.

Tittle’s theory may be seen as being too simplified. His attempt to be extremely specific in the prediction of different types of criminal behaviour causes conflict and may be over-ambitious. For example, it difficult to comprehend his theory that large control surplus will lead the most serious deviance in the form of decadence and the large scale flaunting of wealth8.

In conclusion, although control theories have had a huge influence on the understanding of criminal behaviour, there are still many flaws that exist. Many of the theories refer to conformity and criminals being non-conventional. The idea of a social norm, however, may be said to be merely a novelty with no real existence. It is extremely unlikely that a theory will ever accurately explain all types of criminal behaviour. This is a concept that will simply have to be accepted. Arguably the most influential of all the criminology theorists, Hirschi himself believes that ‘among the better studies of delinquency, inconsistency is not, in my opinion, a serious problem’9.