Theoretical Perspective

Melissa Hamilton

CCJ5606, Fall 2000


This paper addresses a proposed theoretical model of crime. The first section introduces the main hypothesis and then further explains the concepts involved and how their interaction can produce criminality and crime. Also included in the first section is an assumption of human nature, as well as an indication of how the model addresses the significant gender gap in crime.The second section addresses the types of crimes that this model can best explain and those crimes that it cannot.The next parts of the paper discuss potential prevention programs and treatment programs that would be best suited to the proposed model. The final section proposes how the model can be empirically studied and what studies to date have been published that involve one or more of the variables included in the model.A resource list is also attached.


Theoretical Model


Introduction. The central hypothesis of this paper is this: the lower a personís self control in combination with more relaxed external social controls on such person, the greater the likelihood that the personís tendency to criminality and the more likely the person will commit a criminal act if given the appropriate opportunity.As further discussed below, this theory borrows, in part, components of Walter Recklessí containment theory (Reckless, 1999/1962), Gottfredson and Hirschiís (1990) general theory of crime, Sampson and Laubís concept of social capital, and opportunity theory.


Model Explained. This model is based on the interaction of the concepts of self-control, social control, and opportunity.I begin with an overview of how the variables interact, to be followed by more discreet definitions of each concept.


Self-control and social control can interact in measures of a personís potential for criminality.As suggested by Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990), the propensity to criminality should be held distinct from crime, the latter requiring the immediate presence of opportunity, a victim, an adversary, or goods (p. 137). The following table illustrates the strength of a personís criminality based on a combination of high and low self-control and social control:



High Self-control

Low Self-control

High Social Control



Medium High criminality

Low Social Control

Medium criminality

High criminality


Thus, this model provides that levels of self-control and social control can combine to predispose someone to criminality. Like Gottfredson and Hirschiís general theory, criminality does not occur in a vacuum, but a personís self-control will be indicative of the legitimate and illegitimate choices and behaviors a person exhibits.This means that a personís behavior, both criminal and legal, will exhibit his particular combination of self-control and social control.Recklessí (1999/1962) similar, but not identical, argument was that inner (self components) and external (social structure) containments acted as buffers to the normal pressures and seductions toward deviance. Recklessí inner pushes could be hostility, aggressiveness, and discontent, while external pulls can derive from deprivation, poverty, and lack of opportunities for success. The internal and external components together are important as a person with significant self-control may smoke marijuana in a social environment in which minor drugs are condoned or socially expected.Likewise, a fraternity freshman with lower self-control may succumb to peer pressured hazing activities despite an atmosphere of social controls including security measures, school bonding, and strong family relationships.Thus, unlike other researchers who seem to distinguish between the effects of self-control and social control (Hirschi, 1999/1969), the interactions between them can cause difficulty in separating the two. Using gender differences as examples of the interconnectedness, social control can transform into self-control through a variety of methods. Heimer (1996) states that societal definitions of femininity and the stress on deviance being defined as inappropriate to the feminine role are internalized as role-definitions and thereby translated into self-control for girls.On the other hand, the social construct of the male gender, which is more flexible in sanctioning risky pursuits and independence, may encourage boys to display their masculinity through criminal endeavours (Messerschmidt, 1993; Heimer, 1996). Similarly, variations in self-control can influence variations in social control (Laub and Sampson, 1999.1993: 367). In a study by Evans et. al. (1997), low self-control predicted poor interpersonal relationships with family and friends, low levels of educational and occupational success, poor marriage prospects, and residence in disorderly neighborhoods.It seems plausible then that strong individual self-control behaviors can mean better employment and beneficial social networks, thereby enhancing social controls.


Because of the distinction between criminality and crime, one further variable is required for the commission of a crime -- opportunity. The notion of opportunity used here is also referred to as situational selection. This leads us to another proposition: a crime is more likely to occur when a person predisposed to criminality is confronted with the proper opportunity.However, the causal direction may not necessarily require a strong predisposition prior to the occurrence of the opportunity. The occurrence of a perceived risk-free opportunity with great rewards may impact the strength of the self-control/social control relationship. Thus, the proposition is that crime is a likely result of the convergence of the correct levels of self-control and social control in a setting providing the appropriate opportunity.The following picture illustrates the model:


††††††††††† Self-control

††††††††††††††††††††††† ↨←───────Opportunity────Crime

††††††††††† Social control


This model prefers the individual approach, rather than one based on structure/process theories which assume that social situations impact crime rates, despite the attributes of the individuals residing within them (Vold, Bernard, & Snipes: 1998).


Self-Control. Self-control is viewed generally as oneís ability to control oneís desires, to delay instant gratification, and to manage for long-term benefits. A greater degree of self-control helps a person to resist the momentary temptations of antisocial behavior (Gottfredson and Hirschi, 1990: 97). The strength of a personís self-control is based on an interaction between sociological, psychological, and biological perspectives.The applicable sociological theory includes social learning in which a person, typically a child, learns restraint from others, typically parents and other adult authorities. The psychological basis provides that children learn through positive and negative reinforcements.Biological factors also can play a role through brain damage, neurochemical imbalances, or other physiological impacts on normal cognitive processing. Still, the model does not require an explanation on the full causal model of how a person is inclined toward low or high self-control.


Unlike the general theory (p.108) in which Gottfredson and Hirschi contend that criminality is stable over a personís lifetime, this model suggests that self-control is subject to fluctuations. Biological, psychological, economic, and situational factors can impact a personís degree of self-control over time. A normally controlled individual may lose their self esteem and their self-control through the impact of significant events, such as conditions of war, sudden or persistent economic deprivation, loss of close family or friends, or other severe stress. Equally, a person suffering low self-control may improve his personal state through important and inspiring prospects, such as a good job, steady income, loving friends or family, or good fortune. Developmental criminology recognizes both continuity and individual changes over time due to life transitions and other covariates (Laub and Sampson, 1999/1993: 350). Turning points can redirect life trajectories (Ibid.: 351). The foregoing does not suggest that the level of a personís self-control is loosely fluid, but that it may be altered, whether short-term or long, significant events or continuing situational factors. Gottfredson and Hirschi explain the decline in crime with age as being a result of the ďinexorable aging of the organismĒ (P.141). The model I provide, though, is based on the premise that the decline is based more on a personís increase in self control as he ages, as well as the presence of a greater degree of social control through an adultís attainment of a job, a family, a community, and greater economic opportunity than as a young person.The empirical generalization that adults with juvenile records of deviance are more likely to commit crimes can be explained better by cumulative continuity than the limited concept of self-selection. Self-selection generally means that preexisting individual characteristics influence the development of social relationships and criminal behavior (Enter Wright, et. al., 1999: 479).Delinquent behavior as a child conceivably can alter the childís life course, harming their social bonds to society even as an adult and, through related contingencies of school failure and decreased opportunities from the effects of labeling, impact social control and self-control mechanisms (Becker, 1963; Laub and Sampson, 1999/1993).


It is also noted that the self-control notion used here is not identical to Recklessí concept of inner containment, which leans toward self-concept as the criteria (Scarpitti, Murray, Dinitz, and Reckless, 1960). The likelihood that personal violence can be perpetrated by persons with high self esteem makes Recklessí definition troublesome.


Social Control.The term Ďsocial controlí is often used to refer to Hirschiís (1999/1969) popular theory of the social bond containing elements of attachment, commitment, involvement, and belief.The social control used in this model, though, is slightly different than Hirschiís conceptualization. Rather, social control here is addressed as oneís social investment or social capital in institutional relationships, such as family, employment, and neighborhood. Social capital resides in forms of social organization that produce something of value for the persons involved."The function identified by the concept of social capital is the value of these aspects of social structure to actors as resources that they can use to achieve their interests" (Coleman, 1988:101). Individuals embedded in extensive social networks are more likely to accumulate social capital. The idea of social capital is linked to social control theory by observing that a lack of social capital or social investment in institutional relationships is indicative of weak social bonds (Laub and Sampson, 1999/1993). However, unlike basic social control theory in which attachments to a spouse or employer may be sufficient to show social bonds, social capital requires the relationships involve extensive imbeddedness in terms of obligations, expectations, and interdependent social networks (Ibid.).These interdependencies are what will inhibit a person from committing a crime.The social capital construct is an individual level one based on personal differences.


For children, social capital may be enhanced by involved and supportive parents who develop social capital within the family.Parents may also increase the social capital for their children by establishing dense social ties with neighborhood social networks.Social capital for adults is possible through healthy, interdependent marriages, strong ties to employment, and/or binding social ties with community institutions.Because these social ties are viewed as the external, inhibiting social controls in this model, I will continue to use the term social controls.


Opportunity.Crime generally cannot occur in the absence of an opportunity for the act. Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990) underemphasized the importance of opportunity by commenting that crime is easy to commit and therefore opportunities are plentiful (p. 4). But because a number of criminal acts require preparation and forethought, I believe that opportunity is a more significant element in whether offenders attempt criminal acts. The elements of opportunity can include ease of access to the target (or presence of an effective guardian), the likelihood of being observed or caught, and the expected reward (Vold, Bernard, and Snipes, 1998:153).


Human Nature. The theory of human nature on which this model is based is one of soft determinism. This is evident by the assumption that most people are self-interested, on the one hand, yet, on the other hand, the model stresses the impact on individuals of the interaction between and social, psychological, and biological factors in creating self-control and social control.


The model envisages that most people at most times are rational beings that engage in behavior of their own free will. The theory also makes an assumption regarding human behavior. This theory assumes, similar to social control theory (Hirschi, 1969: 10, 16), that people naturally pursue their own self interests and, particularly in capitalist societies, engage in competition with others for material objects, success, and attention. The selfish and competitive drives tend to exist unless ameliorated through self-control and social control mechanisms. Self-control theorists likewise contend that people will remain self-interested unless socialized otherwise (Gottfredson and Hirschi, 1990: 117). It seems evident that babies and young children are generally quite selfish in nature until somehow constrained. Yet, self-interest and the ability to exercise self-control are not universal. Biological imbalances may render mute a personís rational decision ability by overriding his ability to conduct a cost-benefit analysis prior to engaging in some behavior or by reducing his cognition of long-term consequences of behavior.Psychological conditioning tends to indicate that behavior and self-control can be acquired, or not, through conditioning processes.Hence, individual differences may still matter in any personís personality and behaviors.


Gender Gap.Most criminological theories ignore the vast difference in rates of offending between genders. The model proposed here incorporates concepts that can help explain the gender gap. Informal social controls play an important role in that parents tend to supervise girls more than boys and societal expectations of girls are internalized as normative controls. Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990) explained the gender gap in crime and criminality by opining that child socialization and supervision differences result in girls having fewer opportunities for crime than boys, as well as a greater degree of self-control (p. 149).Indeed, girls and women may have more developed social networks than men in family relationships, formal and informal neighborhood friendships and groups, and with religious institutions.It may also be the case that girls and women have less opportunity to commit a riskless, deviant act in a world in which women tend not to venture from home and friends as often as men.Thus, the independent variables may plausibly account for the gender gap.


Applicable Crimes.This model applies well to a number of crimes, but not to certain others.Both are summarized below.


First, the types of crimes to which this model is particularly applicable include.


Property crimes:Theft, burglary, and robbery seem appropriately explained by the model in that the general goal, the acquisition of property, money, or other tangible or intangible reward, are the subject of a personís selfishness or desires. Thus, low self-control combined with inadequate social controls, together with the right opportunity, is an explanatory model for property-based of crimes.


White-collar crime. White-collar crime can also be explained by the model. Criticisms of the Gottfredson and Hirschi general theory indicate that their assumption that crime is easy tends to undermine the general theoryís explanation of white-collar crime which often requires advance planning and ongoing subterfuge. Further, if Gottfredson and Hirschi are correct that self-control is set in childhood, it seems that highly educated persons have already evidenced their ability to delay instant gratification in order to obtain the long-term benefits of an education and therefore must have a high self-control (Benson and Moore, 1992). However, this model is better able to address white-collar crime by not assuming that self-control is stable over a lifetime and stressing that opportunity plays an important role.


Drug Violations:Low self-control seems to explain tendencies to take drugs and continue with drugs, despite negative side effects and long-term consequences. At the same time, social pressures encourage otherwise disinclined persons to start and continue drug use. Effective social controls for drug use may, then, be lacking in certain environments. Accordingly, this model seems quite appropriate as a model for drug offenses.


Violent crimes:This model also addresses violent crimes in which people are unable to restrain their violent impulses or reactions to stressors or provocations. Instant gratification achieved by the violence itself or its immediate aftermath also indicates that a consideration of long-term consequences did not play a strong enough role.


Still, the model does not well address certain other criminal actions.


Prostitution.This theory does not explain as well the crime of prostitution (assuming the jurisdiction defines prostitution as a crime), which seems to have more of a purely rationale, economic motivation than indicative of low self-control.


Terrorism.The self-control/social control model also does not adequately address acts of terrorism perpetrated for political, economic or social policy motive. Rather, terrorists may enjoy high levels of self-control and social control yet believe that aggressive action is necessary to pursue a goal which they deem overrides the authority of the laws written by those in power.


Prevention Programs


Assuming the model to be accurate, the following are suggestions for primary preventions for the correlates to crime.


Childhood programs to encourage self-control could be implemented through pre-schools, elementary schools and middle schools. Educational methods can encourage self-esteem through programs that do not label children as being slower or less intelligent than other children. Parental involvement in school can show children their support for educational success and school discipline routines.


Community centers could offer a variety of arts and sports programs and skills to attract a variety of children and provide an opportunity for each to find their own skill or talent of which they can be proud, thus enhancing social control relationships and social networks. Similarly, communities can implement programs and policies to ensure that children and teenagers remain supervised.Thrasher (1927) traces the origin of gangs to unsupervised, spontaneous play groups.


The first two prevention programs addressed the self-control and social control components. Programs targeted at children are emphasized, despite the disagreement with the continuity of those variables over a lifetime.Childhood is still perhaps the most important time frame in a personís life to attain the advantages of a strong self of self-concept and internal controls, while improving chances for social bonding and social networks. Excursions into delinquency in childhood can negatively affect a childís life trajectory through the effects of labeling and lost opportunities for legitimate success. Moreover, the turning points, as Laub and Sampson (1999/1993) call them, over an adult lifespan is too variable to properly include in a prevention program.Nonetheless, preventive techniques can attack the other variable, opportunity, a factor that is not as dependent on the potential offenderís age.


Opportunities for property crimes can be reduced by environmental design preventions and target hardening devices. White-collar crimes can be prevented through strong internal corporate control measures and periodic audits.In addition, community policing initiatives can bolster social networks that provide informal controls for crime.


Treatment Programs


Secondary or tertiary programs can also apply to self-control and social control initiatives. Treatment programs for at risk youth who are likely to suffer from low self-control can provide psychological guidance and family therapy to bolster the necessary socialization skills.As further explained in the following section on the role of the criminal justice system, reintegration programs for adults convicted of crimes or released from incarceration can focus on the attainment of employment, and enhancing relationships with co-workers, family members, and friends.


Role of Criminal Justice System


As crime has been consistently shown to reduce with age, possibilities for substantial crime reduction are more realistic as applied to youth and younger adults. The criminal justice system should not, though, be the forerunner for programs enhancing self-control in youngsters. Rather, families, schools, and communities, are better institutions for those lessons. Criminal justice agencies should, however, become involved in community and school initiatives that encourage social controls and social networks, as indicated above.


Another important implication of this model is to address the extreme negative impacts of labeling on the potential of recidivism. The cycle of crime in which persons who commit criminal acts are more likely than others to further deviate is a great problem in American society.We should also revisit the rehabilitation model of sentencing in which qualified convicted offenders earn the requisite skills to attain employment upon release. The collateral costs of imprisonment may be extensive. ďThe most obvious concern is that the effects of imprisonment damage the human and social capital of those who are incarcerated, their families, and their communities, including the detrimental impact of imprisoning parents on their childrenĒ (Hagan and Dinovitzer, 1999:122).Employability can foster social capital through interdependent skills and networks.


Can you be more specific on how police, courts, and corrections each must change?


Research Support


Further Research.The hypothesis proposed can best be examined through a longitudinal study of a specified panel of participants, with the analysis being conducted at the individual level.The individual as the level of analysis is appropriate as the independent variables are considered individual-difference concepts. This section will specify how the independent and dependent variables can be operationalized for testing. Next is a description of the potential population for the study. Then a paragraph elaborates on the preference for a longitudinal study to develop causal direction. Finally, previous research linking one or more of the independent variables to crime or deviance is summarized.


Operationalization. For empirical study, the three independent variables and the dependent variable must be reduced to measurable terms. The concept of self-control in this model can be operationalized through measures of impulsivity, inattention, hyperactivity, risk-seeking, temper, self-centeredness.There has been some debate about whether a composite measure of self-control was appropriate as unique aspects of self-control may have differential effects (LaGrange and Silverman, 1999). I would over-emphasize the factors of impulsivity and risk-seeking in the weighting, as well as temper which may be relevant to more violent behaviors. Still, it is quite possible that further research finds that certain aspects of self-control do have differential impacts based on gender, race, or social class (cf. Piquero and Rosay, 1998 with Longshore, Stein, and Turner, 1998).Also, unlike most measures that differentiate only between high and low self-control, it seems that a middle category may also be appropriate so that the variable can exist in low, medium and high self-control levels.


The easier device for sampling is a survey of study participants. However, this leads to the potential for error as people may either have mistaken views of their own ability to moderate their own behavior. Behavioral indicators are better measures. It may be possible then to supplement the participant survey with interviews or surveys of individuals most likely to know the participantís behaviors and inclinations, such as parents and teachers for children or spouses and employers for adults


Social control may be measured through the strength and consistency of institutional ties. For children, reports by parents and teachers can provide indications for such things as time spent by both parents with the child on studying, reading, and arts and crafts. Family group activities would also be important. Ties with the school and clubs and activities at the school may be another childhood institutional network. Adults would be queried on the interdependence with a spouse, work, or other social networks. Spousal unity can be addressed through queries about happiness with the spouse, time spent together, comfort with sharing intimate secrets, and joint activities enjoyed. Questions about how many friends live within a mile radius and the stability of these friendships may help indicate the presence of local friendship networks while inquiries about time at work and time spent with co-workers outside the job may indicate the strength of employment networks. An important differentiation to make, though, is childhood peer relationships and adult friendship groups that actually foster criminal behavior rather than provide insulation from deviant impulses. For this reason, a control for friends who engage in criminal activities or peer group pressures toward deviance may be necessary.


Opportunity can be measured through reports of the number of instances during the preceding year in which the participant could have committed a criminal act offering him a valuable reward where the likelihood of being caught was perceived as minimal.Obviously, this measure includes the limitation that it is dependent on the participantís perception, but it is this perception that should truly define opportunity.The clean chance to complete a criminal act, unknown to the criminally-inclined, does not equal a measurable opportunity.


The dependent variable, crime, can be measured by both self-reports (parental reports if a child) and official records, such as school records, juvenile court files, and criminal court files.A problem to be wary of, though, is that the same behaviors are not counted in any of the independent variables and in the dependent variable at the same time.


Population.The longitudinal study would study a panel of approximately 250 individual starting with children in the first grade. The chosen participants could be randomly picked, though parental consent would be required, from public and private elementary schools in a specific metropolitan area. A cohort representing various socioeconomic levels, genders, and races is intended. The preference would be to continue periodic checks at 2-5 year intervals until the age of 30 when adult social capital may be fully observed.


Causal Order.A potential error in testing this model is to ensure the correct causal order of the concepts. Can we assume that one who confronts an opportunity to commit a crime already exhibited low self-control with few social controls? Or, is it possible that strong self-control and social controls were diminished, even for a short period of time, once the opportunity arose?Examples of the latter include the actions of normally law-abiding citizens in looting during riots or using violence at mass demonstrations. Similarly, do the qualities of low self-control and low social controls precede a personís engagement in criminal acts or does his first deviant acts serve to undermine his own self-concept and encourage his drift away from social controls?Longitudinal research, as opposed to cross-sectional studies, may help to prevent errors in causal directions.


Previous Studies. Research conducted during the last decade have tested the impact of self-control, social control, and/or opportunity as independent variables on the dependent variable of crime or delinquency. These studies are summarized below.


Several studies have measured self-control and opportunity and the interaction between the two on various crimes.Grasmick, Tittle, Bursik and Arneklev (1993) found that while self-control was related to self-reported acts of deviance, opportunity also had an independent and significant effect on the self-reported crimes, indicating that self-control, by itself, was not a sufficient measure.Similarly, Longshore and Turner (1998) found that self-control provided only a modest variance in fraud and force crimes. Stronger evidence was observed of the interaction between self-control and opportunity for crimes of fraud but the interacting variables failed to explain force crimes (Ibid.). Testing self-control and opportunity on courtship violence of college students, Sellers (1999) found that while each variable alone was statistically significant, the interaction between the two on physical aggression was minor. The author indicated that the failure of the interaction to support Gottfredson and Hirschiís general theory may be explained by the inadequacy of the measurement of opportunity which only measured time the couple spent together.


Two studies assess the applicability of Gottfredson and Hirshiís general theory to explain the gender gap in crime, adding an element of opportunity as an additional variable. Burton, et. al. (1998) concluded that there was some support for the effects of self-control on male and female criminal behavior. However, while the interaction of self-control x opportunity was statistically significant for females, only self-control by itself was significant for males. The authors conjectured that their measure of opportunity Ė number of nights out for recreation Ė may have been too broad and thereby undermined the results. LaGrange and Silverman (1999) found that self-control and opportunity and their interactions substantially accounted for, but not entirely, the gender gap in juvenile delinquency.Girls reported lower levels of risk-seeking behavior and greater supervision than boys.


Entner Wright, et. al. (1999) studied juveniles at age 15 and 21 and found that adolescent self-control and social bonds each independently correlated significantly with delinquency at both ages. In addition, self-control and social bonds were also significantly correlated.Finally, the researchers found that correlations between self-control and adult crime were substantially mediated by social bonds. They concluded, then, that the two components, self-control and social control, are coexisting processes in generating crime.


Two studies have addressed the connection between social capital and crime.In a 1982 study using the British Crime Surveys, Sampson and Groves saw that the data illustrated relevant relationships between each of the components of community social organization tested (community supervision of teenage peer groups, prevalence of local friendship networks, and participation in formal and voluntary organizations) and crime. Unsupervised teen peer groups substantially effected rates of personal violence, victimization by mugging and stranger violence. Local friendship networks were found to be substantially and negatively related to robbery, and organizational participation had significant inverse effects on both robbery and stranger violence (1989: 778-780). It should be noted, though, that Sampson and Groves study was conducted using macro-level data and was not focused on individual level data as suggested by the model proposed in this paper. In looking at the impact of forms of social capital on longitudinal data, Sampson and Laub (1993) found ďthe strongest and most consistent effects on both official and unofficial delinquency flow from the social processes of family, school, and peersĒ (p. 247). Their model informal family social control focuses on three dimensions: discipline, supervision, and attachment. The researchers indicate that "the key to all three components of informal family social control lies in the extent to which they facilitate linking the child to family and ultimately society through emotional bonds of attachment and direct yet socially integrative forms of control, monitoring, and punishment" (p. 68).




The model presented in this paper addresses the interactive potential of the concepts self-control, social control (or social capital), and opportunity, on crime. It is based on a theory of human nature known as soft determinism in which some impact by biological and psychological effects are possible.In effect, the general tendency to pursue oneís self interest must be adequately counteracted through strong protections in the form of self-control and social capital achieved through organizational networks. Preventive programs can best focus on young children while secondary treatment programs should attempt to reintegrate offenders.Research on this model is proposed in the form of a longitudinal panel study starting in elementary school.Previous studies are cited that provide varying support for one or more of the independent variables and a relationship to crime.






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