Criminology: The Social Control Theory

Most criminologists used to take conformity, or compliance with social rules, for granted deeming it as a natural part of what it is like to be a human. As shown by Freud, there is always a certain tension between the needs of an individual and the needs of society. Though belonging to different schools of thought, Freud, Skinner, and Piaget concur that children learn social rules through exchanges with authority figures and interactions with peers (Lilly et al., 2018). Complying with them also increases their chances of survival because this way, they are able to fit in the group. A later theory, the theory of social control, draws on their research and suggests that conformity stems from strong social bonds and integration into society.

Hirschi, a well-known social control theorist, puts forward the idea that people who commit crimes are not much different from those who do not. Rationally, any person is capable of seeing the risks and benefits of a criminal offense. What serves as a predisposition for nonconformity is the social context characterized by ineffectual social controls (Lilly et al., 2018). Therefore, a person can seize the opportunity to break the law if benefits outweigh risks. For criminologists, the social control theory means that an effective approach to reducing crime might be to change not individuals but their social contexts.

The question arises as to who decides what is moral or not in human society. Today, there are theistic and evolutionary theories of how morals and ethics have been formed (Film Media Group, 2002). Krebs (2011) opines that the origins of morality can be traced back to primitive human societies of hunters and gatherers. The first humans soon realized that cooperation was needed for survival while misbehavior and transgression jeopardized the survivability of the entire group. Today, moral norms originate from and are maintained by society.

In his social bonds theory, Hirschi assumes that humans are naturally drawn to delinquent behaviors. However, there are four kinds of bonds that can serve as protective factors against misbehavior. By social bonds, the scholar understands the elements of social cohesion that help individuals with social integration. Below is the list of social bonds developed by Hirschi:

  1. attachment refers to the strengths of bonds that exist in an individual’s social environment. For adolescents, the most important bonds are those with parents, though others play a significant role as well;
  2. commitment signifies how much a person is dedicated to pursuing conventional goals. It is implied that the more a person invested in their pursuit, the more he or she has to lose;
  3. involvement means that if an individual is engaged in conventional activities, he or she will have less time for delinquent ones;
  4. belief describes the degree to which an individual has faith in the validity of social norms and conventions (Hirschi, 1998).

If a person already shows strong delinquent leanings, he or she might still be able to benefit from strengthened social bonds. It is better to analyze such situations on a case-to-case basis to determine individual protective factors present in a person’s life. In case a person’s family is alive, its members could be encouraged to get involved and provide moral support. A person might have hobbies or interests, which may be the key to engaging them in conventional activities. There, they can find peer support as well as learn valuable skills.


Films Media Group. (2002). Morality: Judgments and action. Films On Demand. Web.

Hirschi, T. (1998). Social bond theory. Criminological theory: Past to present. Los Angeles: Roxbury.

Krebs, D. (2011). The origins of morality: An evolutionary account. Oxford University Press.

Lilly, J. R., Cullen, F. T., & Ball, R. A. (2018). Criminological theory: Context and consequences. Sage Publications.

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