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Social Bond Theory and Deviant Behaviour

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Criminology
Wordcount: 2774 words Published: 26th Jul 2018

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Social Bonds and Deviance

Deviance is a term used to describe behavior that goes against the established social and cultural norms. The concept of deviance is complex because norms vary considerably across groups, times, and places. Essentially, individuals commit deviant behavior when society defines it as such. Within the field of criminology, a number of theories exist that attempt to explain why some people engage in deviant behavior, while others abstain from it. One of these theories is Travis Hirschi’s, social bond theory, which eventually becomes the blueprint for subsequent control theories. This paper will analyze aspects of social control theory and social bonds, for the purpose of seeing if they can deter deviant behavior. Social control theory focuses on how the lack of close relationships with others can free individuals from social constraints, which in turn allows them to engage in delinquency. Unlike most criminology theories that claim to explain why people offend, control theories offer the justification for why people obey the rules (Cartwright, 2013). Social control theories focus primarily on external factors and the processes by which rules become effective. Followers of this theory believe that deviance and crime occur because of inadequate constraints. This theory also examines the lack of control a person has in relation to society and explains how deviant behavior occurs in proportion to the strength of one’s social bonding. For the most part, social control theory assumes a shared value or belief in social norms. Therefore, even those who break laws or violate social norms, share the general belief that those rules should be followed (Cartwright, 2013). Thus, the essence of social control theory is explaining conformity and the process through which people are socialized to obey the rules.

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The first mentions of social control theory can be found in the works of some of the Enlightenment thinkers and can be traced to the Chicago School (Cartwright, 2011, p. 207). For example, Thomas Hobbes, an English social philosopher who wrote about external restraints and the role of government in preventing deviance, can be seen as one of the roots of this theory. Hobbes argued that humans had an inherent tendency toward evil and were constrained only through social contracts and agreements with people. More often though, the origin of social control theory is connected to Emile Durkheim, who is a French sociologist and is considered as the founder of sociology. Durkheim views crime and deviance as social facts that are present in all societies and even considered crime as “normal” (Cartwright, 2013). Durkheim thought that, “social controls were necessary if individuals were to understand the boundaries between acceptable and unacceptable behavior” (Cartwright, 2011, p. 207). In his view, crime serves the function of identifying boundaries for behavior, which are recognized collectively in communities and reinforced by negative societal reaction. As a result, social order is maintained to avoid disapproved association with deviant acts.

Eventually, Durkheim’s theory of integration and regulation becomes the basis for Travis Hirschi’s social bonding theory, in which criminal behavior is accounted as a result of weakening social bonds. Although Hirschi was not the first to propose a social control theory, his research published in the, “Causes of Delinquency” (1969), established him as the leading social control theorist. However, it is important to note that his social bonding theory exists, for the most part, as a result of the work done by his social control theory predecessors (Hirschi, 1969, p. 212). Terence Thornberry elaborated upon Hirschi’s control theory and Durkheim’s view of crime in society, in order to create a more accurate model for describing delinquency. He agreed with Hirschi that all humans are born with deviant motivation and that if social constraints are absent, people will naturally engage in deviant behavior. However, Thornberry argues that the weakening of social controls would not necessarily result in delinquency. In other words, according to Thornberry’s interactional theory, the absence or weakening of social control is a necessary, but not a sufficient condition for delinquent involvement (Cartwright, 2011, p. 229). Laub and Sampson’s turning points theory was also rooted in Durkheim’s views, Hirschi’s social bond theory and Thornberry’s interactional theory. Laub and Sampson’s theory concluded that some social events may change delinquents from a path of crime and this event is called a turning point. Closer to the present time, Bouffard and Petkovsek conducted a study which explores the process through which social bonds work to restrain offending criminal behavior. This was primarily based on Hirschi’s social bonding theory and looks at the decision to drive drunk. All of the above mentioned theorists are intricately connected through their theories, which are based on some aspect of their respective predecessors, and their view that all individuals are bonded to society.

Hirschi’s, social bond theory, looks at how delinquency is the result of weak or broken bonds between the individual and society. He states that there are four aspects of the bond, and their relationship between each other, that affect our connection to society (Cartwright, 2011). These four are: attachment, commitment, involvement in conventional activities, and lastly belief in wider social values. Hirschi defines attachment to others as the degree to which we admire others and feel affection for and identify with them. Forming secure bonds to other human beings, foster traits like empathy and respect. If a person is able to experience empathy, that person will be far less likely to engage in criminal acts that would result in someone being harmed. Attachment is especially important when it comes to the person’s parental figures. According to Hirschi, other attachments, such as school, also play a tremendous role in conventional society (Hirschi, 1969, p. 215). Next is commitment, which can be described as the personal investment of an individual, in things such as educational or career goals, and the perceived losses suffered by involvement in deviant behavior. A person is far less likely to commit deviant behavior when they have invested too much energy and time into pursuing a goal. A sense of commitment is a grounding force that gives individuals a reason to conform to socially accepted norms and goals (Hirschi, 1969, p. 216-217). Involvement refers to the level of one’s participation in social activities such as volunteering, jobs, or attending church. There is an inverse correlation between the amount of time an individual participates in conventional activities and the amount of time they have to deviate. Therefore, involvement in activities serves to both further an individual’s bonds to others and leaves the individual with limited time to be involved in deviant activities. Finally, belief refers to an individual’s trust in society’s moral system. The individual must believe that the rules and laws are necessary and should be obeyed. A lack of belief in the system can cause individuals to be more likely to engage in deviant behavior (Hirschi, 1969, p. 217-219). Hirschi views these four aspects of social control as highly interrelated and together they form the foundation of the social bonding theory.

Thornberry’s Interactional theory attempts to combine social structure, social control, and social learning theories. He began with aspects of Hirschi’s version of control theory and Ronald Akers’s social learning theory, in order to create a more integrated theory to explain delinquent behavior. He called his theory, “interactional” because it was based on the premise that crime and deviance is the outcome of interactions between an individual and his or her environment (Thornberry, 1987, p. 232-233). Thornberry selected three concepts from Hirschi’s theory (attachment to parents, commitment to school, and belief in conventional values) and two from Akers’s theory (association with delinquent peers and delinquent values) (Cartwright, 2011). The significance of this theory is that it examines the developmental changes across three stage of adolescence: early, middle, and late adolescence. During childhood and early adolescence, attachment to the family is the most important determinant of whether a youth will adjust to society’s rules and be shielded from delinquency (Thornberry, 1987, p. 242-243). By mid-adolescence, the family is replaced by the world of friends, school and youth culture. In adulthood, a person’s behavioural choices are shaped by their place in conventional society and in their own family. Additionally, this theory asserts that at different ages, different influences become more important for the individual (Thornberry, 1987, p. 246, 248). This theory further states that individuals with weak social bonds will form other bonds with delinquents who share the same values.

Laub and Sampson developed a theory of age-graded informal social control. They predicted that those who have more social capital, quality marital bonds, and stable employment in adulthood are more likely to abstain from committing more crime, through what the authors refer to as turning points. The key component of this theory is that delinquency and crime have an inverse relationship with an individual’s bond to society (Cartwright, 2011). As an extension of Hirschi’s social bond theory, Laub and Sampson discussed the concept of attachment and commitment. The most notable difference between age-graded informal social control theory and social control theory is that the former acknowledges that crime is not “necessarily stable over the life course” and that criminals can change into “normal, law-abiding adults” (Cartwright, 2011, p. 258). Laub and Sampson find that attachments or social bonds in adulthood increase some individuals’ social capital, leading to desistance from most types of deviant behavior. Furthermore, they found that antisocial behavior in childhood has a strong likelihood of continuing through adulthood across a variety of life domains. So, individuals who become attached to other people will increase their self-control and, constraints in the form of job or marriage can prevent those with low self-control from offending (Laub and Sampsons, 1993, p. 269-270). Laub and Sampson argue that the start of a criminal career occurs early in life, but emphasize that even with an established criminal career; delinquency can be interrupted during the life course. Specifically, Laub and Sampson found that kids who were involved in deviant behavior, changed for the better because they experienced an event that pulled them out of their criminal lifestyle and into a more conventional pattern of behavior. They refer to these points of interruption as turning points. Such turning points include military service, employment, and marriage which create social capital. This social capital then represents investment in society and will restrain deviant behavior (Laub and Sampsons, 1993, p. 272-273). According to this theory, social influences on crime can directly and indirectly, affect trajectories of crime across the entire life course.

In Bouffard and Petkovsek’s paper, they tested Hirschi’s social bond theory and the impact social bonds have on crime, specifically focusing on the decision to drive drunk. Their prediction for the outcome of the study is as follows: individuals with lower levels of social bonding will not care about the severity of negative consequences involved in drunk driving behavior and these ratings of severity will decide whether an individual participates in drunk driving (Bouffard and Petkovsek, 2013, p. 5). Each participant in the study was asked questions to test the social control theory. These questions focused on attachment to the family, belief in conventional values, and religious involvement/commitment (Bouffard and Petkovsek, 2013, p. 8). From the results, they found that concepts discussed in Hirschi’s social bond theory, did in fact affect deviant behavior. Those individuals with greater social bonds were found to be less likely to drive drunk, whereas those with less social bonds had a greater likelihood of driving drunk (Bouffard and Petkovsek, 2013, p. 17). The results of this study indicate that the concepts described in Hirschi’s social bond theory actually do have an effect on the deterrence of deviant behavior.

Personally, I do believe that aspects of social control theory and social bonds can deter people from engaging in deviant behavior. It is not difficult to believe in any of the aforementioned theories, especially Hirschi’s components of social bond theory (attachment, commitment, involvement in conventional activities, and belief in social values), when there are many accounts of the life stories of major criminals out in the media. Most, if not all, serious crimes (murder, kidnappings, etc) are committed by people who grew up with bad parental figures, and strongly believed that they had no place in conventional society. This tied in with Thornberry’s concept of developmental changes across various stages of adolescence. When these individual do not have a significant attachment to family during their childhood, they have already begun rejecting some of society’s rules. This coupled with Laub and Sampsons assertion that social bonds increase an individual’s social capital which in turn restricts deviant behavior, almost guarantees a path of deviance for that individual. Furthermore, as Bouffard and Petkovesk’s study showed, social bonds really do have an effect on some types of deviant behavior. As previously mentioned, the readings have truly convinced me that social bonds play an integral role in the decision to participate in deviant behavior.


Bouffard, J.A., & Petkovsek M.A. (2013): Testing Hirschi’s integration of social control and rational choice: Are bonds considered in offender decisions? Journal of Crime and Justice, doi: 10.1080/0735648X.2013.814547

Cartwright, B. (2011). Social Control Theory and Developmental Life Course Theories. In B. Cartwright (Ed), Sociological Explanations of Crime and Deviance (pp. 207-209). Boston: Pearson Learning Solutions.

Cartwright, B. (2011). A Control Theory of Delinquency. In B. Cartwright (Ed), Sociological Explanations of Crime and Deviance (pp. 211-213). Boston: Pearson Learning Solutions.

Cartwright, B. (2011). Turning Points in the Life Course: Why Change Matters to the Study of Crime. In B. Cartwright (Ed), Sociological Explanations of Crime and Deviance (pp. 258-260). Boston: Pearson Learning Solutions.

Cartwright, B. (2011). Toward an Interactional Theory of Deviance. In B. Cartwright (Ed), Sociological Explanations of Crime and Deviance (pp. 229-231). Boston: Pearson Learning Solutions.

Cartwright, B. (2011). The Origins of Social Control Theory Part 1. Retrieved from online tutorial site: http://media.pearsoncmg.com/pcp/1256315303/tutorial6/tutorial6.html

Cartwright, B. (2011). Life Course and Developmental Theories Part 2. Retrieved from online tutorial site: http://media.pearsoncmg.com/pcp/1256315303/tutorial7/tutorial7.html

Cartwright, B. (2013). “Social Control Theories.” Criminology 104 Lecture, retrieved from Simon Fraser University on-line lecture site.

Hirschi, T. (1969). A Control Theory of Delinquency. In B. Cartwright (Ed), Sociological Explanations of Crime and Deviance (pp. 214-228). Boston: Pearson Learning Solutions.

Laub, J., & Samspon, R. (1993). Turning Points in the Life Course: Why Change Matters to the Study of Crime. In B. Cartwright (Ed), Sociological Explanations of Crime and Deviance (pp. 261-282). Boston: Pearson Learning Solutions.

Thornberry, T. (1987). Toward an interactional Theory of Delinquency. In B. Cartwright (Ed), Sociological Explanations of Crime and Deviance (pp. 232-257). Boston: Pearson Learning Solutions.


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