Criminological Theory: Context and Consequences

A Summary of Social Control

Crime as one of the threats to human safety and a destructing force for society is often explained from the point of view of sociology. All governments develop a system of controlling techniques and mechanisms to deter crime and ensure the safety of the citizens (Johnson, 2019). The reasons for crime might be found in childhood when a person is brought up in a deviant environment or in the need for a person to engage in illegal activity due to such social determinants as poverty or lack of education (Rankin & Wells, 2017). The structure of a society is built in a way that provides some boundaries and limits for people to interact according to some formal or informal rules.

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From this perspective, social control is a set of norms or rules existing in a particular social group that enables people to live in a community preserving order and safety. In essence, the notion of social control implies that a social group is capable of controlling the processes inside it using laws, conventional rules, or social norms of behavior. However, the violation of these norms that leads to a crime might be caused by the lack of social control or its insufficient quality (Rankin & Wells, 2017). According to the reasoning presented by theorists working in this field, social control represents a set of “constraints on behaviors that are externally imposed by social groups, institutions, and neighborhood conditions” (Rankin & Wells, 2017, p. xii). Thus, the components of social control include the societal norms and rules, personal behaviors in response to the restrictions, as well as moral principles prevailing in a particular community. Such social control components might be influenced by the government to regulate crime rates and preserve safety in a community.

Social Control and Bonding

Throughout the history of criminology and sociology, there have been many attempts made to explain the reasons for delinquent behavior. One of the prominent theorists of delinquency, Wilson (1995), emphasized that a character and its either delinquent or non-delinquent traits are formed in childhood and conditioned by the social environment. The character of every individual living in a society is formed under the influence of ethos or the overall characteristics of the time. Indeed, since their early childhood, people are exposed to the interaction with others in schools, at playgrounds, in families, and other social institutions which provide a particular paradigm of beliefs, assumptions, and values.

Such influences form a person’s character which, in consequence, becomes a reason for an individual to become or not become a criminal. Thus, while interacting with other members of a social group under the influence of the ethos a child acquires certain qualities of personality, frameworks of attitudes, and opinions which he or she perceives as right ones. If the environment (or ethos) is harmful or sets low standards and delinquent qualities, a person develops a kind of character that allows for committing crimes (Wilson, 1995). When constructing his theory, Wilson, as well as many other theorists preceding social control theory, assumed that all humans are inherently social beings and their initial motivation is to be a lawful and obedient part of society and not commit crimes (Lilly, 2019). However, Hirschi built his theory on the opposite assumption.

Indeed, before Hirschi’s theory, all the criminological validations were based on the idea that all people pro-social by nature, “are naturally motivated to conform to social rules,” and their impulses “to engage in illegal behavior is abnormal” (Rankin & Wells, 2017, p. xi). From this perspective, it was important to understand what served as a motivation to violate rules. Thus, the lack of social control and improper environment were used as reasons to explain why people become delinquents. However, an important question that lacked a reasonable answer was why some people become criminals and others do not, even though they belong to the same community and are brought up by the same rules (Lilly, 2019).

In Hirschi’s opinion, every criminal act has its benefits and consequences which the theorist called costs (Lilly, 2019). These costs were assumed to be common for all people due to the universal desire of any individual to violate restricting rules. This assumption allowed for deriving an idea that people are not social but, on the opposite, exposed to committing crimes. Hirschi explained it by stating that all people see the same costs in crimes. In other words, every individual sees an opportunity to satisfy his or her needs by delinquent actions. For example, one would want to receive something without paying for it or feel happy as a result of the consumption of illegal substances (Lilly, 2019). Such a perspective allowed the theorist to assume that all people are motivated to be criminals to the same extent. Thus, Hirschi concentrated on the explanation of why people do not commit crimes.

The explanation of this phenomenon lies in the theory of social control, which implies that the loss of social bonds (or connections) leads to the loss of restraining force. If a person, for some reason, disintegrates with society, he or she might become detached from the paradigm of social rules and turn to the rational calculation of crime costs (Lilly, 2019). Since, according to Hirschi, delinquent behavior is natural for a human, without social bonds, an individual acts naturally and commits crimes. Within this framework, “control lies in a person’s relationship to society” which might be preserved through four different types of social bonds: attachment, commitment, involvement, and belief (Lilly, 2019, p. 109).

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The Validity of Social Control

Despite its broad theoretical justification, the theory of social control is exposed to criticizing and questioning. Being a leading theory in the field of criminal justice, social control theory yielded to other criminological theories such as labeling or deterrent theories. The theorists of the 60s and 70s claimed that the reasons for crime do not lie simply in the control of society but are connected to the whole system of justice and punishment. According to the labeling theory, the prisons as the punishment institutions provide the sources in encouragement for criminals to re-offend thus making a correctional institution rather than a school for criminals (Lilly, 2019). This idea appeared at the beginning of the 20th century and then found its support in the second half of the century when Becker, Erickson, and Kitsuse articulated their perspectives on the role of society in crime prevalence. According to their validations, “societal reaction is integral to the creation of crime and deviance” (Lilly, 2019, p. 142). From this perspective, the labeling theorists seem to underline the destructive role of society in crime creation when Hirschi’s social control theory claimed the opposite, meaning that if an individual is not bonded to society, he or she will become a criminal. Thus, the theory of social control seems logical and valid despite controversies and the diversity of theoretical approaches to the reasons for crime.


Johnson, B. (2019). Deterrence theory in criminal justice policy: A primer. Web.

Lilly, R. J., Cullen, F. T., & Ball. R. A. (2019). Criminological theory; Context and consequences (7th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

Rankin, J. H., & Wells, L. E. (Eds.). (2017). Social control and self-control theories of crime and deviance. New York, NY: Routledge.

Wilson, J. Q. (1995). On character: Essays by James Q. Wilson. Washington, D.C.: The AEI Press.

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