Social Bonding and Control Theories

Social Bonding and Control Theories

Some proponents insist that control theory is entirely different from all other theories of crime because rather than trying to determine why some people deviate from social and legal norms, it asks: Why does anyone conform? Why don’t we all violate the rules?

In control theories, [this] question has never been adequately answered. The question remains, why do men obey the rules of society? Deviance is taken for granted; conformity must be explained. (Hirschi, 1969:10)

The answer offered by control theory is that we conform because social controls prevent us from committing crimes. Whenever these controls break down or weaken, deviance is likely to result (Reiss, 1951). Control theory argues that people are motivated to conform by social controls but need no special motivation to violate the law. That comes naturally in the absence of controls. This “natural motivation” assumption does not necessarily refer to inborn tendencies to crime. Rather, it refers to the assumption that there is no individual variation in motivations to commit crime; the impetus toward crime is uniform or evenly distributed across society (Agnew, 1993). Because of this uniform motivation to commit crime, we will all push up against the rules of society and break through them unless we are controlled. Thus control theorists assert that their objective is not to explain crime; they assume everyone would violate the law if they could just get away with it. Instead, they set out to explain why we do not commit crime. For instance, Travis Hirschi, the leading control theorist, stated

The question “Why do they do it?” is simply not the question the theory is designed to answer. The question is “Why don’t we do it?” There is much evidence that we would if we dared. (Hirschi, 1969:34; emphasis added)

Later statements by Hirschi and Michael Gottfredson have similarly drawn a sharp contrast between control theory and all other theories of criminal behavior, which they have referred to as “positivistic.” They describe positivistic theories as having nothing to do with what prevents crime but only with what factors positively motivate people to commit crimes. In their view, positivistic theories assume that everyone will conform in the absence of that motivation; in contrast, control theories assume that crime will occur unless prevented by strong social and personal controls (Gottfredson and Hirschi, 1990). This assumption of universal motivation to crime has been incorporated into other recent theoretical models (see Wilcox, Land, and Hunt, 2003).

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