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Cj 102 - Social Control Theory

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Unit 10 Essay


Ericka Griffin

Kaplan University

January 24, 2017

When a detective is trying to solve a crime, he/she often look for clues to determine how a crime is committed.  They will study the items left behind to see if they can determine the type of individual that committed the crime.  Most often those clues will allow them to determine the rationale or motivation for committing the crime.  There are many different theories that have been developed over the years that are used to study crimes and criminal behavior.  Throughout this paper, in depth analysis will discuss social control theory and rational choice theory.  Within these two theories there are many similarities that will tie them together as well as many differences that sets them apart from other theories that has been developed.  

Social Control Theory

In the development of preceding theories, they were created to explain why a person would commit crimes.  Social control theory gives the opposite view of it by showing why a person decides to follow the law and not commit crimes.  Social control theory was developed by Travis Hirschi in 1969 which was originally known as the Social Bond Theory.  Under this theory, Hirschi studies how society contributes to one’s actions and susceptibility to committing crimes.  He theorized that it is an internal control mechanism that allows a person to be morally connected to his/her environment which limits the criminal activity.  Hirschi discussed that if an individual’s connection to society is damaged, the more often the person will commit various crimes becoming a delinquent (Ortiz, n.d.).

The social control theory examines the relationships that a person has with family, friends, job, and societal standing.  The control starts when a person is still a child.  As the person progress in their life, the relationship within the previous mentioned determines how a person will become in their environment.  Hirchi reasoned that there are four main elements that must remain stable in a person’s life so they will not commit crimes.  Those areas include attachment, commitment, involvement, and belief. (Hirschi, 1969).

The first element of social control theory is attachment.  Simply put, if an individual as strong family bonds and bonds with their friends, they are least likely to commit crimes.  This is because they don’t want disapproval from them.  Strong familial bonds provide the framework of an individual not being a delinquent because they are given positive role models from their parents.  This in turn becomes internal self-regulation because they know even though their parents might not see what they are doing, they know what is right by what has been taught to them.   Conversely, if a person has negative influences from their parents it is very possible they will pick up those bad traits from their parents because that is all they have been exposed to.  People will become delinquents if they have no bonds and must fend for themselves for survival.  

The second element of this theory is commitment.  The greater that a person is committed to succeeding in a goal, the less likely they will commit a crime.  This can be seen in children that like school and participate in after school activities.  They will ensure they receive passing grades and follow all the rules because they want to participate in the activities that bring happiness to them.  Other actions include one’s long-term goal and maintaining one’s reputation (Hirschi, 1969).  If a person feels they don’t have anything to lose, they are a high risk of committing a crime.  These individuals often make poor grades in school and often don’t like attending class.  They weigh the benefits and costs of the time.  If the costs are too high, the crime will not be committed.

Involvement is the third portion of Hirschi’s theory.  If a person is involved in other activities, they don’t have time to commit crimes or break other laws.  Being engaged with other activities decreases the likelihood the becoming a delinquent.

Lastly, the final element is belief.  Individuals that have strong moral beliefs are least likely to commit crimes.  Their beliefs are based on social reinforcements which are provided on a constant basis.  Since these individuals have a basic understanding of right and wrong, the inclination of participating in criminal activity is reduced.  Their core values are the basis of their beliefs.  Hirschi states they are ways for individuals to get around their beliefs. The first way is the lack of meaning to their belief and dismissing them as mere words.  The other ways to circumvent their beliefs is through neutralization by justifying the act so they can violate their rule and still hold on to their belief (Hirschi, 1969).

Hirschi contends that if there is intervention in the beginning of an individual’s life with positive role models, active participation in activities that doesn’t leave idle time, it will reduce the probability of crimes occurring in juveniles.  The issue arises when the influence of friends and peers are introduced into the equation.  If a person socializes with individuals that participate in illegal activities, it is highly probable they will start to participate to gain further acceptance into the group.  This is particularly true if the friends have a strong influence within the group either negatively or positively.  The change in one’s life can happen at different phases of life.  Some individuals that have a positive upbringing from their parents can turn to a life of crime after leaving home due to outside influences.  On the other hand, individuals that had rough childhoods and negative influences can decide during adulthood to turn their life around and become model citizens.  There is no one factor that stands out that makes this determination for a person.  

Rational Choice Theory

Created by Gary Becker in 1968, the rational choice theory was model that was used in various fields such as political science, economics, and sociology just to name a few.  Within the rational choice theory there are three elements that must be considered: “rationality” of the criminal acts and their careers; the balance of rewards and the costs with committing the crime or behavior; and background and other variables (Akers, 1990).

Under this theory, Becker states that the following formula can be used to determine the utility of a potential criminal:

EU = pU (Yf) + (1 – p) U (Y)

In the equation, p stands for the offender’s likelihood of being caught; f is the level of severity of the punishment if caught; Y stands for the utility benefits one gains at committing the offense without getting caught.  Under this formula, this calculus depicts and individual’s utility as function of costs and benefits of the crime; as crime rises in Y both p and f falls (Padowitz n.d.).

As the formula is broken down into its key elements, theorists can better determine the factors of crime.  The p is the prevention of the crime which is the most studied portion of the equation.  Law enforcement is always trying to determine ways to reduce the amount of crimes committed.  A problem with focusing on this portion of the formula is that there is the data is always changing based on the amount of crimes committed during a period.  There is no correlation between crime increasing or decreasing periods.  The severity of the punishment, f, causes much controversy among the criminology community.  This is because even though capital punishment is the most severe punishment administered, it doesn’t deter an individual from committing a crime in most cases.  This variable is controlled by many factors that isn’t taking into consideration during data collection.  Y determines the benefits that the criminal gains when he or she is successful in completing the crime.  This formula is generally used when calculating white collar crimes because of the monetary benefits but criminologist have also been able to apply this formula to crimes in which an individual can gain social status on intrinsic enjoyment (Padowitz, n.d.).



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