Social Control Theory vs Self-Control Theory

By | June 16, 2021
Social Control Theory

The present article aims to provide an overview of the Social Control and Self-Control Theory and how both theories align or facilitate each other as an explanation for delinquency.

I. Introduction

The concept of social control and self-control is an essential attribute in the field of sociology and certainly has a complex and controversial evolution. Whilst social control theory was defined as the ability of an individual or group to regulate themselves in an orderly manner as per the norms and moral beliefs of society, which commonly calls for socialization, self-control on the contrary is a relatively new concept that refers to the inability of an individual or groups to refrain from availing opportunities in order to satisfy their immediate desires that leads their engagement in deviant behaviour.

The theories of social control and self-control have also been proposed as significant factors in the field of criminology that influence individual involvement in deviant or criminal behaviours throughout the life course.

II. Social Control Theory

Situated among other sociological theories, social control theory emphasizes the role of social and familial bonds as constraints in committing offence. Within criminology, social control theory is typically used in the more classical sense to deal with the mechanisms through which socially involved individuals attempt to orchestrate their behaviour and control deviance.

The Social Control theory gained its prominence during the 1960s during which Travis Hirschi proposed his innovative rendering of the Social Bond theory of crime or Social Control Theory which asserts that the familial ties with family, school, and other important regulatory aspects of society assist in diminishing one’s propensity for deviant behaviour. His theory suggests that crime occurrence takes place when such familial bonds are weakened or are not well established since the initial age of the individual. Thus Control theorists argue that the absence of such bonds leads to the inevitable occurrence of crime.[1]

There is a certain difference between criminology theories which seeks to explain why people engage in deviant behaviour and Social Bond theory which clearly takes the opposite view, questioning why people refrain from offending.[2] As a result, criminality is seen as a possibility for all individuals residing in the society but is mostly avoided only by those individuals who seek to maintain social bonds.

According to Hirshi’s theory, these social or familial bonds are based on attachment to those both within and outside the family, including the other closed one or who has a regulatory influence on your day to day behaviour such as school, co-workers, friends, and teachers. There are other three main aspects of an individual’s social control which interact together to insulate him from criminal involvement.

These aspects comprise of an individual’s commitment to activities in which he has invested time and efforts, such as career or educational goals; activities that serve to further social bond with other others; and inculcated belief in wider social values leaves little room for the person to get involved in deviant activities.[3] Let us understand each of the elements of bonds in Hirschi’s Social Bond theory.

The first element talks about the attachment that individuals form as people with others in society. Most people of society have “internalized the norms” of said society such as being a law-abiding citizen and willing to conform to the rules and norms of society. However, those who don’t comply are alienated from others due to weak social attachments and are potentially free to deviate and commit a crime.

The second element talks about commitment. It states that people who are committed to legitimate things such as education, family, and career are less likely to commit crime because such persons are committed to conventional line of action and to its conformity; however, such commitment must not be towards endangering life or other risks that led to criminal acts.

The third element of Social Bond theory talks about involvement which suggests that those who are involved in socially or familial related activities are largely committed towards them, thus leaving less or no room for time for the commission of a crime. As Hirschi correctly points out, “A person may be simply too busy doing conventional things to find time to engage in deviant behaviour.”

The last element of bond is belief. The social control theory suggests that most people arguably have some sort of belief systems such as morals, values, and ethics of societal conduct that actively contradicts the notion that any individual would commit a crime. On the other hand, some believe to break the law or act in contradiction to the societal lawful conducts and they are most likely to commit a crime.

III. Self-Control Theory

Self-control theory is the general theory of crime which has emerged through the evolution of social control theory. Similar to how Hirschi built upon sociological control theories with his proposition of social bond theory, Gottfredson and Hirschi further developed their conception of the causes of crime and introduced it within a new theory i.e. Self-control theory. They define self-control as “the differential tendency of people to avoid criminal acts whatever the circumstances in which they find themselves.”[4]

The self-control theory of crime posits that low self-control is an essential key factor underlying criminality behaviour. To this end, Gottfredson and Hirschi suggest that there are five elements of self-control. Let us understand each one of them one by one[5]:

The first element provides that “criminal acts provide gratification of desires” and hence segregates the desires into immediate and delayed gratification. It suggests that while individuals who lack self-control prefer to gain immediate gratification because that is something that they can experience right at the moment, those with self-control can see and understand the relevance of delayed gratification and seek to look ahead and gain potential benefits even out of a long-term goal paying it off.

The next element states that “criminal acts are exciting, risky, or thrilling” and those who lack self-control tend to be more adventurous. Such individuals are always looking for that next adrenaline rush and resultantly engage in risky behaviour. On the contrary, individuals with self-control happen to take a more cautious and cognitive approach to life, by planning things out, and most important playing things safe.

The third element provides that “crime provides few long-term benefits” and actually interferes with long-term commitment. Thus, individuals who lack self-control tend to have unstable job profiles, relations, marriages because they are simply disinterested in long term commitments. People possessing self-control contrarily have a focused goal and aspirations to look forward and beheaded in the future.

The fourth element of self-control theory states that “crime requires little skill or planning”. The theorists argue that criminals being interested in the academic and manual skill spheres have no use for legitimate skill sets which makes it easier for them to fall into a life of crime.

Individuals with no self-control tend to have an insensitive and indifferent attitude towards the suffering of others. Related to this, the last yet most truthful element of this theory provides that “crimes result in pain or discomfort for the victim”.

IV. Social Control Theory vs Self-Control Theory

Based on the above overview of Social Control Theory and Self-control Theory it is clear that the two theories seem not to contradict each other in any way. Since the Self-control theory has said to be encapsulated through the evolution of Hirschi’s Social Control theory, both of them are evidently in supplementary or extension of each other, in a way, as to facilitate in giving an explanation why more people may commit a crime, based on their social relations and lack of self-control tendencies.

While Hirschi’s social control theory located control in an individual’s relation to society, self-control theory has moved the locus of control inside the individual. Therefore, we can say that the latter is a micro-level theory that works to explain why an individual may commit a crime and the former on the other hand is a macro-level theory that works to explain how lack of familial relations with others and disbelief in societal moral values can lead an individual or groups to commit a crime.

V. Conclusion

Control theories of crime work to explain the essential factors that control human behaviour in common parlance, in order to understand why individuals conform to the societal rules and norms and how they have a perceived attitude and thought towards things at hand.

The abovementioned explanation in the form of Social Control Theory and Social Control Theory seems to have withstood the test of crime and runs parallel to give a basic explanation as to deviant behaviours of individuals. Although, because of some existing differences and inconsistencies between the two theories, the depth in the complementary relationship between the two cannot be overlooked, considering that as of now it has not been suggested that there was an inherent incompatibility between the Social Bond Theory and Self-Control Theory.


[1] Lilly, J.R., F.T. Cullen and R.A. Ball. (1995). Criminological Theory: Context and Consequences (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, Ca: Sage Publications.

[2] Akers, R.L. and C.S. Sellers. (2004). Criminological Theories: Introduction, Evaluation, and Application (4th ed.). Los Angeles: Roxbury Publishing.

[3] Siegel, L.J. and C. McCormick. (2006). Criminology in Canada: Theories, Patterns, and Typologies (3rd ed.). Toronto: Thompson.

[4] Cullen, F.T., & Agnew, R. (2011). Criminological Theory: Past to Present. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

[5] Gottfredson, M. R., & Hirschi, T. (1990). A general theory of crime. Stanford University Press.


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Author: Deepshikha

Deepshikha is a law student from National Law University, Odisha.

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