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The Social Bond Theory by Travis Hirschi


The social bond theory was developed by Travis Hirschi in 1969 to address social problems among delinquents and provide practical solutions on how these social problems could be solved. The theory which is one way or another similar to the social control theory originated from the Functionalist theories of criminology by mostly focusing on Ivan Nye’s theory of functionality developed in 1958.

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Paradigms of the Theory

Hirschi’s social bond theory was built around two paradigms which included Sutherland’s differential theory which sought to explain the cultural deviance of social delinquents and Merton’s strain theory which focused on addressing the social strain that was brought about by a lack of social bonds. Hirschi’s theory focused on these two perspectives by explaining social deviance and delinquency to be an occurrence that mostly took place when social bonds were weak or lacking. Hirschi’s main intent for developing the social bond theory was not to come up with a new theory for control but to challenge these new paradigms proposed by Sutherland and Merton (Lilly et al 110). The subject matter for Hirschi’s social bonds theory was to therefore provide a new perspective that would be used to explain social deviance.

The level of explanation as to why crime occurred based on Hirschi’s theory is at a micro level because it seeks to deter crime within a particular social group (the youth) within a certain society. Hirschi focuses on explaining the social bonds that exist between the young members of the society and how a lack of these bonds might lead to deviant or criminal behavior. A structural type of explanation will be used to critique the social bonds theory since weak or absent social bonds within a structural societal institution lead to deviant or delinquent behavior. The control and bond theories are made of two very complex concepts (bond and control) and they have formed the basis for addressing social problems within the society. The view of the society based on the social bond theory is that if a weakening of the conventional belief system occurred, the likelihood of an individual engaging in deviant behavior was more than likely to occur. This means that if an individual did not accept the rules governing the society to be valid and binding, they were likely to engage in criminal behavior. The view of deviant behavior under this theory is that of a lack of social bonds increases the incidence of a person becoming a social deviant (Lilly et al 110).

Key Concepts

The main assumption of the social bond theory is that people engage in criminal or deviant behavior when the social bonds between the individual and the society are broken or weak. The theory assumes that people will deviate unless they are socially constrained by the bonds that exist within a society (Lilly et al 114). Hirschi identified four important elements or concepts that were useful in explaining the social bond and these included attachment, commitment, involvement and belief. The first element, attachment, refers to the bonds that an individual has to family members or other significant individuals (Lilly et al 115) while the second element of the theory, commitment, explains social bonds as the investment of time, money and other useful resources to establish a connection or tie with important people.

The third element, involvement, refers to the amount of time that a person spends engaged in activities that are meant to build conventional relationships while belief the final element of the social bond theory talks about how individuals accept the value systems that exist within the society as being valid and binding to the society’s members (Lilly et al 116). The theoretical foundation of the social bond model rejected the classical school of thought on criminology as well as the rational choice theories which stated that crime was as a result of weighing the costs and benefits of unsatisfied demands. Hirschi’s social bond model viewed the choice to engage in crime as one that had easily available benefits to many people and the cost of crime was mostly associated with the type of bond that an individual had with the society (Lilly et al 115).


Since Hirschi introduced the social bonds theory in his 1969 publication Causes of Delinquency, the theory has been one of the most tested in the field of criminology. The results of these tests have demonstrated that the theory has logical consistency as there is evidence which demonstrates that the presence of social bonds is inversely related to juvenile delinquency and crime. The scope or magnitude of the theory covers the relationship that exists between the social bonds of an individual and the society meaning that it can be applied at the micro level of understanding crime and social deviance. Parsimony is a scientific method that states that if two answers exist to a problem then for one answer to be true, the laws that govern that particular theory have to be ignored or suspended so that it can be viewed to be true.

Parsimony under this theory has only one simple view which is that social deviance arises as a result of a lack of social bonds between an individual and the society. If an individual lacks a social connection with the society, then they are likely to engage in criminal activities and social delinquency. Hirschi was able to test the principal hypothesis of the social bond theory when he administered a self-report to 4,000 high school students in California. The major findings of this study were that young people who had a social connection with their parents were less likely to engage in delinquent behavior and they were more committed to the society’s conventional belief system when compared to young people who engaged in unconventional societal practices such as drinking, drug abuse and alcoholism (Lilly et al 120). The theoretical hypothesis of the social bond theory was therefore found to be testable and empirically valid because it was able to explain the association between social bonds and delinquent behavior.

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The social bonds theory has also been corroborated by various research studies that have been able to demonstrate how delinquent youth feel detached from the society. The theory has proved to be useful in explaining deviant behavior among young people and also addressing the importance of social bonds in preventing deviant behavior. Various studies such as those conducted by Durkin et al on binge drinking among young people have made use of the social bonds theory to explain this form of deviant behavior. The policy implications of the theory are that conventional belief systems need to be used to develop policies that will tie in with the social bonds that exist between individuals and the society.

Personal Recommendations

As with all other theoretical concepts, more research needs to be conducted on the social bonds theory to ensure it has a more general application in addressing social problems instead of confining itself to solving juvenile delinquent behavior.

Work Cited

Lilly, Robert J., Richard A. Ball and Francis T. Cullen. Criminological theory: context and consequences. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications, 2011.

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