Kelly Welch

November 30, 1998

CCJ 5606

Class Presentation/Web Page

Two Major Theories of Travis Hirschi


Travis Hirschi is a one of the most prominent control theorists and has contributed significant works to the field of criminology throughout the past few decades. He is a classical, choice theorist and has generated two major versions of control theory throughout the course of his career. His first version of control theory, presented in Causes of Delinquency in 1969, had an interesting origination in the social disorganization perspective, to be detailed further in this paper. This control theory of delinquency, much broader than its successor purported in A General Theory of Crime in 1990 with Michael Gottfredson, explained that weak social bonds may set an individual free to weigh the benefits of crime. Hirschi discussed four variables that may affect one's likelihood of conforming to, or deviating from, the norms of society, which will be later discussed in detail. A General theory of crime presents a more specific control theory that recognizes self-control, rather than societal control, as the root of criminality or conformity. Great emphasis is placed on parental upbringing, for this is the source of socialization that instills self-control in a child, though others play an integral role in the process of proper or improper socialization. Public policy implications of these theories have proved to be a troublesome issue, though many strengths have been presented by sociologists reviewing Hirschi's theories. Though these theories continue to enjoy their popularity today, they have encountered numerable criticisms, which will be subsequently outlined. Overall, Hirschi's contributions to the field of criminological thought have been significant and are worth consideration.

Travis Hirschi has enjoyed a fruitful career in the field of sociology and criminology. The University of Arizona has been his place of employment most recently. There he is a Regents Professor, and is a Professor of Sociology as well as a Professor of Management and Policy (Hirschi, 1994:271). He has previously been a Professor of Criminal Justice at the State University of New York, Albany and has worked at the University of California, Berkeley (Hirschi, 1980:144). He is a former President of the American Society of Criminology, and had been bestowed with their prestigious Edwin H. Sutherland Award in 1986 (Hirschi, 1988:212).

The first contribution to the world of criminology made by Hirschi was his presentation of critiques of delinquency research in his 1967 Delinquency Research. This spawned a consequent proposal for specific causal analysis as well as advocating other research techniques. Finally, Hirschi (1967:273) urged social scientists to maintain objectivity, vigilance, and sympathy while conducting delinquency research. This work provided little indication of the major criminological theory of crime that was to follow only two years later: the control theory of delinquency.

Control Theory of Delinquency

To fully understand the paradigm from which Hirschi theorized it is important to understand the historical context from which he wrote Causes of Delinquency. In the 1960s, American society was growing tiresome of the social disorganization perspective of criminology that had been previously dominating criminological thought. At the same time, Hirschi was observing a loss of social control over individuals. Social institutions, such as organized religion, the family, educational institutions, and political groups lost favor while the advent of rock and roll, drugs, and the civil rights movement encouraged individuals to sever ties with conventional social norms (Lilly et al, 1995:95). He felt that the most noticeable feature of the 1960s was the breakdown of the typical American family. This theory blamed the family breakdown, rather than social disorganization, for society's growing ills (Hirschi, 1969:83).

Though Hirschi's control theory of delinquency stemmed from the social disorganization perspective, its lack of popularity at the time discouraged him from referencing it openly. In an interview, Hirschi explained why he avoided linking his theory with its predecessor:

I was aware at the time I wrote my theory that it was well within the social disorganization tradition. I knew that, but you have to remember the status of social disorganization as a concept in the middle 1960s when I was writing. I felt I was swimming against the current in stating a social control theory at the individual level. Had I tried to sell social disorganization at the same time, I would have been in deep trouble. So I shied away from that tradition. As a result, I did not give social disorganization its due. I went back to Durkheim and Hobbes and ignored an entire American tradition that was directly relevant to what I was saying. But I was aware of it and took comfort in it. I said the same things the social disorganization people had said, but since they had fallen into disfavor I had to disassociate myself from them (Bartollas, 1985:190).

This explains the reason Hirschi did not give proper recognition to theorists who laid the foundation for the control theory of delinquency. His own theory would probably not have been as widely accepted if he had drawn reference to the unpopular social disorganization perspective. Now that it has been shown that the time was right to introduce the control theory of delinquency, I will explain the major tenets of that theory.

The control theory of delinquency is a more sociological theory, unlike the theories of Hirschi's contemporaries, which were much more psychological in nature (Lilly et al., 1995:97). In fact, he took special care to explain the inadequacies of other contemporary theories before introducing his theory of delinquency. Rather than focusing on an individual's personality as a source of criminality, he focused on the role of social relationships, which he termed social bonds (Hirschi, 1969:16). Here he focused primarily on social bonds and institutions, rather than the individual and self-control to which his view shifted in his self-control theory of crime in 1990. The control theory of delinquency assumes delinquent acts will result when one's bond, or connection to society is weak or broken. Hirschi contended that no motivational factors were necessary for one to become delinquent; the only requirement was the absence of control that allows the individual to be free to weigh the benefits of crime over the costs of those same delinquent acts.

The explanation provided by Hirschi as to why individuals conform to or deviate from social norms entails four variables: attachment, commitment, involvement, and belief. By attachment, Hirschi (1969:18) refers to the extent to which a person is attached to others. As the individual becomes more attached to others, he is far less likely to become delinquent. The primary attachments and interactions are with the parents, closely followed by the attachments to peers, teachers, religious leaders, and other members of a community. Hirschi (1969:19) prefers the concept of attachment to that of internalization, because attachment can be measured independently from deviant behavior, whereas internalization cannot.

Commitment is "the rational component in conformity" (Hirschi, 1969:20). In general, it refers to the fear of law-breaking behavior. When one considers committing deviant, or criminal behavior, he must consider the risks of losing the investment he has made in previous conventional behavior. If one were to have developed a positive reputation, earned a valuable education, raised a supportive family, and/or established a strong name in the business world, he would suffer a substantial loss by violating laws (Hirschi, 1969:162-186). The societal accumulations that one accrues throughout a lifetime represent assurance to society that this person is committed to conventional values. He has more to lose by violating laws. Not only can one be committed to conformity by what he has obtained, but the hope of acquiring goods through conventional means can reinforce one's commitment to social bonds (Hirschi, 1969:186).

Engrossment in conventional activities comprises the component of involvement. Hirschi believed that involvement in conventional activities would keep someone's time too occupied to allow him the indulgence of deviant behavior. The thinking that "idle hands are the devil's workshop" is the reason Hirschi (1969:187) stated "[t]he child playing ping-pong, swimming in the community pool, or doing his homework is not committing delinquent acts". Hirschi thought for a person like this, the opportunity for deviance would rarely arise. This serves as a major source of contention for critics, because as we will discuss later, white collar criminals have the time for crime because the are engrossed in work. The concept of involvement has generated programs that focus on positive recreational activities to occupy the leisure time of juveniles.

Belief refers to the existence of a common value system within the society whose norms are being violated (Hirschi, 1969:197). The opinions and impressions that are dependent on constant social reinforcement comprise belief (Lilly et al, 1995:101). A person is more likely to conform to social norms when he believes in them. Hirschi recognized that individuals vary in the depth and magnitude of their belief, and this variation is reliant upon the degree of attachment to systems representing the beliefs in question.


As previously mentioned, these four components of conformity and deviation have encountered considerable criticism. First, they do not seem to explain all types of crime. Involvement, for example, may not explain white collar crime, because if one is conforming to societal norms by working at a job, he is not necessarily too busy to commit crime; it is because he is working that he has the opportunity to commit crime. Also, it may provide an overly simplistic solution to the problems generated by delinquency. For example, Hirschi's previously mentioned suggestion that "[t]he child playing ping-pong, swimming in the community pool, or doing his homework is not committing delinquent acts" may imply that providing youth with ping pong tables, a swimming pool, and homework will rid society of crime (Hirschi, 1969:187). Public policy based on these recommendations is ignorant of the lack of resources afforded to lower socio-economic classes within society; not all juveniles have access to ping pong tables and swimming pools.

Another weakness of the four variables is that they have been thought of as confusing, because Hirschi intended a sociological definition rather than a psychological sense of the words which have predominated American thought (Lilly et al., 1995:99). Attachment has been confused as the strength of an internal, emotional bond that perhaps may grow more intense without interaction, but this is not the case. By commitment, Hirschi did not mean a deep, internal dedication of the self to others. By involvement he was not referring to emotional entanglements. By belief he did not mean a significant inner faith or a deep belief in something or someone. The bond he intended was much less internalized (Lilly et al., 1995:100).

Several empirical tests of this theory have been conducted by other criminologists and sociologists. One particular test collected data from questionnaires administered to hundreds of high school students and juveniles in correctional institutions (Thompson et al., 1984:11). This study indicated that the extent of variation in delinquency is more accurate when the role of delinquent peers is introduced as an additional variable in Hirschi's causal scheme (Thompson et al., 1984:14). It was also shown that the findings are more representative of social learning or differential association theory than that purported by Hirschi.

Though this version of control theory is still prominent in modern society, it has faced many criticisms. Some of these critiques have even been furnished by Hirschi himself, especially regarding the origin of his theory. His support of this theory has waned over time, and eventually incited the development of the control theory presented in A General Theory of Crime.

Self-Control Theory of Delinquency

Michael R. Gottfredson and Travis Hirschi wrote A General Theory of Crime in 1990. This is a more refined control theory than originally presented over twenty years earlier by Hirschi. This utilitarian theory evolved to propose that self-control is the general concept around which all of the known facts about crime can be organized (Gottfredson and Hirschi, 1990:85). As in Causes of Delinquency, A General Theory of Crime purports that other theories pay insufficient attention to the facts about the nature of crime, which are that crimes are committed in the pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain. As with Hirschi's former theory of criminality, this one is a classical theory as well. It should be noted that, "classical theory and the concept of self-control are remarkably compatible" (Brownfield and Sorenson, 1993:244).

The authors provide their own definition of crime as, "acts of force or fraud undertaken in pursuit of self interest" (Gottfredson and Hirschi, 1990:15). Low self-control is supposed to explain an individual's propensity to commit or refrain from committing crimes, just as high self-control explains an individual's likelihood of conforming to social norms and laws (Akers, 1991:201). The authors explain that the concept of self control is not deterministic (Gottfredson and Hirschi, 1990:87). They also note that people involved with crime also engage in analogous behaviors that provide short-term gratification (Gottfredson and Hirschi, 1990:91). Smoking, drinking, gambling, irresponsible sex, and speeding in cars are examples of risky analogous behaviors that may be manifest in criminal individuals who seek instant gratification. Six elements of self-control are presented, one of which is that "[c]rimes require little skill or planning (Gottfredson and Hirschi, 1990:89). Naturally, this is a source of criticism, since many criminals do plan their deviant acts and have become quite specialized in these activities.

Gottfredson and Hirschi strayed from Hirschi's previous theory that continuing social bonds cushion against criminal behavior in favor of the proposition that self control, internalized early in life, determines who will be likely to commit crime (Grasmick et al., 1993:7). Children with behavioral problems will tend to grow into juvenile delinquents and eventually into adult offenders (Gottfredson and Hirschi, 1990:155). Because the path toward or away from crime commences early in life, they contended further that the level of self-control depends on the quality of parenting in a child's early years. The theory purports that parenting is the most important factor which will determine one's level of self-control. If a child has an abusive or neglectful upbringing, he will tend to be impulsive, insensitive, physical (as opposed to mental), risk-taking, short-sighted, and nonverbal, and they will also tend to engage in the analogous criminal acts outlined above (Gottfredson and Hirschi, 1990:90). Children whose parents care about them and supervise and punish their misconduct will develop the self-control needed, through socialization, to resist the easy temptations offered by crime. This will help them in future school, work, and relationships.

Self-control theory argues that a lack of self-control is neither a sufficient nor a necessary condition for crime to occur, because other properties of the individual, or of the situation may counteract one's likelihood of committing deviant acts (Hirschi and Gottfredson, 1993:53). The theorists have implicitly stated that "their perspective, unlike many others, is not meant to predict any single type of activity since most deviant behavior, by its very nature, is impulsive and opportunistic. Therefore, everything else being equal, low self-control and a weak bond to society should positively and significantly predict a variety of deviant and criminal conduct" (Polakowski, 1994:62). Though lack of self-control and the family's role in its failed development do not mean that one will unequivocally become deviant, it will provide circumstances that will make conditions favorable for delinquency.

Gottfredson and Hirschi unmistakably pinpoint the role of parents as the most essential source of socialization for children (Gottfredson and Hirschi, 1990:97). Hirschi (1995:123) has written supplemental information regarding the dynamics of the family's important role in reducing delinquency. He says that some aspects of family structure and practice appear to have an impact on delinquency in their own right, over and above their influence on the child's level of self control or socialization.

This theory is applied to age, gender, and racial variations in crime, peer groups, schools, and the family, cross-cultural comparisons, white-collar crime, and organized crime. Gottfredson and Hirschi say there are differences among racial and ethnic groups, as there are between the sexes, in levels of direct supervision by the family. Thus, there is a crime component to racial differences in crime rates, but, as with gender, differences in self control probably far outweigh differences in supervision in accounting for racial or ethnic variations (Gottfredson and Hirschi, 1990:149). It is not the gender, race, or age of an individual that directly influences his criminality, but these factors indirectly affect the amount of socialization by parents. An evaluation of the age-crime relationship, however, has shown that for certain crimes, the variable of age may actually be a direct result of lack of self-control (Greenberg, 1994:372).

Public Policy Implications

Public policies, Hirschi suggests, that are designed to deter or rehabilitate offenders will continue to fail. Effective state policies would support and enhance socialization in the family by strengthening the family and by improving the quality of family child-rearing practices. Perhaps parents would be required to take parenting classes. Concentration would be given to the form, size, and stability of the family unit, since these factors influence the ability to properly socialize the children of that family. There should always be two parents for every child. The number of children per family should be small (no more than three). The connections between parents and children should be strong and durable. It should be recognized that a young, teenage mother is not a problem that causes delinquency in children; it is having a mother without a father. Therefore, effective policies would focus not on preventing teenage pregnancies, but on maintaining a father's involvement with the child's life. Hirschi suggests tax penalties for dead-beat dads. Hirschi contends that initiating these public policy reforms would strengthen family bonds, increase socialization, and create greater self-control in the child that will make it unlikely that he will exhibit deviant behavior. (Hirschi, 1995:138,139).


This theory purports to address all types of crime, and indeed it does this much better than Hirschi's first theory in Causes of Delinquency. This theory enjoys much popularity today, especially since it is a newer theory of crime. For such a recent theory, there have been many evaluations made already. It has been tested empirically, and the evidence of those studies strongly supports this version of control theory. Though studies generally support the theory's major conclusion that low self-control is related to criminal involvement, they do make some valid points regarding weaknesses inherent in the self-control theory of crime (Lilly et al., 1995:103).

In A General Theory of Crime Gottfredson and Hirschi offer no general or specific empirical test of the theory they offer (Akers, 1991:203). This makes their claims seem grandiose, though the major tenets appear to be true. The theory has also been accused of being tautological, because they do not define self-control separately from the propensity to commit crimes and analogous behavior (Akers, 1991:204). They use the term criminality and self-control synonymously, which is like saying low self control causes low self-control, or criminality causes criminality. Critics have suggested that an independent indicator of self- control is necessary to truly define self-control. It has also been suggested by critics that this theory wrongfully claims other theories are unimportant (Akers, 1991:206-209). Counter-intuitive to the logic of self-control theory, a longitudinal study was conducted showing that adult social bonds, like stable employment and cohesive marriages for example, can redirect offenders into a lifestyle of conformity beyond the childhood years of socialization (Lilly et al., 1995:104). Studies have also shown that the relationship among self-control, crime, and analogous behaviors was also questionable. Activities like smoking do not necessarily correlate with crime (Lilly et al., 1995:104) (Arneklev et al., 1993:235). White-collar crime does not seem to be adequately explained by this theory, because individuals have already proven that they can endure delayed gratification in the time it took to achieve an advanced education (Benson and Moore, 1992:270).

Overall, it seems that this theory carries heavy paternalistic undertones. Gottfredson and Hirschi find the traditional role of women and men to be crucial to the development of children. They seem to feel that if society could regain traditional American values with the woman staying at home, the husband working during the day, and the children disciplined by both parents, criminality would decrease. They do not even consider the outcomes of single-parent, divorced or un-wed parents, but they are a reality in contemporary society. The policy implications that call for limits on the amount of children a woman may have and mandating birth control are extremely paternalistic. Even suggesting that making men stay committed to an unhappy marriage might encourage the couple to find happiness seems too idealistic.

Many simply find Gottfredson and Hirschi's definition of crime to be unconvincing. This definition leads to the conclusion that any law violation, including murder, robbery, or property crime, that is done for reasons other than self-interest is not crime and cannot be explained by their theory (Grasmick et al., 1993:10).

In summary, Travis Hirschi has had a significant impact on the world of criminology. His two major theories, the control theory of delinquency and self-control theory, despite criticism have guided public policy reformations, and are quite popular today.



Akers, Ronald L. (1991). Self-control as a general theory of crime. Journal of Quantitative Criminology. 7(2), 201-211.

Arneklev, Bruce J., Garold G. Grasmick, Charles R. Tittle, and Robert J. Bursik, Jr. (1993). Low self-control and imprudent behavior. Journal of Quantitative Criminology. 9(3), 225-247.

Benson, M.L. and E. Moore. (1992). Are white-collar offenders and common criminals the same? An empirical and theoretical critique of a recently proposed general theory of crime. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 29, 251-272.

Brownfield, David and Ann Marie Sorenson. (1993). Self-control and juvenile delinquency: theoretical issues and an empirical assessment of selected elements of a general theory of crime. Deviant Behavior. 14, 243-264.

Gottfredson, Michael R. and Travis Hirschi. (1990). A general theory of crime. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Grasmick, Harold G., Charles R. Tittle, Robert J. Bursik, Jr., and Bruce J. Arneklev. (1993). Testing the core empirical implications of Gottfredson and Hirschi's general theory of crime. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency. 30(1), 5-29.

Greenberg, David F. (1994). The historical variability of the age-crime relationship. Journal of Quantitative Criminology. 10(4), 361-373.

Hirschi, Travis. (1967). Delinquency research. New York: The Free Press.

Hirschi, Travis. (1969). Causes of delinquency. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Hirschi, Travis and Michael Gottfredson. (1980). Understanding crime. Beverly Hills: Sage Publications.

Hirschi, Travis. Sociologist. (1985). Interviewed by C. Bartollas. New York.

Hirschi, Travis and Michael Gottfredson. (1993). Commentary: Testing the general theory of crime. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency. 30(1), 47-54).

Hirschi, Travis and Michael R. Gottfredson. (1994). The generality of deviance. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers.

Hirschi, Travis. (1995). The Family. In James Q. Wilson and Joan Petersilia (eds.). Crime. (pp. 121-140). San Francisco: Institute for Contemporary Studies.

Lilly, J. Robert, Francis T. Cullen, and Richard A. Ball. (1995). Criminological theory: context and consequences. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.

Polakowski, Michael. (1994). Linking self- and social control with deviance: illuminating the structure underlying a General Theory of Crime and its relation to deviant activity. Journal of Quantitative Criminology, 10(1), 41-79.

Scott, Joseph E. and Travis Hirschi. (1988). Controversial issues in crime and justice. Newbury Park: Sage Publications.

Thompson, William E., Jim Mitchell, and Richard A. Doddler. (1984). An empirical test of Hirschi's control theory of delinquency. Deviant Behavior. 5, 11-22.

Gottfredson & Hirschi's General Theory of Crime (Bibliography by Jeff Ackerman)

Akers, Ronald L. (1991) "Self-Control as a General Theory of Crime", Journal of Quantitative Criminology 7:201-211.

Grasmick, Harold G., Charles R. Tittle, Robert J. Bursik Jr, and Bruce J. Arneklev (1993) "Testing the Core Empirical Implications of Gottfredson and Hirschi's General Theory of Crime", Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 30:5-29.

Hirschi & Gottfredson (1993) "Commentary: Testing the General Theory of Crime", Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 30:47-54.

Keane, Carl, Paul S. Maxim, and James J. Teevan (1993) "Drinking and Driving, Self-Control, and Gender: Testing a General Theory of Crime." Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 30:30-46.


But of course also see:

Sampson, Robert J. and John H. Laub (1993) Crime in the Making: Pathways and Turning Points Through Life.  Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.

...and a few other related articles.


...and if you are interested in psychological literature, you might check out parallels written prior to the 1990 book.  If you look closely, G&H's theory closely resembles the notion of differences in delay of gratification:

Buss, A.H. and R. Plomin (1984) Temperament: Early Developing Personality Traits, Hillsdate, NJ:Erlbaum.

Herrnstein, Richard J. (1961) "Relative and Absolute Strength of Response as a Function of Frequency of Reinforcement", Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 4:267-272.

Logue, A.W. (1988) "Research on Self-Control: An Integrating Framework", Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 11:665-709.

Mischel, Walter, Yuichi Shoda, and Monica L. Rodriquez (1989) "Delay of Gratification in Children", Science 244:933-938.

Mischel, Walter, Yuichi Shoda, and Philip K. Peake (1988) "The Nature of Adolescent Competencies Predicted by Preschool Delay of Gratification", Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 54:687-696.

Olson, Sheryl L., John E. Bates, and Kathryn Bayles (1990) "Early Antecedents of Child Impulsivity: The Role of Parent-Child Interaction, Cognitive Competence, and Temperament", Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 18:317-334.

Paulsen, Karen and Margaret Johnson (1980) "Impulsivity: A Multidimensional Concept with Developmental Aspects", Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 8:269-277.

Pelham, W. E. and M. E. Bender (1982) "Peer Interactions of Hyperactive Children: Assessment and Treatment.  In K.D. Gadow & I Bialer (Eds.), Advances in Learning and Behavior Difficulties 1:365-436.  Greenwich, CT, JAI Press.

Sonuga-Barke, Lee, & P. Webley (1989) "The Development of Adaptive Choice in a Self-Control Paradigm",  Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 51:77-85.

Thomas, A., S. Chess, and H. Birch (1968) Temperament and Behavioral Disorders in Children.  New York, NY, University Press.