Theories of Crime Causation
Crime is inevitable and will never be eradicated. Sociologist such as Travis Hirschi and Michael Gottfredson claim that theories such as social bond theory and self-control theory can help society understand the causation of crimes. In this paper, I will examine the self-control theory and the social bond theory and how these two theories explain crime causation. I will also describe the basic elements of each theory, compare and contrast the similarities and differences between these two theoretical perspectives and describe any improvements that are needed to enhance each theory.
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Social Bond Theory
According to Hirschi, everyone has the potential to commit crimes but it is the social bonds and ties that they share with friends, family and other societal members that keep them from committing crimes. The social control theory maintains that delinquency occurs because of weak social bonds and the stronger the social bonds of an individual to the conventional society, the less likely an individual will engage in activities that are against societal norms. Hirschi states that the social bonds that an individual shares with society are divided into four main elements: attachment, commitment, involvement, and belief (Siegel, 2014).
Attachment is the emotional bond that children share with their parents, friends, teachers and other members in society. This type of bonding is displayed in school, church, home and other social institutions. Positive attachment to parents is essential for a child’s social growth; it is at this stage that children receive their characteristics and traits which they later display in the future. Children crave acceptance and want to be viewed as favorable by indiviudals who perform a valuable role in their lives. Children who never received any form of positive attachment from their parents tend to become defiant in the future. On the other hand, children who received positive attachment, love and nurturing tend to display the same in their character. Parent–child attachment includes the amount of parental supervision on children, quality of parent–child communication and time spent together, and parent’s knowledge of children’s peers (Chui & Chan, 2012). When parents invest quality time with their children they will be properly supervised; this will give parents a deeper insight into the activities that their children are involved in and the peers they associate with.
In addition, people must be committed to whatever venture they set off to accomplish. They might be committed to someone, an education or their career. When people are committed they are less likely to be involved in crimes because they are willing to protect the investments they have diligently achieved. On the other hand when people are not committed to anything they take more risks and engage in criminal activity, since they do not have much to lose. For example, commitment can be seen as a teenager who is performing well in high school in order to be accepted at an accredited college with goals of obtaining a career.
When people are involved in extra-curricular activities there is less time and effort to perform or engage in illegal activities. On the other hand, individuals who are not involved in any form of conventional social activities such as sports or religion usually end up engaging in criminal behavior. This can be seen in single-parent home where the mother is working two jobs, coming home late and children are left without supervision leaving them at home to care for themselves. They should be left in the care of an after-school program where some sort of supervision is expected. This leaves the children idle with more time to engage in criminal activity. However, Hirschi states that a delinquent act can take just minutes to commit, and thus, involvement in conventional activities alone is insufficient to deter delinquency (as stated in Chui & Chan, 2012).
Beliefs are values and moral norms that are shared by a specific group of people. Individuals who share values and beliefs abide by the law and respect other individuals. On the other hand people who were raised without any values or beliefs will be more like to perform illegal acts and rebel against the law. Individuals who share religious beliefs may be subject to greater controls that counter temptations for crime. Classic social control theories suggest that undesirable consequences of crime, including shame, social disapproval, or loss of social bonds, deter most individuals subject to those consequences from misconduct (Brauer et al., 2013).
The Self-Control Theory
The self-control theory states that low levels of self-control leads to an increased risk of criminal and delinquent involvement as well as a multitude of other risky behaviors. This theory claims that self-control is almost completely determined by parenting (Hollander-Blumoff, 2012). A child’s upbringing determines whether or not they will display high or low self-control. If a child wrong doing is corrected then this child will have a relatively high-level of self-control. On the other hand, if a child’s wrong-doing is not scolded or corrected, this child will have lower levels of self-control.
Gottfredson and Hirschi defined low self-control using distinct characteristics: instant gratification, physical rather than mental, risky behavior, insensitive to others (Connor et al., 2009). Low self-control individuals fail in situations that require supervision, restrictions on how they conduct themselves or situations that require discipline. According to Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990), those who lack self-control are not only more likely to engage in risky behaviors, but they tend to do so stubbornly and persistently, with disregard for the consequences these acts may bring. These type of people love to take risks such as going on crime spree, they also engage in other risky behavior such as smoking and drinking alcohol. Low self-control individuals tend to be life course persistent criminal; the offending is continuous and stable and extends into adulthood.
This low self-control or impulsivity is caused by weakened social bonds such as attachment and beliefs. When parents provide poor supervision and are unable to provide their children with the attention and the direction needed they will develop low self-control. Furthermore the values, norms and beliefs that are instilled into children at a young age are essential in their up-bringing. If parents do not have any beliefs or values then the children will not emulate the same, this will then lead to a life of unconformity towards authority.
Low self-control individuals require instant gratification; they do not have any commitments such as a career or education. They would rather commit crimes to gain the immediate pleasures of crime such as money or getting intoxicated. Having a job and career would mean investing time and money into obtaining an education. This is seen as a long term goal that requires them to be cognitive and they do not possess that characteristic. These individuals do not look at the risks involved in committing crimes or the people they hurt as a result of it; their only awareness is related to their needs and the instant reward achieved.
Compare and Contrast
The social bond theory states that weaken bonds such as attachment will lead an individual to commit crime. In some instances, teenagers have strong bonds with their peers but this type of attachment can be dangerous. They often worry about being accepted by their peers and engage in delinquent acts to gain approval. Specifically, a weak parent–child attachment during adolescence, particularly in mid-adolescence, is likely to result in an increase level of peer association (Chui & Chan, 2012). This is also true for the self-control theory which states that levels of self-control are predicted based on the type of parenting a child experienced. Children whose parents provide them with weak parental supervision will have relatively low-levels of self-control; therefore making them more likely to engage in criminal activities.
The self-control theory is similar to the social bond theory because commitment is a main element in both theories. Individuals with low self-control require instant gratification and commitment does not go along with the immediate desire of “here and now”. With lack of commitment according to both theories an individual will more likely to engage in deviant behavior.
Both the self-control theory and the social bond theory relates to beliefs as a reason why people do not commit crime. According to Brauer et al. (2013), highly religious individuals may be subjected to greater controls that counter temptations for crime. Having a belief and a value system provides strong incentives for self-control, therefore better being able to resist temptations to act impulsively.
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The social bond theory falls under Hirschi’s social control theory. According to social control theorists all people have the potential to violate the law and that modern society presents many opportunities for illegal activity (Siegel, 2014). If social bonds are weak people will fall prey to these criminal opportunities presented to them and if their social bonds are strong, they will resist crime. In contrast, based on the self-control theory, criminal opportunities are constant and available to most people; therefore opportunity does not play any role in and individual’s choice to commit a crime. Instead, low levels of self-control caused by lack of parental supervision causes antisocial behavior.
Improvements and Problems
The self-control theory poses many problems such as impulsivity alone cannot determine whether someone will commit a crime. There are other factors such as opportunity, other traits such as mental illness and genetics. There are many other traits and circumstances that cause an individual to follow a criminal path. I believe that with practice, counselling and therapy self-control levels can be increased. Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990) argued that levels of self-control are only capable of being shaped during the first 8-10 years of life and that there is not a genetic component to variation in self-control. Some studies have shown that there is a link between genetics and self-control and Gottfredson and Hirschi’s claim can be disputed. Hollander-Blumoff (2012) state that most existing criminological studies have revealed that self-control is influenced greatly by genetic factors, with genes accounting for at least 50% of the variance in levels of self-control. Based on the findings of this research, the self-control theory needs to be redefined to include genetics.
One of the main elements of the social bond theory which is involvement can also cause adolescents to engage in crime. The social bond theory states that teenagers who are involved in some type of extracurricular activity or sporting activity would be less likely to commit crime. Hirschi (1990) affirmed that delinquent act can take just minutes to commit and therefore, involvement in social activities alone is insufficient to deter delinquency. For example, my son is on his school’s golf team and regularly attends golf practice. Being on the golf team does not deter him from being delinquent; some of his friends on the golf team might be deviant individuals and pressure him to commit a deviant act. The involvement element in the social bond theory must be reevaluated to include the type of involvement and the characteristics of the individuals who are associated with the activities chosen. Involvement in conventional activities such as religion can also become a deviant involvement; there are numerous stories about Catholic priest molesting young boys. Even at sporting activities, players consume illegal performance enhancing drugs to boost their performance.
In conclusion, Travis Hirschi and Michael Gottfredson theories such as social bond theory and self-control theory can help society understand the causation of crimes. Although the social bond theory explains that strong social bonds such as attachment and involvement can deter individuals from committing crimes, having negative and deviant involvement can actually draw individuals to antisocial behavior. The self-control theory needs to be reevaluated because impulsivity alone cannot cause someone to commit crime, genetics and other traits may be a factor as well.
Brauer, J. R., Antonaccio, O., & Title, C. R. (2013). Does Religion Suppress, Socialize, Soothe, or Support? Exploring Religiosity’s Influence on Crime. Journal For The Scientific Study Of Religion, 52(4), 753-774.
Chui, W., & Chan, H. (2012). An Empirical Investigation of Social Bonds and Juvenile Delinquency in Hong Kong. Child & Youth Care Forum, 41(4), 371-386. doi:10.1007/s10566-012-9172-z
Conner, B. T., Stein, J. A., & Longshore, D. (2009). Examining Self-Control as a Multidimensional Predictor of Crime and Drug Use in Adolescents with Criminal Histories. Journal Of Behavioral Health Services & Research, 36(2), 137-149. doi:10.1007/s11414-008-9121-7
Dunkel, C. S., Mathes, E., & Beaver, K. M. (2013). Life History Theory and The General Theory of Crime: Life Expectancy Effects on Low Self-Control and Criminal Intent. Journal Of Social, Evolutionary & Cultural Psychology, 7(1), 12-23.
Gottfredson MR, Hirschi T (1990) A General Theory of Crime. Stanford University Press, Stanford.
Hollander-Blumoff, R. (2012). Crime, Punishment, and the Psychology of Self-Control. Emory Law Journal, 61(3), 501-553.
Siegel, L. J. (2014). Criminology: The Core, 5e, 5th Edition. [VitalSource Bookshelf version]. Retrieved from http://online.vitalsource.com/books/9781285965543.
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