Social Control Theory
Updated: Sep 17
On both a per-capita and overall level, the U.S. puts more people behind bars than any other country in the world. Over two million people in America are currently incarcerated, a number that has skyrocketed in the past four decades (1). Much attention in recent years has been focused on changes in criminal justice policy and police tactics including the War On Drugs, and rightly so, but the discussion is not complete without an analysis of why people engage in deviant behavior in the first place. Why do some individuals commit criminal acts while others in the exact same situation do not?
One of the most enduring and widely-accepted explanations to this question is Social Control Theory, popularized by Travis Hirschi in the 1960s. The theory posits that relationships between an individual and their community prevent deviant behavior, and that our bonds with others help us build social control. Instead of explaining why criminals commit crimes, the theory sees us all as capable of deviant behavior and reveals why most of us don’t stray from the norm (2).
Social Control Theory describes four critical factors that shape social bonds and prevent deviant behavior. First is attachment to family members, friends, and acquaintances -- specifically an attachment to how you’re viewed by those around you, whether positively or negatively. The second factor is a commitment to education, professional goals, or other activities that you’re invested in and don’t want to mess up. Third is involvement in activities that limit your free time, and fourth is a belief in accepted societal values (2,3). Together, these components strengthen connections between a person and their community and drastically reduce the likelihood of deviant and criminal behaviors.
A large body of research supports the pillars of Social Control Theory, and it has massive implications when it comes to reducing first-time offenses, deviant behaviors like drug use, and recidivism in the criminal justice system. For adolescents and other vulnerable populations, providing a supportive community and fostering healthy interpersonal relationships is a positive and effective way to encourage constructive behaviors and improve overall well-being.