This essay will thoroughly examine and evaluate the claim that it is social controls that prevent us from committing crimes by looking at different social control theories. Firstly we must determine what a social control theory consists of, according to Hopkins (2009) ‘social control theory is fundamentally derived from a conception of human nature that proposes that there are no natural limits on elementary human needs and desires. People will always want and seek further economic reward and it is thus not necessary to look for special motives for engaging in criminal activity.
Human beings are born free to break the law and will only refrain from doing so under particular circumstances. It is these fundamental assumptions that form the basis of social control theories’ (Hopkins 2009, p. 246). Therefore controls set in society are the reason humans do not commit crime, if these controls were to be removed humans would naturally due to their nature commit crime. This also shows that social control theories try and solve the question of ‘why do people not commit crime? rather than ‘what causes people to commit crime? ’ The reason behind solving the first question rather than the second is because social control theorists believe committing crime is the default position of every human therefore the second question has already been solved. Many of the early control theories attach more importance to psychological factors rather than social factors when analysing deviance and conformity. One of the earliest control theories to focus on sociological reasons for crime was that of Durkheim’s theory of anomie.
Durkheim argued ‘inadequate forms of social control are more likely during periods of rapid modernisation and social change because new forms of regulation cannot evolve quickly enough to replace the declining form of social solidarity (N. D cited in Hopkins 2009, p. 247)’. As a result of this people will commit crime as there are no controls to stop them as society changes at a different rate to people. Only when people get used to the new society will the controls be back in place and stop people committing crime.
Durkheim’s later work uses the concept of social disorganisation but there is a fundamental difference between how he and other theorists use the concept. Anomie theorists argue that social disorganisation creates pressure, which in turn produces crime and deviance this is a predestined actor model argument. On the other hand social control theorists argue social disorganisation causes a weakening of social control, making crime and deviance more possible this is a rational actor model argument (Hopkins 2009, p. 247).
This shows social control theorists put the blame on society for not stopping people from committing crime by being disorganised. In 1969 Travis Hirschi proposed a control theory of delinquency which is based on an individual’s bond to society. In simplest terms Hirschi states ‘delinquent acts result when an individual’s bond to society is weak or broken (Hirschi 1969, p. 16)’. The bond has four social components which are attachment, commitment, involvement and belief and Hirschi believes it is these social aspects that stop us from committing crime.
Each of these components although independent they are also highly interrelated to one another and each is given equal weight by Hirschi. All of these combined stop most people from committing crime (Hopkins 2009, p. 250). Firstly we will look at attachment. As put forward by many theorists before him, people need to internalise the norms of society, hirschi (1969) tries to explain what this means and try and show attachment to be a better way of going about this. The norms of society are shared by others in society so if one was to violate a norm they would be going against society and not care about them.
If the person doesn’t care about going against society and what others think then that person is not bound by the norms of society anymore and is free to deviate. This is where Hirschis believes the essence of internalization of norms lies in the attachment of individuals to others and states that it has several advantages over internalization of the norms of society (cited in Cullen and Agnew 2006, p. 221-222). Reasoning for this being if a man were to get divorced and commit a crime by using the assumption of internalization the blame would go on his inner self which is his psychological side.
Whereas by using the idea of attachment it would show that the loss of his wife made him commit the crime because the attachment was the control and it would be easier to measure and help him. The stronger attachment an individual makes with parents, teachers, friends and society the more likely they are to not commit crime as they will worry about what one of them might think. The next social aspect of Hirschi’s (1969) bonding theory to be looked at is that of commitment. The idea behind commitment is that a person nvests time, energy, himself, in a certain line of activity for example education, building up a business, becoming a footballer. Whenever this person considers deviant behaviour, the person must weigh the costs of this deviant behaviour. The social investments the person has made will be put at risk by committing a crime (cited in Newburn 2009, p. 237). This is essentially a rational actor model of cost-benefit argument and those who invest most in conventional social life have a greater stake in conformity and because of this have the most to lose by breaking laws (Hopkins 2009, P. 250).
This shows that people who do not invest in conventional social life are more likely to commit crimes as they do not have many things to lose for example someone who has no home, family, job or aspirations. A person like this would have no social investments and will not feel the need to conform. People can aspire to be something in the future for example a doctor or police officer and this can again make them conform because they can see what they could have in the future and not want to lose it. Children from a young age should be put in schools because according to this theory they will have a lot to lose by not conforming.
Hirschi’s (1969) next element of bonding theory is involvement, which assumes people are simply too busy doing conventionally things and therefore do not have the time to engage in deviant behaviour. A person tied up doing conventional things such as going to school, working, meeting people, keeping appointments and things of that sort will not have the opportunity to commit deviant acts (cited in Cullen and Agnew 2006, p. 223). The more involved people are in social activities the less likely they are to commit deviant acts as the thought of committing a deviant act will not be present because they are to busy.
This shows that people need to stay busy and involved in society’s activities to not have the urge to commit deviant acts. An example of this would be children who drop out of school, these children will be more likely to commit a crime because they are not busy anymore. These children will need to be channelled into other conventional things like joining the army or getting a job. If this does not occur than these kids will have the time to think of deviant acts and will want to enact them out.
The final part of Hirshi’s (1969) bonding theory is belief which is broken down into two approaches. The first approach highlights that beliefs are just words that have no meaning if other controls are missing for example attachment, commitment and involvement. These beliefs will not matter when a person is committing a crime as the other controls are not present in this type of being who is usually said to be a psychopath. The other assumption is that once a person’s belief in the moral validity of norms is weakened, then that person is more likely to commit a crime.
There is no reasoning behind this weakness that has occurred it has just occurred because of other beliefs that person may have and these beliefs will make the person in essence neutralise committing a crime (cited in Newburn 2009, p. 239). People who embrace the moral and normative conceptions of society are less likely to commit crime because they have an understanding of what society wants and people committing crimes is not what society wants. The more a person is attached to others and institutions the less likely they are to commit a crime because the person’s beliefs will be based on these attachments.
For example a kid who is taught by his mother stealing is wrong and is reminded of this every day of his childhood will have a belief that stealing is wrong when he gets older and is less likely to steal. Reinforcement of these beliefs by others is also very important because it continuously reminds one of what is right. It is evident that the justifications made by the bonding theory on why people do not commit crime are reliable and valid if all the social controls are working but there are some flaws.
Looking at attachment it can be argued that Monks do not have attachments with conventional society or with friends and family but they do not go around committing deviant acts. The theory of commitment is sound but does not take into account economic status and intelligence of individuals. Also Hirschi himself conceded that he had overestimated the significance of involvement in conventional activities and underestimated the importance of delinquent friends (Hopkins 2009, p. 251). The next theory we will be looking at is that of Gottfredson and Hirschi which in named ‘The general theory of crime’ (1990).
In this theory Gottfredson and Hirschi ‘manage to combine rational actor model notions of crime with a predestined actor model theory of criminality’. Due to the rational actor model way of thinking, in this theory crime is defined as the force or fraud undertaken to make oneself happy. As discussed earlier, just as the likelihood of criminality is closely linked with the opportunity, the characteristics of situations and the personal properties of an individual will also effect whether or not force or fraud is used to ulfil this self-interest. This concept of criminality (low self-control) can also be seen in acts such as smoking, drinking and promiscuity, this type of behaviour is seen to be the impulsive actions of disorganised beings who seek quick gratification (Hopkins, 2009, p. 254). Gottfredson and Hirschi argue direct control is the key to effective parenting and state parents need to monitor their children closely and if the children misbehave they need to be punished.
Children also need to be taught that breaking rules has consequences and only then will self-control be installed, if this does not occur children will tend to be insensitive, risk taking and dangerous (cited in Cullen and Agnew 2006, p. 228). Gottfredson and Hirschi’s (1990) believe low self-control in children will lead them to constantly engage in crime and other deviant acts as they get older. Parents are seen to be the best way of getting self-control into a child because of their involvement with the children from a young age (Cited in Newburn 2009, p. 244).
This idea of ineffective parenting being the reason for low self-control can be seen in the study of Gleuk and Gluek (1950). The study reported that ‘discipline, supervision and affection tend to be missing in the homes of delinquents’ and that the ‘behaviour of the parents are often poor’ (cited in Newburn 2009, p. 244). This shows that if parents exercise god social controls on children from a young age, they are less likely to commit a crime as there self-control will be high. Low self-control relates to high deviance and high self-control leads to low deviance.
If children from a young age are disciplined, they will have high self –control and as a result they will be more willing to not use force and violence to achieve their goals. It is this notion of high self-control that Gottfredson and Hirschi believe leads people to not commit deviant acts and when there is low self-control they believe people will naturally commit crime. Gottfredson and Hirschi’s General theory of crime again shows great ideas and links self-control with parenting and how this will determine the likeliness of committing crime but again there are weaknesses in this theory.
One major problem is that this theory does not take ecological or individual differences into account. For example if the crime rate in Birmingham is higher than that in Leeds, according to this theory it is because people in Birmingham have low self-control and are more impulsive than people from Leeds, which is obviously not true. Another problem is it assumes all relationships kids will have with their parents will make them have greater self-control later in life.
This is questionable because many parents may not care about their kids and even if they do, they themselves could have low self-control which can be picked up by kids. The last social theory to be looked at is that of Charles Tittle (1995) named control balance theory which disagrees with the previous theories claiming too much control leads to deviance. Tittle believes that any control imbalance whether it is surplus or deficit, will lead to people committing deviant acts. Too much control can lead to corruption, domination, enhanced autonomy and the desire to obtain more control.
Too little control can lead to envy, resentment and the loss of any stake in society and as a result there will be no incentive to conform. Tittle states motivation to commit crime arises for those with a control surplus because they want to extend this surplus and in those who have a control deficit as they want to get rid of this deficit (cited in Hopkins, R 2009 p. 257). This theory shows that if an individual has too much control they are likely to commit a crime and if someone has too little control then they are also likely to commit a crime.
There needs to be a balance of control for the incentive to commit crime to not arise in individuals. From this theory it is easy to see that deficit of control and surplus of control are linked because for someone to have a deficit of control, high control has been asserted on them by another individual or society. For someone to have surplus of control then low control has been asserted on them. Crimes such as street crime and corporate crime can be justified through this theory because the first is committed by many with a deficit of control and the latter by people with surplus of control.
To conclude it is evident that there are positives of social control theories, one being it explains social influence from many different perspectives such as peers, media and parents which relates to most people. Another advantage it has is that it covers a wide range of explanations as to why people do not commit crime and it does consider other reasons such as cognitive factors. There are however many negatives to social control theories one example being the fact they do not take into account genetics as a reason for crime.
Also it is debatable whether reinforcements made by parents towards kids are consistent enough to change behaviour. Family is seen as the building block of society and that individuals are better adjusted when adequately socialised by parents. The problem here is Social control theories do not consider the effect on children from extended families such as aunts and uncles. Over all these reasons there is one more problem with social control theories, it is the unanswered question of how would we be deviant?
All the theories claim we would be deviant if all the social aspects analysed earlier in this essay were not present but none of them tell us how we would be deviant. To answer the question that was asked at the beginning, social controls are not the only thing that prevents us from committing crime. The nature of the human race is far too complex to be simplified by stating social controls will stop them from committing crimes, as seen in this essay there are many factors social controls do not cover and there are many unanswered questions.
Courtney from Study Moose
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