Boxing Match: Hirschi vs Sampson and Laub

1. Social Control Theory and Age

Travis Hirschi is known for the Social Control Theory that stresses social bonds and its effects on crime prevention. This theory tries to answer the question, ‘why doesn’t everyone commit crime or deviance?’ It postulates that, “When the social bond and parent/child attachment is strong… it is less likely that the child will engage in deviant behavior” (Taylor, 2001: 372). It can be inferred that people will be more likely to commit crime if their social ties are weakened or broken. This theory specifically targets youth and their relation to delinquency. In fact, many examples he uses in determining crime, such as “attachment to school and school involvement, high and low status commitments, and parental and peer attachments” (Wiatrowski, Griswold, et. al, 1981: 531) all involve youth life. Most importantly, Hirschi (1983) believes that age of crime is invariant between all nations. In fact, “in the 1960s, the age distribution of delinquency in Argentina…was indistinguishable from the age distribution in the United States, which was in turn indistinguishable from the age distribution of delinquency in England and Wales at the same time” (Hirschi and Gottfredson, 1983: 555). It is a constant that young people commit more crimes, “then [crime] declines with age at some point in the life span…” (Ulmer and Steffensmeier, 2014: 380). In fact, crime tends to peak, “in late adolescence, rapidly decreases throughout the 20s, and levels off and declines slowly during the middle and older ages” (Ulmer and Steffensmeier, 2014: 381).

With that said, Hirschi believes that age is a factor, but not necessarily an important factor in determining crime because it is the same among nations. Regardless of the location, most crimes happen at a young age and people age out of crime. Rather, social control is a key factor. In Hirschi’s perspective, social control is more important than age. The lack of bonds and ties lead to crime and strong ties prevent one from committing crime. In other words, “Gottfredson and Hirschi remain unequivocal in their belief that self-control remains relatively stable over the life course” (Meyers, 2013: 1). Those who show low self-control early in their lives will persist as having low self-control. That is, unless, they get socialized into the conventional normals postulated by Hirschi in The Social Control Theory.

2. Hirschi’s Postulates

           Hirschi’s Social Control Theory has four elements. The first element is attachment. It states that one must have an attachment to norm abiding friends and family (Siegel 2011). In other words, a person is less likely to commit crime when he or she hangs out with law-abiding conformists. Second, Hirschi stresses commitment. According to Taylor (2001) Hirschi believes that in order to prevent crime people must dedicate themselves to conventional behaviors. For example, I know not to steal because it is not conventional behavior. Third, Hirsch stresses involvement. Hirschi believes that when people involve themselves “in conventional activities, the less time they will have to indulge in crime” (Taylor, 2001: 373). If I go to church or go play golf, I will have no time to go rob a store. Lastly, it emphasizes the concept of belief. This is when one believes in conventional norms (Siegel 2011). For example, I must believe in going to church or going to school.

III. Sampson and Laub

Sampson and Laub’s Age graded theory emphasizes age and the life course of an individual’s propensity to commit crime. In other words, “why do most juvenile delinquents stop offending? Why do others continue to offend?” (Doherty, 2005: 2). Sampson and Laub would agree with Hirschi that crime begins at a young age. Just like Hirschi, they believe that ties and bonds are a factor because once a person is a criminal, then that person will always be a criminal; that is, if no life altering events happen in the life course of that criminal. If nothing happens during the life course, though the crimes won’t be the same as the criminal ages, the criminal will still commit crimes. According to Sampson and Laub themselves, “a specific behavior in childhood might not be predictive of the exact same behavior in later adulthood, but might be associated with behaviors that are conceptually consistent with that early behavior” (Sampson and Laub, 1992: 68). However, unlike Hirschi who believed age was not a key factor in why people commit crime, Sampson and Laub believed that age is extremely crucial in determining crime. In fact, age is the basis of turning points. Turning points are events that “reshape trajectories of criminal offending” (Doherty, 2005: 2). These events could be good. Good life events will reshape the offender into a good person and the criminal will seize criminal activities. These good life turning points could be a newfound connection or relationship with God, for example. David Berkowitz, or ‘the Son of Sam’, found God in the late 1980’s and turned his life around for good.

Furthermore, unlike Hirschi, Sampson and Laub pondered what makes people, who were and have always been law-abiding citizens, commit crime in later life. Negative turning points may be an illness of a family member and financial issues. A person would more likely to steal medicine if a family member is ill and the person has no way for paying for the medicines because of financial troubles. Thus, unlike Hirschi, Sampson and Laub would argue that low self-control is not stable, rather relative to an individual’s life course. To put it this way, a person can snap or desist anytime due to what happens in their lives.

3. Social Bond Case Studies

Sampson and Laub also affirmed that detached social bonds to conventional normals could always cause a person to commit crime. They hypothesized that detached social bonds causes crime. They used the prison system as an example. People in prison are deprived of conventional social bonds and, “found that long-term incarceration positively impacts crime through subsequent job instability” Doherty, 2005: 16). In general, being in prison for a very long time can have a negative effect on future job opportunity, a key role in preventing crime. These criminals will have a lesser chance of getting a job. This causes one to commit crime.

On the other hand, marriage can be a good turning point. Marriage allows one to attach to “a spouse who supports and sustains them even when the spouse knows they were in trouble when they were young” (Siegel, 2011: 234). Marriages also allow for one to gain greater responsibility and hold oneself accountable. One must chip in and support the family by getting some sort of employment. Some marriages also produce offspring which requires one to support and care for the child. All of these reduce crime.

4. Hirschi General Theory of Crime

Hirschi’s General Theory of Crime states that self-control is not the sole determinant of one propensity to commit crime. He addressed “biosocial, psychological, routine activities, and rational choice theories” (Siegel, 2011: 242). These other factors plus self control cause crime. Impulsiveness plays a key role in this theory. It explains why some people stop committing crimes and why some people commit crimes at a later age. Those with high impulsivity are the people who engage in deviant or criminal behaviors. They like the thrill or the instant reward. It could be said that they have a ‘want it now’ mentality. It also explains why people who are law-abiding citizens with high self-control commit crime. Want trumps self-control. However, the opportunity to commit the crime must be there (Siegel 2011). It tries to answer what makes people, who were and have always been law-abiding citizens, commit crime in later life.

There are many people who critique The General Theory of Crime. First, it is circular reasoning. Bad people commit crimes and criminals are bad people or else they wouldn’t commit crimes. The second criticism is the notion of ecological differences (Siegel 2011). Just because an area has higher crime rate than another area does not mean that the former area has higher impulsive people! Also are people all of a sudden more impulsive in the summer than the winter (Siegel 2011)? The third criticism is that it does not take into account gender differences (Siegel 2011). Or in other words, it assumes that females are slightly less impulsive than males. However, research shows otherwise (Siegel 2011). It also discounts moral values, which were addressed in self-control theory, but not in General Theory of Crime. Good moral values can trump impulsivity. Lastly, people evolve (Siegel 2011). As people mature people can become less impulsive as they learn to control their urges through law-abiding socialization. GTC does not address evolution.

5. Summary

In sum, Travis Hirschi, known for the Social Control Theory, stresses social bonds and its effects on crime prevention. High social bonds produce less crime. Sampson and Laub state that life processes can produce or desist crime. These are otherwise known as turning points, which could be good or bad. General Theory of Crime states that impulsivity along with self-control cause crime. Many criticisms of GTC were addressed.

VII. Bibliography

Doherty, Elaine. E. 2005. “ASSESSING AN AGE-GRADED THEORY OF INFORMAL SOCIAL CONTROL: ARE THERE CONDITIONAL EFFECTS OF LIFE EVENTS IN THE DESISTANCE PROCESS?” Ph.D Dissertation, Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice, University of Maryland: College Park, College Park, MD.

Hirschi, Travis and Michael Gottfredson. 1983. “Age and the Explanation of Crime.” The American Journal of Sociology 89(3): 552-584

Meyers, Travis J. 2013. “Relative vs. Absolute Stability in Self-Control: A Meta-Analysis.” Masters of Science Thesis, Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ.

Sampson, Robert. J., and John H. Laub. 1992. “CRIME AND DEVIANCE IN THE LIFE COURSE.” Annual Review Of Sociology 18: 63-84.

Siegel, Larry J. 2011. Criminology: The Core. Fourth Edition. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Taylor, Claire. 2001. “The relationship between social and self-control: Tracing Hirschi’s criminological career.” Theoretical Criminology 5(3): 369- 388.

Ulmer, Jeffery T. and Darrell Steffensmeier. 2014. “The Age and Crime Relationship: Social Variation, Social Explanations.” In The Nurture versus Biosocial Debate in Criminology, edited by K. Beaver, B. Boutwell, and J.C. Barnes. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Wiatrowski, Michael. D., Griswold, David. B., and Roberts, Mary. K. 1981. “SOCIAL CONTROL THEORY AND DELINQUENCY.” American Sociological Review 46(5): 525-541


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