Radical positivism has two wings: a mild version which takes the legal code as representative of a consensus and proceeds to create its own statistics in terms of this measure, but independently of the police and the judiciary and a stronger version which derives its statistics from a posited consensus which is held to differ significantly from that enshrined in legal definitions. Travis Hirschi, like the majority of modern criminologists, adopts the milder version when he writes (1969, p. 47): ‘In this study, delinquency is defined by acts, the detection of which is thought to result in the punishment of the person committing them by agents of the wider society.

The responsibility for evaluating whether an act is to appear as crime or not is shifted either to the wider society in general, or, in the case of self-report studies (e.g. Eddy, J. M., & Gribskov, L. S. 1998) to the offender himself. The law provides a rough moral yardstick, the statistics representing the willingness of individuals to admit to an act retrospectively, or the extent to which police officers are willing and able to arrest offenders whom they encounter in the course of their work.

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In this perspective, the stress is on the seriousness with which lawbreaking is viewed, whether by the agency of social control (the policeman) or by the respondent in a self-report study. It is assumed that there is no great disagreement on the morality of law itself.

The predicament which arises in this perspective is that crime, thus defined or quantified, is found to be well-nigh ubiquitous.

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It is found to occur in all sections of society—amongst the rich and the poor, the young and the old—amongst men and women—and always in greater amounts and in different proportions than was previously assumed. Criminological theory, however, has largely worked on the assumption that crime is an overwhelmingly youthful, masculine, working-class activity.

Radical positivists—confronting the altogether different picture of criminality arrived at by their own techniques—conclude, not that there is a greater spread and variety of rationality in the society at large (some of which is rational law-breaking) than was previously allowed, but that the effectiveness of social control throughout the society is not all that it has been assumed to be. The police, the social workers and the judiciary are, by implication, accused of exercising non-scientific criteria in the decisions they have made about the disposition of rule-breaking individuals. Reforms are therefore necessary to ensure that social control operates effectively and ‘scientifically’ in accordance with the objective interests of the consensus. Radical positivism, therefore, is concerned with the operationalization and the enforcement, via the techniques of positive science, of the moral consensus embodied in the body of criminal law.

All of the evidence about the guilty demeanor and the techniques of neutralization is derived from the situation of apprehension, and apprehended delinquents could have no reason to give strategical (apologetic) answers to the questions he (or others) might have asked him. Individuals may engage in delinquent behavior not because of episodic release from moral constraint, but perhaps because those engaging in delinquent activities do not generally subscribe to the moral codes which prohibit such activities.

More important argument is that of Travis Hirschi (1969) according to which most delinquency is the product of drift. Hirschi suggests that most delinquents may perhaps not concur in conventional assessment of delinquency because (p. 26) ‘the less a person believes he should obey the rules, the more likely he is to violate them’. Much delinquency is explicable as a reaffirmation of working-class values which is dissociated from middle-class values. There is a considerable literature which denies the systematically integrated view of culture which in almost Parsonian fashion, attributes to contemporary society. In sum, the empirical evidence to support the view of the neutralization of the moral bind of law is thin and ambiguous. (Matza, 1990)

Criminological Theory Evaluation

Rather more importantly, if one were to accept with Matza that every kind of statement made by delinquents about the morality of law (whether in the situation of apprehension or elsewhere) is a neutralization, then it would be difficult to conceive of any kind of statement that could be anything else. How, then, could one begin to explain the statements of political deviants in court? Was Jonathan Jackson neutralizing the moral bind of Californian law when he took a gun to court, and told them ‘OK, gentlemen, this is where we take over’? Matza would allow this exception, arguing that Jonathan Jackson was a radical, and that bohemians too may make oppositional statements in the situation of apprehension. Juvenile delinquents, on the other hand, are juveniles and they are held in check by the moral bind of the family.

However, as Hirschi (1969, pp. 199-200) has astutely noted: ‘the more strongly the child is tied to the conventional order, the less likely he is to be able to invent and use techniques of neutralization. ’ We do not accept, with Hirschi, that delinquency may result from differential attachment to parents, and learning processes which result in children being differentially attached to moral authority in general—especially at a time when the hold of the nuclear family is, by all accounts, being weakened. However, we do accept Hirschi’s argument that large numbers of delinquents have a limited code of discourse which takes the form of restricted codes of communication prevalent throughout the working class (Hirschi, 1967).

There is no warrant for assuming, with Matza, that because these codes enable only a non-critical and inarticulate response that therefore their ‘implicit critique’ is not a critique at all but a neutralization. Indeed, even in the most extreme cases of verbal disorder where linguistic utterances are hardly possible by the deviant (e.g. schizophrenia), it has been strongly argued that non-communication itself can be understood as political attack upon the double-bind concentration camp of the nuclear family. Moreover, Matza seems to assume that all his techniques of neutralization are on the same level that is that they are all techniques which neutralize the moral bind of society in the same kind of way. Of course, he does allow that there are various degrees of freedom in using different techniques.

For example, he allows that disclaiming responsibility because one is sick is altogether different from denying one’s responsibility by ‘condemning the condemners’. The problem with this convolution of different types is that even a full-blown ideology could be made to look like a neutralization. Moreover, the list of types is posed in a unilinear fashion: all of the techniques, or any one of them, is seen to neutralize conventional morality. However, it is perfectly apparent that they make different sense depending on what deviant action is being contemplated and upon what kind of morality is being ‘extended’. A homosexual who says he cannot help being a homosexual because he is sick is very different from the homosexual who denies the fact of harm to the victim, who declares that ‘gay is good’ and that his partner agrees.

Of course, deviants do switch from one position to another, but this is contingent upon the dialectical relationship between their deviant action and (not just the conventional morality) and the structure of power, the changes in cultural options, the opportunity to act and the likelihood of apprehension. We are claiming, as against Matza, that deviant motivations run the whole gamut from total acceptance of social morality (coupled with an absolute need to break that morality, e.g. theft in order to feed, killing in self-defense) through to those cases where deviants are in total opposition to conventional morality and are in large part motivated by their desire to alter or destroy it (e.g. total cultural nihilists).

In sum, Matza’s schema of ‘moral neutralization’, underpinned by a simple notion of the relationship of the individual to his culture, must be seen to be what it is: an ambiguous construction of highly articulate assertions. 5 If, however, Matza had been operating with a rather more explicit view of the relationship of men to structures of power and authority he might have become aware that the cultural options available to the majority of citizens in an inequitable capitalist society are designed to make opposition look like neutralizations rather than the critique of the frustrated and the deprived.

The central approaches to the study of deviant behavior often emphasize the importance of relationships with significant others. For example, Social Control Theory focuses on the role of social bonds and the extent to which variation in bonding with the family is associated with delinquent behavior. Accordingly, the strength and quality of relationships with significant others are crucial in the individual’s decision to refrain from deviant behavior. The tendency to deviate is restrained and most people conform to legal and normative behavior as a result of their positive bond with society. When this bond is weakened engaging in deviant behavior is more likely.

The stronger the social bonding of adolescents with parents and peers, the more conformist their behavior is likely to be, in order to avoid jeopardizing these relationships. Control theory states that inadequate socialization will result in weakened bonds, freeing an individual from internal and external controls. When controls are absent or low, individuals are more likely to deviate.

Differential association asserts that individuals exposed to criminal patterns are more apt to deviate and adopt definitions favorable toward law violation. Social control theory argues that people are motivated to obey the law by social controls but that they do not need any special motivation to violate the law because this occurs naturally in the absence of any social controls. Since social control theorists assume everyone would violate the law if they could get away with it, they concentrate on explaining why people do not commit crime.

Travis Hirschi’s social control theory argues that everyone has the potential to be law violating; however, fear deters most people because they do not want to jeopardize the social bonds that they have with others. Drifters, for example, have the greatest likelihood of committing crime, for they have few social bonds at stake. Hirschi stated that there are four aspects of social bonds: attachment, commitment, belief and involvement. For example, an adolescent will be less likely to engage in criminal behavior if he is attached to his parents, if he commits time and effort to conventional lines of behavior and if he believes in community values. In addition, he will probably be involved in school activities, thereby leaving little time to engage in criminal behavior.

Every group or situation encountered in everyday life is governed by social norms. Social norms are the accepted way to behave within a group or environment. (Hirschi, 1983) There are norms for every social group ranging from work environments, socializing and even waiting your turn at the petrol station. Every place or group has it own social norm, for example, when driving on public roads, individuals are expected to follow all the rules but when driving in banger racing on private land, then individuals are expected to speed and collide with other cars. Without social norms, society would collapse into chaos, we need to know and understand what is expected of us.

Early control theories include both socialization, in which a person acquires self- control, and the control over the person’s behavior through the external application of social sanctions, rewards for conformity, and punishments for deviance. Personal controls are internalized, whereas social controls operate through the external application of legal and informal social sanctions. The three main categories of social control that prevent deviance are:

  1. Direct control, by which punishment is imposed or threatened for misconduct and compliance is rewarded by parents.
  2. Indirect control, by which a youth refrains from delinquency because his or her delinquent act might cause pain and disappointment for parents or others with whom one has close relationships.
  3. Internal control, by which a youth’s conscience or sense of guilt prevents him or her from engaging in delinquent acts.

It is argued that the more adolescent’s needs for affection, recognition, security, and new experiences are met within the family, the less they will turn to meeting those needs in unacceptable ways outside the family. At about the same time the control theory was formulated, Walter Reckless proposed his containment theory of delinquency and crime. Reckless’ theory was based on the same principles of internal and external control. The basic idea of this containment theory is that these inner and outer pushes and pulls will produce delinquent behavior unless they are counteracted by inner and outer containment.

Travis Hirschi’s social bonding theory laid the footsteps for all other criminal theorists. Hirschi formulated a control theory that brought together elements from all previous control theories and offered new ways to account for delinquent behavior. Michael R. Gottfredson and Travis Hirschi wrote a general theory of crime in 1990. This is a more refined control theory than originally presented over twenty years earlier by Hirschi.

The theory states that children with behavioral problems will tend to grow into juvenile delinquents and eventually into adult offenders. They believed the path toward or away from crime commences early in life, and also that the level of self-control depends on the quality of parenting in a child’s early years. The theory supports that parenting is the most important factor which will determine one’s level of self-control.

In conclusion, empirical research has produced moderate or weak evidence in favor of social bonding and self control theories. Overall, the direct and indirect tests of tests of self- control theory support it, albeit with weak to modest relationships often reported. Travis Hirschi and his colleagues have developed two influential theories of delinquency, one emphasizing social control, the other self-control (M. R. Gottfredson & Hirschi, 1990; Hirschi, 1969). We examine each of these in turn.

Social Control

Social control theory assumes that children and adolescents have a natural tendency to commit antisocial behaviors and that this tendency must be controlled by society (hence the name “social control”; Shoemaker, 1996). Hirschi (1969) argued that this unruly tendency is kept in check by emotional bonds and attachments that have been developed between the child and society. More specifically, Hirschi postulates that the social bond consists of four components: Attachment, commitment, involvement, and belief.

Attachment refers to the emotional bond the child feels toward other persons and groups. To some extent, Hirschi’s use of the concept of attachment is similar to that of psychologists, in that both describe an emotional bond between the child and someone else. Child psychologists, however, stress the importance of the initial attachment to the caregiver, but have rather neglected the child’s attachment to other individuals and groups. Hirschi, on the other hand, emphasizes the child’s attachments to groups (such as the family, school, and peers) more than to individuals. Children who develop strong attachments to individuals and groups that uphold conventional values are more likely to hold those values than are children who lack such attachments. (White, 1992)

A second aspect of the social bond is commitment, a measure of the extent to which the benefits of conformity to social conventions outweigh the benefits of conforming to antisocial values. If working hard and adhering to conventional morality pays off both materially and psychologically, then the child will continue to uphold societal standards. Conversely, if antisocial behaviors such as aggression, cheating, stealing, and lying pay off more than prosocial behaviors, the child will act antisocially. This aspect of Hirschi’s theory sounds a lot like reinforcement theory

Involvement, the third aspect of the social bond, refers to the extent that the child participates in activities sanctioned by the larger society. This would include, for example, the extent to which children participate in school activities, community service activities, community recreational activities, et cetera. The assumption is that the more children participate in such societal activities, the more they become invested in the values their society holds.

The final aspect of the social bond consists of the beliefs that children hold. This aspect involves the acceptance of the community’s value system. However, if the community lacks such a shared value system, children will develop their values from other sources. Thus, any factors that weaken such shared values also make antisocial behavior more likely Social control theory places a great deal of emphasis on the emotional relationship between the child and others as well as on the set of values the child holds.


More recently, Hirschi and Gottfredson (1994) developed a self-control theory of delinquency. According to this formulation, criminal acts occur because the individual is insensitive to and hence ignores the long-term negative consequences of antisocial behavior, while at the same time being unusually sensitive to the immediate pleasures the antisocial act produces.

In their view, the problem is that individuals who habitually commit antisocial acts do so because of a lack of self-control, defined as the ability to avoid antisocial acts whose long-term consequences exceed their momentary pleasure. Thus, for example, the young child who cheats on a test manifests a lack of self-control because he is unable to resist an act that is immediately satisfying but will have long-term negative consequences. Indeed, self-control theory’s emphasis on the long-term importance of self-regulation is supported by the results of the Mischel et al. (1988) study in which delay of gratification at age 4 was related to positive effects 10 years later.


Hirschi and Gottfredson see self-control as a personality trait that begins to develop in childhood and becomes more stable as the child reaches adolescence and adulthood. Children who develop self-control can inhibit their antisocial tendencies, but those who lack this trait will focus only on the present, and not on any long-term consequences, no matter how strong the long-term consequences might be. Self-control theory relates to the self-regulation processes, which we examined in connection with children’s moral development. In both cases, the ability to self-regulate and to value long-term consequences over short-term gains are seen as important elements in the development of prosocial behavior.

It concurs with attachment theory that the development of emotional bonds between the child and others is a crucial component of moral development, but it expands attachment theory by arguing that the importance of attachment lies in the fact that an attached child is more likely to internalize the values of the parent and society than is a nonattached child. Another interesting aspect is its assumption that involvement in “conventional” activities will strengthen the social bond. Today, this aspect of control theory is probably best seen in the increasing tendency of school systems to impose some kind of a community service requirement on students.


  1. David Matza; 1990. Delinquency and Drift: Transaction Publishers.
  2. Eddy, J. M., & Gribskov, L. S. 1998. Juvenile justice and delinquency prevention in the United States: The influence of theories and traditions on policies and practices, Delinquent Violent Youth: Theory and Interventions. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  3. Hirschi Travis, and Michael Gottfredson. 1983. “Age and the Explanation of Crime”. American Journal of Sociology 89: 552-84.
  4. Hirschi, Travis (1969), The Causes of Delinquency, University of California Press.
  5. Hirschi, Travis and Michael J. Gottfredson. 1993. Commentary: Testing a General Theory of Crime. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 30:47-54.
  6. Hirschi, Travis and Selvin, Hannan (1967), Delinquency Research: An Appraisal of Analytic Methods, New York: Free Press.
  7. Hirschi, Travis. 1969. Causes of Delinquency. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
  8. Mischel, W., Shoda, Y., & Peake, P. K. (1988). The nature of adolescent competencies predicted by preschool delay of gratification. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 54, 687–696.
  9. Shoemaker, D. J. (1996). Theories of delinquency (3rd ed.). New York: Oxford University Press.
  10. White, Harrison C. 1992. Identity and Control: A Structural Theory of Social Action. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

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Travis Hirschi Criminological Theory. (2017, Mar 03). Retrieved from

Travis Hirschi Criminological Theory

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