According to social control theory, all people could potentially violate laws since our present society provides numerous opportunities for criminal activity to exist. Criminal behaviors such as theft and drug abuse, often serve as exciting pastimes for people and promise gratification and rewards immediately. Keeping in mind the many attractions to crime, social control theorists focus on finding out why people obey society’s existing rules. Social control theorists believe that laws are obeyed by people because passions and behaviors are controlled by both internal as well as external forces (Siegel, 2006).
According to this theory, many people have self-control which is manifested due to a strong sense of morality. This makes these people lack the ability to violate social norms or hurt other people. One the same sides of the spectrum, many other people acquire a commitment to conformity which is adhered to on the basis that there is logical, real, and present reasoning to obey society’s rules. Many people might think that getting caught while behaving criminally might jeopardize aspects of their life such as family, friends, a job, or a college scholarship. Therefore, the behavior of people is controlled by commitments and attachments to conventional processes, institutions, and even individuals. If such attachments are lacking, people are free to act criminally and therefore are not deterred by the threat of punishments (Siegel, 2006).
Earlier versions of the social control theory suggested that lower levels of self-control were products of a weak self-concept along with a lack of self-esteem. Younger people who feel confident in themselves and have a positive attitude are able to resist street crime temptations. In as early as 1951, sociologist Albert Reiss explained how those who showed delinquent behavior had a lack of self-control and very weak egos in order to produce ‘conforming behavior’ (Siegel, 2006 p.232). It has been noted by Irving Piliavin and Scott Briar that the younger population that believes that participating in criminal activities will harm their relationships and self-image will be more likely to obey the rules of society. These people gain a commitment toward conformity. However, those who are not as concerned with their social and self-image are free to go against the rules. Regarding this containment theory, social control theorist Walter Reckless argues that viewing self-image as important serves to insulate youth away from the influences and pressures of the people and environment surrounding them (Siegel, 2006).
Sociologists such as Howard Kaplan truly believe that youths that lack a strong self-concept, are much more likely to behave criminally since doing so actually raises their level of confidence. This theory of self-enhancement holds that younger people base their behavior toward enhancing their social image. Generally, adolescents conform to the laws, provided they receive feedback that is positive. If they feel useless and negative they will associate with criminal groups whose members can relate to the rejection and feel the same way. These groups give each other support, regardless of what other people think of them (Siegel, 2006).
Within his 1969 book called Causes of Delinquency, Travis Hirschi articulated the social bond theory which now serves to be the dominant theory among control theorists. Travis Hirschi believes that the onset of crime stems from weakened ties of people to society. According to this theory, all people are potential criminals, but many have control because crime will ruin their relationships. Without strong social bonds, people are free to behave criminally. According to this theory, the social bond that people contain with society is separated into 4 components which are attachment, commitment, involvement, and belief (Siegel, 2006).
The term attachment exists in regards to an individual’s sensitivity as well as interest in other people. Psychologists believe that if people lack a sense of attachment, than people will become psychopathic and would therefore lose the ability to coherently relate to society or the surrounding world in general. The existence and acceptance of social norms and a conscience of such norms fully depends upon the attachment that people have toward others. Hirschi believes the most important institutions in society that people should maintain relations with are parents, peers, and schools. He believes that attachment to parents is especially important because without attachment to parents, regardless of separation or divorce, people will most likely never feel respect for others in authority (Siegel, 2006).
Next is commitment which involves energy, effort, and time put into conventional action, for example, saving money and getting a decent education. If people have a strong commitment to conventional things, they will be less likely to behave criminally because they might jeopardize their position and hard work. Therefore, without commitment, people will engage in risk-taking behavior, which to them becomes a reasonable alternative. Closely linked to commitment is involvement. Being heavily involved in conventional programs does not leave much time for criminal behavior. When people are closely involved with family and school, it ‘insulates’ them from the attraction of crime. The last component to the social bond theory is belief. Those who reside in the same social environment tend to share common beliefs such as sensitivity and caring or even respect for laws and codes. If such beliefs do not exist, people would be more likely to commit crimes (Siegel, 2006).
Siegel, L. (2006). Criminology. 9th ed. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth.