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On the Absence of Self-Control as the Basis for a General Theory of Crime Essay

Self-control theory theorizes the single most important factor behind crime is an individual’s lack of self-control. This is explored and explained much more in-depth in A General Theory of Crime. In this book, Gottfredson and Hirschi theorized that low self-control is the root to all crime at all times and ultimately the general theory of crime.

They referenced back to the cause of low self-control describing the parenting that they claim is to blame and therefore theorized that bad parenting leads to low self-control that leads to crime, making low self-control the root of all crime. Gilbert Geis, a criminologist, has dissected the theory and found many deficiencies regarding its applicability to all crime. Although Geis admires the attempt to generalize a theory to explain all crime he also admires a saying that states “nothing is more tragic than the murder of a grand theory by a little fact” (p. 77).

Through many examples of different crimes, criminal behaviors, and scenarios, Geis was able to dispute the self-control theory in regards to: its definition of crime, the matter of tautology, its discussion of criminal law, its inclusion of the acts analogous to crimes, exceptions to the theory, the role played in the theory by the concept of opportunity, its views about specialization in criminal behavior, its handling of the matter of aging, how it deals with white collar crime, research on the theory, ideological issues, and child-rearing and the theory.

How much variance can the theory explain? There should be one theory per one type of crime. It is not likely that any contributing variable is applicable for all crimes. This is the idea that fueled Geis to dispute the claims made by Gottfredson and Hirschi. The idea of creating one general theory is too great of a goal where as a more modest and effective goal would be to create a family or group of theories to explain the root of most crime.

It is believed by Geis that this self-control theory will be sloughed off as a general theory to explain all crime. Everything should be made as simple as possible but not simpler than possible. Research and facts that are incompatible with the theory should not have to be explained away or shaped to fit within the patterns consistent to the theory. A study conducted in 2007 by Cretacci examined self-controls ability to explain different forms of crime and whether the support that it has gained has been exaggerated.

The results collected from these tests indicated that self-control theory is a predictor of probability of involvement in property and drug crime but is practically silent in its ability to explain crimes of violent nature. In addition to this, Cretacci also has found many logical deficits that exist in many explanations the theory is supposed to serve. One particular deficit is the idea of the stability of self-control.

According to Gottfredson and Hirschi the level of self-control an individual possesses levels out around the age of 7 and remains the same throughout the individual’s lifetime. This information was only supported by one resource. Questioning this claim, Turner and Piquero conducted a study in 2002 to reexamine the resource utilized by Gottfredson and Hirschi that resulted in mixed support for their claim. Geis feels that the idea of explaining a massive field with one general theory is impossible. This belief applies to all human acts and broad categories such as criminal behavior.

There are too many variables within a broad category or topic as such to be fully explained by one explanation. Human nature drives us to believe such easy explanations for sake of simplicity and solidity and this is often why individuals tend to hold theories such as this for truth even when factual research and support contradict said theory. A famous scientist once said “Nothing is more surprising than the way in which a theory will continue to survive long after its brains have been knocked out” (p. 177)


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