Control Theory Research Paper

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The central notion of our theory is control. Control as the exercise of restraining and directing influences over the criminal phenomenon. The criminal phenomenon involves three embedded levels: the crime, the criminal, and the criminality. In appropriate contexts, control triggers conformity in harmony with social and moral expectations. The restraining and directing influences for each levels of the criminal phenomenon are the result of four mechanisms: bonding, unfolding, modeling, and constraining. Our theoretical statement is an expansion of existing psychological and sociological theories and a mixture of various control constructs. As a consequence, our control theory is integrative. It is also isomorphic because the four mechanisms are expressed in particular ways for each levels of the criminal phenomenon. Finally, our theory is developmental because it uses the laws of thermodynamics to address the question of the explanation continuity and change in the criminal phenomenon.


Over the last 20 years, criminology has not witnessed any major theoretical innovations. Numerous theoretical perspectives were available: social disorganization, strain, control, cultural deviance, differential association, social learning, criminal personality, labeling, deterrence, and so on (Shoemaker 2005). These perspectives were elaborations of ideas of early twentieth-century theorists: Quetelet, Lombroso, Durkheim, Freud, Marx, Tarde, and others. Most of the theoretical perspectives explained why individuals became criminals. Durkheim, Freud, Reiss, Nye, and Hirschi have presented control theories. They proposed specific constructs and they accepted the same basic assumptions concerning human nature. Over the last four decades, control theory became and remains the most prominent empirically based criminological theory.

Control theories share four assumptions about human nature and social order. The first assumption is that humans are unsocialized at birth, and during the life course their socialization is never perfect. These conditions favor the emergence and maintenance of a criminal propensity in individuals and communities. The second assumption is that a social order always implies some consensus on values and informal and formal mechanisms of interactions. However, social order is always transient. The third assumption is that communities and individuals are self-serving and have mutual influences on each other. The fourth assumption is that the situation, the individual, and the community modulate each other as much as there are forces internal to each of them.

Our theory is multilayered. It targets three levels of definition and explanation of the criminal phenomenon: the crime, the criminal, and the criminality. Our theory is integrative. It combines constructs from various disciplines and theoretical perspectives. We constructed our theory assuming that different words and terms are different for various theorists but that their theoretical meanings and operational definitions are synonymous. Our theory is isomorphic.

The similarity of the explanatory structure from one level of definition of the criminal phenomenon to the other corresponds to the view of the fractal nature of the universe. We propose six generic constructs: two categories of exogenous factors, environment and background, and four control mechanisms, bonding, unfolding, modeling, and constraining. Finally, our control theory is developmental. Most criminological theoretical perspectives do not address the question of the explanation of continuity and change in the criminal phenomenon. We define a contextual perspective that allows for developmental principles like orthogenesis, sensitivity to the original state, and epigenetic probability.

In this research paper, we define levels of explanation of the criminal phenomenon: the crime, the criminal, and the criminality. Starting from these layers, we elaborate an integrative and developmental control theory. We define the components of the theory and their structural organization. This paper proposes static and a dynamic formulation of our theory. An extended version of our integrative and developmental multilayered control theory of the criminal phenomenon is available (Le Blanc 1997a, b, 2006, 2009). The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada supported the theoretical and empirical research on our integrative and developmental multilayered control theory of the criminal phenomenon over four decades.

The Levels Of Definition And Explanation Of The Criminal Phenomenon

The French criminologist Jean Pinatel, in a masterly effort to define the bases of criminology, proposed, in 1963, that criminologists should distinguish among three levels of the criminal phenomenon, namely, the criminality, the criminal, and the crime. Each level of the criminal phenomenon has its own perspectives, its own rationales, and its own methods. American criminologists rediscovered this fundamental principle (Hirschi 1979; Short 1985). However, the emphasis has been mainly on two levels, the criminality and the criminal.

The micro-level interpretation of the criminal phenomenon, the crime, refers to a small part of the criminal career of a person or of criminality. The criminal event has a beginning, a development, and an end, and the task of criminology is to ascertain the control mechanisms that sustain its appearance in a particular situation.

The meso-level of the criminal phenomenon, the criminal, includes the study of his personal biological, psychological, and social characteristics in relation to offending. The dependent variable is any descriptive index of the criminal activity, participation, frequency, onset, and duration or any developmental measures, activation, aggravation, desistance, and trajectories (Le Blanc and Fre´chette 1989). Independent control variables are numerous and vary during the life course.

The macro-level of the criminal phenomenon, the criminality, is the sum of all offenses committed and criminals at a given time in a particular place, a school, a community, and a society. The rate of criminality is influenced by demographic, economic, political, and other macro control factors. The independent variables are indicators of the state of a society, a community, and a school.

Accepting the need to specify the level of the criminal phenomenon when elaborating theoretical propositions implies that they are distinct and their explanatory factors matched to them. Psychologists distinguish three levels: the milieu, the person, and the situation. Sociologists refer to society, community, and institutions. In consequence, we posit that each level of explanation is only pertinent to a particular level of definition: a crime in a situation, a criminal with his offending, and a rate of criminality of a society.

To respect the logic of the ecological fallacy and the fallacy of reductionism, explanatory variables of one level do not explain the dependent variable of another level. For example, societal variables may affect the person; however, only person variables can influence directly individual offending, and person variables cannot affect the rate of criminality. Each level of explanation is also autonomous. However, explanatory variables are constantly interacting, and it is also implicit from a dynamic point of view that levels of definition reciprocally influence each other. At a specific point in time, the characteristics of a person and of his community, associated with previous behavior, will partially determine subsequent behavior that, in turn, will modify the characteristics of the person and of his community.

The Integrative Multilayered Control Theory Of The Criminal Phenomenon

Lenski (1988, p. 168) defines a multilayered theory as “one in which a broadly inclusive general theory establishes a covering principle from which a series of more limited special theories can be derived.” We propose to apply this definition to the levels of definition and explanation of the criminal phenomenon. A broadly inclusive general theory is what Wagner and Berger (1985) call an orienting strategy; it discusses guidelines for understanding the criminal phenomenon, what notions to include and how to relate them to each other. In criminology, there are many such strategies according to Shoemaker (2005). These limited theories present a plausible body of theoretical statements offered to explain a particular layer of the criminal phenomenon. In this research paper, we develop a general control theory and limited theories for the explanation of the crime, the criminal, and the criminality.

The Structural Statement Of An Integrative Multilayered Control Theory

The Structure Of The Generic Control Theory

Much of the recent literature forgets formulations of control theory that preceded Hirschi’s statement (1969) that limits the notion of control to Durkheim’s definition of the bond to society. All control theorists would agree with Empey’s statement that the core of control theories is (1978, p. 207) “.. .their emphasis upon the idea that delinquent and conformist behavior is a function of the ability of the child to control his antisocial impulses. They start from the assumption that children require training if they are to behave socially. Delinquent behavior will result either if a child lacks the ability for effective training or because he has been trained badly.” This statement fits particularly well Durkheim’s definition of control in his 1934 book “L’e´ducation morale” and the last version of control theory that adds the notion of low self-control to the notion of bonds (Gottfredson and Hirschi 1990). As formulated, control theory applies to the meso-level of definition of the criminal phenomenon, the criminal. Some authors developed a control theory that applies to communities, cities, or society: Sutherland, Trasher, Shaw, McKay, and Kornhauser.

Our general control theory of the criminal phenomenon states that, in a favorable context, control mechanisms are operand and will change in harmony with social and moral expectations, as a consequence conformity results and is maintained. Conversely, in an unfavorable context, control mechanisms are insufficient and inappropriate, and the criminal phenomenon emerges and persists.

We use the term “control” according to its third literal definition in Webster’s dictionary (p. 245, 3b): “a mechanism used to regulate and guide the operation of a system.” The term “control” then refers to the definition of the central notion that Gibbs proposes (1989, p. 23): “.. .control is overt behavior by human in belief that (1) the behavior increases the probability of some subsequent condition and (2) the increase or decrease is desirable.” For Gibbs, the commission of an act or its omission is overt behavior. Overt behaviors manifest themselves in the form of an inanimate thing, human and nonhuman organisms, self-controls and external controls, proximal, sequential, or social. Gibbs argues that this notion of control is central for all the behavioral and social sciences. Gibbs’ definition of control is compatible with its literal definition: the exercise of restraining and directing influences. This definition has two advantages. First, it keeps us away from the strictly individual level formulation of the definition of control in the Durkheimian tradition, that is, the bond to society and internal and external constraints used during socialization. Second, its level of abstraction facilitates the formulation of our control theory for the three levels of definition of the criminal phenomenon. Individuals, communities, and events can produce behaviors, acts, circumstances, or conditions that are purposive and desirable. Bonds and constraints are only one type of such overt behaviors.

Gibb’s notion of control is also central to psychology. Lytton (1990) uses the umbrella of control system theory to review the literature on child development. Horowitz (1987) proposes a structural/behavioral control model of development. The notion of control is also dominant in criminology. Attachment and supervision for bonding theorists are forms of such regulating mechanisms. We could also argue that arrests, the perceived certainty of a sanction or opportunities, are forms of restraining influences for subsequent offending. They are constructs proposed by labeling, deterrence, and strain theorists. Favorable and unfavorable definitions for differential association theorists and reinforcements for learning theorists are also controls because they are directing influences on criminal behavior.

In our generic controltheory, there are four mechanisms of control: bonding, unfolding, modeling, andconstraining. Two types of context modulate the action of these mechanisms, theenvironment and the background. Each category of control mechanism and eachtype of contexts represent numerous factors that have a potential impact on oneparticular level of the criminal phenomenon. The definitions of the controlmechanisms are the following. Their name is written in capital letters in Fig.1.

Control Theory Research Paper

Bonding refers to the various ways by which individuals are held together in a community, in a group, or interpersonally. Unfolding is the natural growth and development toward a desirable state of greater quality, the growth of a community or the development of the person according to social expectations. Modeling is the existence of patterns that can shape conformity, opportunities, models, or occasions that are available in a community or to individuals. Constraining is the regulation of conformity through various direct and indirect restrains; they are limits defined by a community or imposed by the social network of the person. These mechanisms are simultaneously and causally interacting to produce conformity (all the arrows in Fig. 1). They also have their own life or ontogeny (the superimposed boxes in Fig. 1). This theory is systemic in the sense that it defines a structure, a sequence between its components, as well as reciprocal and directional relationships and feedbacks. It is also a dynamic theory because over time there is continuity and change within the control mechanisms as well as because of their mutual influences.

In Fig. 1, the structure of the control theory is illustrated by the proximity of the mechanisms from the criminal phenomenon. This structure depends on the principle of prerequisites, on the distinction between continuity and change, and on existing empirical knowledge. The theory states that the exogenous factors do not have a direct impact on the criminal phenomenon. They are the environment (the complex of climatic, edaphic, and biotic factors) and the background (circumstances that modulate the control mechanisms). Two of the mechanisms of control, bonding and unfolding, are prerequisites; their impact is indirect on the criminal phenomenon. They are the foundations of the general control mechanism. Without bonds, models cannot be significant and constraints cannot be operand. In consequence, an unbounded community or individual cannot be sensitive to direct controls or influenced by the models. In addition, since the unfolding mechanism refers to a desirable state, this precedes the influence of available models and constraints. The bonding and the unfolding mechanisms modulate the criminal phenomenon through the mechanisms of modeling and constraining. These mechanisms are proximal causes of the criminal phenomenon because they are more specific to the space-time dimension. Their nature changes with time. The bonding and the unfolding mechanisms are in a situation of reciprocal causation at a specific moment. The modeling and the constraining mechanisms are in the same situation. In sum, the bonding and unfolding mechanisms are the foundations and the continuity component of control, while the modeling and constraining mechanisms are catalysts of conformity. We postulate that the four mechanisms of control are in a synergetic relation. They interact to produce an overall level of control of the criminal phenomenon. This synergy, as illustrated in Fig. 1, emerges also from the causal effects, the reciprocal relations, and the feedback effects. The superposed boxes containing the constructs represents the changes on the time, age, and moment dimensions of the evolution of controls.

This structure of the theory applies to the three levels of the definition of the criminal phenomenon. In a multilayered theory, the components are present at all the levels of explanation of the criminal phenomenon. There is isomorphism in the content of the mechanisms of control at the layers of the crime, the criminal, and the criminality.

The Content Of The Control Theory Of The Criminal Behavior

Reiss’ (1951) statement of control theory proposed the distinction between social and personal controls. Hirschi’s formulation of the bond (1969) did not include psychological constructs. This deficiency is overcome with the notion of self-control (Gottfredson and Hirschi 1990). Since the 1970s, the vast majority of etiological publications in criminology develops and tests these notions.

At the level of the criminal, conformity to conventional standards of behavior occurs and persists, on one hand, if self-control is robust and the bond to society is firm and, on the other hand, if constraints are appropriate and models are prosocial. This self-and social regulation of conformity is conditional to the biological capacities of the person and his position in the social structure. Alternatively, criminal behavior emerges and continues when low self-control persists, the social bond is tenuous, the constraints are insufficient, and the deviant model is abundant. These causes of offending will be more efficient when the individual has some biological deficiencies and when he comes from a lower social class. The definitions of these six constructs are presented and operationalized in Le Blanc (1997a, b, 2006) and in numerous studies in criminology.

The structure of the individual level control theory can be deduced from many empirical results. In causal modeling term, bonds (attachment and commitment) and self-control are in a situation of reciprocal causation. They are developmental prerequisites of conformity. They are also continuous primary needs during the life course. This is not the case for the modeling (involvement and peers and adults models) and constraining (rules, supervision, punishment) mechanisms. During the life course, the models change – attitudinal and behavioral demands of society for children, adolescents, and adults – and constraints are transformed – from external to internal controls – with age and with the evolution of society. In consequence, modeling and constraining are consequences of the bonding and self-control mechanisms; they are proximal causal factors of conformity. There are also retroactive effects illustrated in Fig. 1. A retroactive effect runs in the opposite direction of the sequence defined by the structure of the theory, for example, from actual individual offending on subsequent state of bonding, self-control, modeling, and constraining.

The Content Of The Control Theory Of The Criminality

We now move on to the level of criminality. We elaborate our community control theory with the content and the logic used for the personal control theory. Kornhauser (1978) argues that the social disorganization perspective is basically a control theory, even if it is primarily about communities. She indicates that this theoretical perspective has an overwhelming emphasis on the community context. She demonstrates that social disorganization theory includes the major components of a control theory: the strength of social bonds in the community as the foundation of control, the importance of direct controls, the weakness of culture, and the defective socialization to cultural values. Her model is based on three constructs: exogenous variables (economic status, mobility, heterogeneity), cultural disorganization, and social disorganization. She specifies the relationships between the exogenous variables and the structural and cultural community organization constructs without stating clearly the connection between these two forms of community organization. Our version of community control elaborates on this base.

The dependent variable is the rate of criminality in a particular community at a specific moment and its evolution over time. This rate refers either to an overall rate or to rates for specific types of criminal acts. The independent variables, as in the personal control theory, comprise six constructs: social structure, setting, social organization, cultural organization, opportunities, and direct controls. These constructs represent, respectively, the environment and the background contexts, the bonding, the modeling, the unfolding, and the constraining mechanisms (Fig. 1).

Our community control theory assumes that a high rate of conformity to conventional standards of behavior persists when the social organization is sound and the cultural organization robust, when direct controls are efficient, and when there are sufficient legitimate opportunities. This regulation of conformity is conditional on the quality of the setting and on the position of the community in the social structure. Alternatively, a high rate of criminality exists when social disorganization and cultural disorganization are persistent, when direct controls are inappropriate, and when deviant subcultures and opportunities are numerous. These causes of a high rate of criminality in a community will be more efficient when the setting is physically degraded and when the social status of the community is low. The rate of conformity will vary over time and between communities according to changes in the position of the community in the social structure and the quality of the setting and to variations in the levels of social and cultural organization, direct controls, and opportunities.

The construct of social structure refers to the population and urbanization dimensions, the socioeconomic composition of the community, the residential stability of the residents, and the racial and ethnic heterogeneity of the neighborhood. The setting is the isomorphic construct to biological capacity at the level of the individual. It is defined traditionally by the density and crowding dimensions and by the physical deterioration of the inner city. It could also involve such characteristics as the level of pollution, traffic, noise, and so on. Social disorganization refers to the weakness of informal networks; it is the loss of community control over members and the erosion of informal networks, the quality of primary relational networks (intimate informal primary groups: family, friends, neighbors), and the strength of secondary relational networks (broader local interpersonal networks and the interlocking of local institutions). The distinction between structure and culture has long been established, particularly by Parsons. Various notions are present in the criminological literature that refers to cultural organization. There is Sutherland’s constructs of economic and political individualism, Sellin’s notion of culture conflict, Merton’s anomie construct, and Angel’s social integration notion. Cultural disorganization refers to the attenuation of societal cultural values as controls. The desirable state for any society is the presence of robust and influential cultural values. In a deteriorated setting and a low socioeconomic status community, various deviant models and numerous illegitimate opportunities are available to residents. The notion of opportunities includes the subcultures, their representative gangs, and the corresponding illegal markets (stolen goods businesses, drugs, prostitution, and so on). However, it also involves black markets, such as undeclared work, and deficiencies in resources for conventional activities, such as work, playgrounds, sport organizations, and art classes. The notion of opportunities also refers to the large availability of suitable targets because of the deficiencies in social and cultural organization and formal and informal direct controls. The existence of illegitimate opportunities and the scarcity of legitimate opportunities encourage the use of repressive direct controls, and they sustain a high rate of criminality. Kornhauser (1978, p. 74) defines direct controls as “.. .purposive efforts to ensure conformity or limit deviance….” Hunter (1985) proposes three levels of such controls. The private level refers to relationships among peers and adults. The parochial level points to the broader set of local interpersonal networks of neighbors and interlocking of local institutions, such as voluntary organizations, stores, schools, and churches. The public level involves the ability of the community to secure public goods and services (health services, social services, policing, and so on).

We argue that an integrative community control theory contains six constructs: social structure, setting, social organization, cultural organization, opportunities, and direct controls. In addition, based on past theoretical statements and empirical studies, we proposed many interdependencies between these constructs (Fig. 1). There is a consensus among the specialists of community control that the social structure of the community and its setting are exogenous factors to community processes. These sets of variables directly influence the social and cultural organization of the community, the nature of available opportunities, and the nature of direct controls. In consequence, the social structure and the setting do not have a direct impact on the rate of criminality. Communities, like humans, have two primary needs, self-conservation and integration to its larger society. First, the primary need of self-conservation has its origin in the setting and the social structure, and they are the main sources of community organization. As a result, the setting and social structural contexts encourage the bonding (social organization) and the unfolding (cultural organization). These mechanisms imply that, from a particular setting and a specific position in the social structure, the community develops its social and cultural organization. Secondly, the primary need of integration of the community into its larger society leads also to the nature of the social and cultural organization. There is also a consensus that the available opportunities and the nature of direct controls are consequences of the social and cultural organization of the community.

The two primary needs of communities, self-conservation and integration, are persistent during history. This is not the case for the modeling (opportunities) and constraining (direct controls) mechanisms. Over time, the models change and the constraints alter with the evolution of society. For example, gangs of today are different from gangs of previous decades. During history, constraints have been transformed from repressive to humanitarian. As a consequence, Fig. 1 states that the modeling and the constraining mechanisms are influenced by the social organization and cultural organization mechanisms. Figure 1 also indicates that this theory is dynamic and interactional. Reciprocal, directional, and retroactive arrows represent interactions.

The Content Of The Control Theory Of The Criminal Event

An event control theory has common grounds with the personal and the community control theories. Hirschi (1986) argues that there is no fundamental opposition between rational choice and control perspectives. They share the same image of man as a self-seeking individual. Bursik and Grasmick (1993) state that the routine activities and the social disorganization perspectives complement each other. They argue that the community dynamics relate naturally to the offender/target/capable guardian convergence so important for routine activities theorists. In sum, a criminal event is a function of the community in which it takes place and of the individual who commits it. In these circumstances, it is natural to move to the micro-level explanation of the criminal phenomenon with a control perspective.

The offense control theory assumes that conformity to conventional standards of behavior in a specific situation occurs when routine activities are conventional, when the individual presentness is low, when there is no occasion for the perpetration of a criminal act, and when guardianship is reliable. This regulation of conformity is conditional on the quality of community and personal controls. Alternatively, a crime is likely when the person’s presentness is high, when his routine activities are unconventional, when there are numerous occasions to commit crimes, and when possible targets are unprotected. These causes of the perpetration of an offense will be more potent when the person has a high propensity for crime (low personal control) and lives in a disorganized community (low community control) (Fig. 1).

The dependent variable is a particular criminal event. This event can be various, characterized according to the nature of the crime: the mechanics of the perpetration of the act (planning, use of instruments, accomplices, and so on) and the psychological reaction before, during, and after the event (Le Blanc and Fre´chette 1989). The explanatory constructs of community control, personal control, presentness, routine activities, occasions, and guardianship are isomorphic with the constructs of the other two levels of explanation of the criminal phenomenon. Personal and community controls represent the exogenous variables. Routines’ activities delineate the bonding mechanism; the presentness component manifests the unfolding mechanism; the occasion’s construct defines the modeling mechanism; and the guardianship dimension represents the constraining mechanism.

The construct of routine activities refers to habitually enacted public activities. This construct focuses particularly on the individual lifestyle, the daily activity patterns that disperse the person away from his family, the household situation, and the involvement in conventional activities. According to routine activity theory, these activities will bring the person in contact with numerous targets for the commission of a crime that is improperly guarded. It incorporates public and private and institutional and noninstitutional activities. The construct of presentness is defined as “the idea that people differ in the extent to which they are vulnerable to the temptation of the moment” (Gottfredson and Hirschi 1990, p. 87). It characterize people with low self-control as “.. .impulsive, insensible, physical, risk-taking, shortsighted, and nonverbal” (p. 90). The Chicago school tells us that in crime-prone communities, there are numerous occasions for the commission of criminal acts. The individual makes a rational choice about the suitability of the target; he evaluates the degree of effort involve, the amount and immediacy of the reward, the likelihood and severity of punishment, and the moral costs. We expect that the more a target seems suitable, the higher the probability of the commission of an offense, particularly if the person’s self-control is low and his routine activities are public and noninstitutional. In Cohen and Felson’s (1979) routine activity theory, three elements are necessary for the commission of a criminal act: a likely criminal, a suitable target, and the absence of a capable guardian. The absence of guardianship is a proximal cause of a crime, and that situation is likely to be perceived as such when the person has high presentness, when his routine activities are dominantly unconventional, and when there are suitable targets.

Our integrative offense control theory relies greatly on Felson’s (1986) discussion of the relationships between criminal choices, routine activities, indirect control, ecology, and social control theories. Figure 1 represents the interdependencies between the constructs from a dynamic point of view (the superimposed boxes) and in an interactional perspective (the directional, bidirectional, and feedbacks arrows). Le Blanc (1997a, 2006) discusses the interdependencies between the constructs of the community control and the personal and event control theories and the personal control and the event control theories.

The Developmental Statement Of The Integrative Multilayered Control Theory Of The Criminal Phenomenon

The structural statement of our multilayered control theory has defined its constructs and structure. Most criminological theories do not discuss the dynamics of continuity and change of the criminal phenomenon, and the criminological data are rarely longitudinal. Only recently, theories include a developmental perspective. We believe that the time is ripe to further these endeavors through our multilayered control theory. To do so, we used the frameworks provided by theoretical developmental psychology and chaos theory (Le Blanc 1997a, 2006).

Crime is embedded in criminality and individual offending, and criminals are constituent parts of the crime rate. Event control is part of personal and community control, and personal control is a component of community control. Figure 2 represents embeddedness by three parallel spirals. Development is contextual and probabilistic. This means that the influence of the changing context on the trajectory of development is partly uncertain and that development must be defined in terms of “… organism-context reciprocal or dynamic-interactional relations” (Lerner 1986, p. 69). However, the organization and the internal coherence of the organism limit the probabilities of different trajectories. These principles are also those of the chaos perspective (Gleick 1987; Briggs and Peat 1989). This perspective talks about structured randomness, complex systems, nonlinear dynamics, and inner rhythms. In sociology, Fararo (1989) develops that line of thinking under the notion of dynamic social systems and formalizes his theory in terms of the mathematics of nonlinear dynamics.

Control Theory Research Paper

According to the contextual perspective on development, we can state that the level of community, personal, and event control is specific to a particular time and space. According to chaos theory, we can state that changes at one layer of control will affect changes at the other layers of control. Spirals in Fig. 2 represent the coevolution of the changes at the various layers of control. Arrows from one spiral to the others represent that changes in event control will modify the level of personal and community control and vice versa. Studies in criminology document contextual effects.

Whatever the level of explanation of the criminal phenomenon, its developmental trajectory reflects the orthogenic principle stated by Werner (1957, p. 126): “.. .whenever development occurs it proceeds from a state of relative globality and lack of differentiation to a state of increasing differentiation, articulation, and hierarchic integration.” Psychologists will accept that proposition and sociologists will recognize the pertinence of that statement for societal change. The evolution toward more complexity is governed by two principles: sensitivity to the initial condition and probabilistic epigenesis. Criminologists demonstrated that past criminal activity explains subsequent offending (Le Blanc and Loeber 1998). Individual offending is not the only variable affected by this principle; a significant proportion of the explained variance of explanatory variables – attachment to parents, commitment to education, association with delinquent peers, and others – is accounted for by the past level of the same variables (Le Blanc 2006). Superimposed boxes in Fig. 1 and turns in spirals in Fig. 2 represent this developmental mechanism. As a consequence, each subsystem is partly self-organizing and self-perpetuating. This is the case for the bonding, unfolding, modeling, and constraining systems and their subsystems. Concerning the principle of probabilistic epigenesis, results about individual offending clearly show that there are some normative stages but that the outcome of individual development is only probable, never certain.

Finally, development is interactional as recognized by criminologists (Thornberry 1987) and contextual develop-mentalists (Lerner 1986). The development of event, personal, and community control implies interactions that are represented in Fig. 2. Interactions take various forms: reciprocal interdependencies among constructs at a specific time; causal relationships between constructs over time, such that constructs will become alternatively independent and dependent variables; state dependencies for each construct; and, retroactive, the impact of the criminal phenomenon at time 2 on the four control mechanisms at time 3.

After reviewing the principles that govern the development of the control of the criminal phenomenon, it is necessary to specify the nature of its course. In our developmental criminology paradigmatic paper (Le Blanc and Loeber 1998), we propose a developmental analysis of individual offending. Le Blanc (2006) argues that we can apply the methods of study for the analysis of within-individual change to the course of event and community control. The course of controls can take the forms of quantitative and qualitative changes, a distinction fundamental for develop-mentalists and specialists of social change.

Quantitative changes are usually termed “trends” at the community level and “growth curves” at the individual level. First, quantitative changes are the degree of change on any construct of our multilayered control theory. Second, they assess the direction of change, progression or regression. Finally, they also refer to the rate of change, the relationship between the degree of change and time. We can measure the degree, direction, and velocity of change for community control, for example, concerning the social structure: variations in the racial heterogeneity, in its social organization; changes in participation in voluntary organization, in its direct control; and changes in the number of police patrols. We could assess the quantitative measures of change in attachment, self-control, and number of delinquent friends for the personal control. We could describe quantitative changes in guardianship, availability of targets.

Qualitative changes refer to something that is different from what went on before, something that is more complex according to the orthogenetic principle. These changes in nature are habitually subdivided in a developmental sequence that comprises a certain number of stages. When sociologists talk about industrial, postindustrial, developing, postmodern societies, and so on, they refer implicitly to such stages. When social ecologists talk about a community moving from a middle-class status to a working-class status and from a homogeneous underclass status to a gentry’s status, they define implicitly stages of development. Psychologists refer explicitly to stages when they talk about sensorimotor or preoperational intelligence; oral, anal, or phallic functioning; and conventional or postconventional reasoning. In each of these examples, social and behavioral scientists call attention to a universal developmental sequence divided into a limited number of stages. At the level of analysis of events, there is probably a sequence in planning and organization, for example, between a forged check to a sophisticated credit card fraud, from an unplanned breaking and entering to a professional one, and from events of bullying during childhood to gang fights during adolescence and wife battering later on. We assume that a normative developmental sequence exists for the communities, individuals, and events constructs of our multilayered control theory.

Figure 2 represents the dynamics of control of the criminal phenomenon. This figure integrates the mechanisms of the course of development and the developmental processes to the structure of the multilayered control theory of the criminal phenomenon. The dynamics of control are of two categories. First, Fig. 2 represents continuity and change over time; in that case, the figure must be read from left to right. Second, Fig. 2 also shows the interactions between the layers of control; in that case, the figure must be read vertically.

The horizontal reading of Fig. 2 refers to minutes and hours in the event control spiral; to days, weeks, months, and years in the personal control spiral; and to years and decades in the community control spiral. These spirals are metaphors that represent the action of the mechanisms we proposed to specify the course of development of the criminal phenomenon. The time dimension that is associated with the spirals shows orthogenesis. The beginning of the spirals represents the initial condition, while the rest of the spirals introduce the sensitivity to the initial condition. The independent spirals are there to indicate that event, personal, and community control are self-organizing phenomenon. Coevolution is indicated by the placement of the spirals on three dimensions. Finally, along each spiral, there are probabilistic quantitative and qualitative changes.

The vertical reading of Fig. 2 implies that we think in terms of interdependencies between the layers of control of the criminal phenomenon. In our discursive statement of our theory, synergy implied embeddedness and reciprocal relations between the layers of control. In Fig. 2, embeddedness is represented by the fact that the crime spiral is placed in-between the criminal and the criminality spirals. This position indicates that an offense is a constituent part of individual offending and of the rate of criminality and that individual offending is part of criminality. In Fig. 2, interactions are shown by the large arrows; each arrow specifies these interdependencies. Synergy also exists at all points along the time dimension, and as a consequence, the multilayered control of the criminal phenomenon looks like a torus attractor such as proposed by chaos theorists to represent continuity and change (Briggs and Peat 1989; Le Blanc 2006).

Figure 2 also represents the interactional perspective. The discursive statement of our multilayered control theory identifies various types of relations: reciprocal, causal, state dependent, and retroactive. Large arrows indicate reciprocal relations, while thin arrows show causal relations and retroactions. A discursive statement of the relations showed in Fig. 2 would be the following. Insufficient community control and tenuous personal control will diminish the level of event control of a person and a crime is more likely to be committed. Conversely, the commission of a crime will alter the actual level of personal control for that person and modify the actual level of control in his community. Notwithstanding these relationships between layers of control, there are also some independent within layers changes relative to the initial condition. In addition, a change in a person level of event control will alter his subsequent level of personal control and the subsequent level of control in his community. A change in community control will also affect the subsequent level of personal and event control for the person. Finally, a change in the level of a person’s personal control will affect the subsequent level of event control for that person and the following level of control in his community. Notwithstanding these changes, the level of the criminal phenomenon also modifies the subsequent level of control.


Our control theory covers three levels of definition and explanation of the criminal phenomenon: the crime, the criminal, and the criminality. We constructed an integrative theory with different words and terms from different theorists, but their theoretical meanings and operational definitions are synonymous. Our theory is fractal because of the similarity of structure from one level of definition of the criminal phenomenon to the other. Six generic constructs and two categories of exogenous factors are defined and organized in a similar structure. The control mechanisms are bonding, unfolding, modeling, and constraining. We define a contextual perspective that allows for developmental principles of orthogeny, sensitivity to the original state, and epigenetic probability. The course of development has quantitative and qualitative dimensions and is nonlinear.

As presented, this formulation of our multilayered control theory has several deficiencies. The first concern is its generic and discursive status. The statement of our control theory is not yet specific enough, and additional work is needed to facilitate an operational formulation of the theory. A theory is also never complete before a formal test identifies its logical inconsistencies. A formalization of the individual level control theory exists (Le Blanc and Caplan 1993), but the same operations should take place for community and event control and our generic control theory as a whole. Only then will it be possible to discuss its testability and start empirical tests. However, numerous limited tests of the structure our control theory do exist in the criminological literature.


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