What is Travis Hirschi’s Social Control Theory?

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M.P. Ossa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Originally titled "Social Bond Theory", this framework of thought was developed in 1969 by Travis Hirschi with the purpose of trying to extract the variables that contribute in the people's decision to become law-abiding citizens. 

The reason why it was once known as a "social bond" is because the original theory suggested that criminal activity is the product of a lack of meaningful connection with society. Basically, that people break the law because they have lost respect, appreciation or their sense of belonging toward society. 

Upon further analysis, the theory became referred to as "social control" theory based on 

a perspective which predicts that when social constraints on antisocial behavior are weakened or absent, delinquent behavior emerges.

Hence, it is not so much the lacking "bond" that motivates breaking the law, but the lack of control that one has over the environment, society, and our own conditions. When we feel that we cannot control a situation, we revert to primitive practices of instant gratification and take the risk of suffering the consequences of our actions. 

Hirschi further offers how it is that people become involved with society in a way that they can feel in control. He proposed that there are four connectors:  a) attachment, b) belief, c) commitment, and d) involvement. 

The attachment comes as the result of our daily dynamics and interaction with the environment that surrounds us. Our attachment to friends, family, colleagues, co-workers, and other like-minded people makes us more connected to the world in which we live. 

Our beliefs  consist on our system of values, religious background, or any other connection to something that we consider worthy of deep respect; something sacred that should not be tampered with. When we choose to act "like good Christians" or "according to the teachings of ______" we are using our beliefs as the mitigator between good and bad behavior. 

The commitment consists on the personal ethos by which we individually abide. For example, following the Ten Commandments, abiding by the military code of honor, abiding by the rules of the state, by the Constitution, or whatever ethical principle makes us act in a rightful way shows our commitment to that principle. 

Involvement is an interesting concept within the theory because it basically shows that, once and individual is engaged in meaningful activity, the chances of committing a crime greatly diminish. This is why youth sports and after school activities are so highly-encouraged in academic and community settings. 

Conclusively, the social control theory entails that once we are able to interact with our environment positively, and we feel power over what surrounds us, we automatically move away from antisocial and criminal behaviors that hinder our personal growth. 

Noelle Thompson eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Travis Hirschi's Social Bond Theory, later known as the Social Control Theory, was created in the late nineteen sixties. In trying to figure out why people follow "the law," Hirschi believed that people only became criminals when their "bond" to society was weakened.  (This, of course, is the reason why he originally named it the "Social Bond Theory.")  Because humans are always wanting "to belong," if they don't feel that sense of belonging in society, they wander to criminal activities.  Specifically, society tries to restrict antisocial behaviors in its members, but when that control isn't there, and more importantly, when the person doesn't have a sense of control over their own environment (in being a contributor to that society) a human may stray from the norm and commit crimes.  Why?  Hirschi believed that all humans, being animals, are hedonistic by nature and when they are not restricted by a society that forbids certain crimes (or even pleasures), then they may be tempted to participate.  In fact, Hirschi himself said, "We are all animals and thus naturally capable of committing criminal acts." Because this is so, Hirschi believed that it was conformity to society's laws that needed explanation.

Specifically, Hirschi describes four specific elements of social control or "conformity" with this list:  attachment, commitment, involvement, and belief.  These four elements are adequately described in the response above. 

Why did the social "bond" theory change to the social "control" theory?  Well, basically, Hirschi decided that it isn't the presence of the "bond" to society that was as important as our "control" over some aspect of our own society:  that we play some kind of meaningful part.  If someone feels like they don't play as meaningful a part in society, that person will feel more likely to commit criminal acts against that same society. It is a more primitive and less evolved idea to be instantly gratified by a crime even if that person risks consequences.

Ironically, Travis Hirschi eventually abandoned the wording of "social control" and changed his theory (with the encouragement of Michael Gottfredson, another criminologist) to the General Crime Theory or the Self-Control.  Together they determined that more than the "bond" with the society or their "control" and feeling of participation in that society, was their own "self-control" over their hedonistic inclinations.

william1941 | Student

The Theory of Social Control created by Travis Hirschi places a lot of emphasis on the role that is played by the society in controlling criminal behavior. According to the theory society has a very important role to play in controlling crime and it is not possible for all the responsibility to be placed on the individuals committing the crime. Almost all delinquency is the result of a lack of monitoring by the authorities and the family of the delinquents. Relationships and commitments are given a very important role here in determining whether laws are broken by people.

menen1892 | Student

Hirschi's Social Control Theory, which was first introduced in the late 1960's as Social Bond Theory, is a key theory that is utilized in Sociology and/or Criminology. The main point of the theory is that when people lack strong bonds with the people around them and their society as as a whole, these people are more likely to commit crimes because of a lack of attachment to society and those around them. This theory suggests that those who have strong bonds with the society that they live in will not commit crimes.