Social Control and Self-Control Research Paper

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The concept of social control has a complex and controversial history in the field of sociology. Originally, it was defined as the ability of a group to regulate itself, but the term was subsequently redefined to refer either to socialization or social repression (Janowitz 1975). Within criminology, social control typically is used in the more classical sense to refer to the mechanisms through which groups attempt to orchestrate behavior and control deviance. Self-control, on the other hand, is a relatively new concept in criminology that refers to the differential ability (or inability) of individuals to refrain from taking advantage of opportunities to satisfy their immediate desires by engaging in criminal or deviant behavior (Gottfredson and Hirschi 1990). Both social control and self-control have been proposed as important factors that influence individual involvement in crime throughout the life course (Gottfredson and Hirschi 1990; Sampson and Laub 1993). Empirical support for their importance in the etiology, longevity, and patterning of criminal behavior is substantial, but a number of issues remain to be resolved, including the origins and stability of self-control, the effects of social control on criminal trajectories at different stages of the life course, and the factors that influence a person’s exposure to informal social control. This research paper addresses these issues by focusing on how social control and self-control may change over the life course.

Crime And Informal Social Control

Within criminology, informal social controls are seen as emerging from “the role reciprocities and structure of interpersonal bonds linking members of a society to one another and to wider social institutions such as work, family, and school” (Sampson and Laub 1993, p. 18). For example, husbands and wives are bonded to one another through socially recognized obligations and expectations regarding proper normative behavior. These interpersonal bonds act as constraints on the participants in a role relationship, in the sense that there is pressure on participants to meet their role expectations if they wish for the relationship to continue and if they wish to be viewed favorably by others. Children may be bonded to their parents by emotional connections of love and caring, and children understand that their parents have expectations regarding how they should behave. To the extent that children care about their parents, these expectations can act as a constraining force on their behavior. Similarly, being employed requires that one meet the expectations of one’s employer to show up at work, do one’s job, and not bring disrepute on the work organization. Thus, informal social controls that arise out of social roles guide behavior by placing responsibilities and constraints on the individual and by directing individual action in some directions rather than others. Prosocial behavior is promoted by strong social controls, while deviancy and delinquency are promoted by the attenuation of social controls over individual conduct (Thornberry 1987).

At different stages in the life course, individuals are potentially subject to different forms of informal social control that arise of out different role relationships and participation in different social institutions (Sampson and Laub 1993; Thornberry 1987). For children, informal family and school bonds are important. Children who are strongly bonded to their parents and who care about school are less likely to be involved in delinquency than children who have difficult relations with their parents or who do not like school. As children move through the life course, the major sources of informal social control change. Parents and school are not as important for young adults as they are for children and teenagers. For young adults, employment and marriage are potential sources of informal control. Some scholars argue that variation in the strength of informal controls influences the likelihood and degree of involvement in crime and deviance at all stages of the life course (Sampson and Laub 1993; Thornberry 1987).

For young children, families and specifically parents are the most important source of informal social control. The fundamental processes that seem to be present in successful families and missing in unsuccessful ones are attachment and control. Attachment refers to an emotional connection between parent and child, in which the child has feelings of love, respect, and admiration toward the parent and the parent feels similarly toward the child. It is a reciprocal process, involving both parent and child, but it starts with the parent (Hirschi 1969). By giving love and expressive support early on, parents can foster a sense of attachment in their children. Children who develop strong attachments to their parents care about their parents’ feelings and opinions. They are aware of and sensitive to the impact that their behavior can have on their parents. They understand that if they are caught doing something wrong, it will embarrass and disappoint their parents, and they do not want that to happen. Rather, they want their parents to be proud of them. This emotional connection functions as a sort of internal monitor of the child’s behavior when parents are not present. Parents who work at developing a strong sense of attachment in their children when they are young are exercising informal social control and are likely to be rewarded for their efforts when their children enter adolescence in reduced levels of delinquency.

Showering children with love and affection when they are young in the hopes of developing a strong sense of attachment, however, is not enough in and of itself to prevent involvement in delinquency or deviance. Expressive support is crucial, but parents who want to keep their children out of trouble must also exercise more direct types of informal social control. Direct control involves monitoring the child’s behavior, recognizing deviance when it occurs, and correcting misbehavior when it happens (Gottfredson and Hirschi 1990). Parents must pay attention to their children and be aware of what they are doing and recognize when they are doing something that is wrong or inappropriate. By monitoring their children, recognizing deviance, and correcting misbehavior, parents can foster the development of conformity in their children and help start them off on trajectories aimed away from serious delinquency (Gottfredson and Hirschi 1990; Patterson et al. 1992).

As children grow older and move into adolescence, the sources of informal social control change from families and parents to schools and peers. Children who are strongly attached to school are significantly less involved in deviance than those with weaker attachments. School attachment is a multidimensional concept that has both objective and subjective elements. Objective attachment can be seen in school performance (that it, how well one does in the classroom) and involvement in school-related activities, such as committees, sports teams, or school clubs. Subjective attachment refers to one’s aspirations and expectations in regard to educational achievement and one’s sense of satisfaction with and affection toward the people and activities that constitute the school system (Sampson and Laub 1993).

That people often behave differently when they are in a group as opposed to being by themselves is so well known that it is something of a sociological and psychological truism. This truism appears to apply with particular force to juveniles, as most delinquency is committed in groups (Warr 2002). Thus, peers have long been recognized as an important influence on juvenile delinquency and as a source of informal social control in adolescence in the form of peer pressure. Juveniles who have delinquent friends tend to be delinquent themselves, while their nondelinquent counterparts tend to have nondelinquent friends. Although the empirical correlation between delinquency and having delinquent friends is well established, its interpretation is a matter of dispute. One school of thought holds that delinquent friends cause or exacerbate an individual’s own delinquency through modeling and social reinforcement for delinquent behavior (Akers 1998). In contrast, conforming friends model and reinforce prosocial behavior. The other school of thought holds that the correlation between delinquency and delinquent friends is spurious and results from a self-selection process in which teenagers with delinquent propensities tend to seek out other teenagers with similar propensities (Gottfredson and Hirschi 1990).

As teenagers move into young adulthood, they may become subject to new forms of informal social control. These new forms of control include employment and marriage. Individuals who are lucky enough to find good jobs or enter good marriages or both become subjugated to new sources of informal social control. One of the most important sources is marriage. Marriage entails new responsibilities and ideally a strong emotional commitment to another person (Laub et al. 1998). To the extent that a young man is emotionally attached to his wife and his children, he is likely to curb his criminal inclinations out of respect for his wife’s wishes and a desire not to jeopardize his family life. Marriage may influence involvement in crime in another way by limiting a person’s access to deviant peers and to opportunities to engage in deviant activities. The time that a man spends with his spouse or children at home is time that he cannot spend with criminal peers on the street. Time spent working to provide a living for one’s spouse and children is also time taken away from the risky attractions of street life. Getting married reduces one’s contact with friends in general and delinquent friends in particular. Reduced exposure to delinquent friends leads to reduced involvement in crime and deviance (Warr 1998).

Qualitative and quantitative evidence suggests that, for some men, becoming involved with a woman and getting married can be a route out of crime (Shover 1985). What appears to matter most is the development of high-quality marital bonds (Sampson and Laub 1993; Sampson et al. 2006). However, the effect of a good marriage on criminal offending does not occur all at once. Rather, it is a gradual process that cumulates over time. The longer time an offender invests in a good marriage, the more likely that marriage is to have a preventive effect on his criminal trajectory (Laub et al. 1998). Offenders who enter into good marriages gradually become committed to their spouses. This commitment appears to function as a source of informal social control that grows slowly over time and leads toward desistance.

Crime And Self-Control

According to Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990), at the individual level, the most important causal factor in crime is a behavioral propensity called low self-control. Low self-control refers to the relative ability (or inability) of an individual to avoid taking advantage of an opportunity to satisfy his or her immediate wants and desires by engaging in some form of criminal or deviant behavior. Other monikers for this concept include self-regulation, effortful control, self-discipline, and will power. People with low self-control are thought to be impulsive, self-centered, not concerned with long-term consequences, physically active, and risk-loving. Self-control is conceived to be an individual trait that varies over individuals but remains stable for any given person over time (Gottfredson and Hirschi 1990). Thus, people who have low self-control relative to others early in life will also have low self-control relative to others later in life, while conversely people with high self-control at one point in time will tend to have high self-control at other times. People with low self-control can be distinguished from people with high self-control by their tendency to pursue “short-term gratification with little consideration for the long term consequences of their acts” and with little sympathy for the rights or feelings of others (Hirschi and Gottfredson 1987a, p. 959). Low self-control is not always manifested in criminal behavior. Depending on the situation, it may be expressed in other deviant, risky, or disreputable ways, such as reckless driving, alcohol and drug abuse, promiscuous sex, and job quitting (Hirschi and Gottfredson 1987a, b). In short, people with low self-control are impulsive, insensitive to others, and almost always interested in pursuing their own personal pleasures in the quickest way possible. They are attracted to crime, deviance, and analogous acts because they tend to provide quick rewards and easy gratification.

Where does low self-control come from? According to Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990), the answer to this question can be found in the homes and families of delinquents. The parents of delinquents are responsible for the development of low self-control. In their theory, self-control is something that parents have to instill in their children early on by engaging in specific parenting practices. If parents fail to engage in these practices, then their children will not develop a strong sense of self-control, or to put it the other way round, then the children will inevitably have low self-control. In other words, self-control is not something that people are born with or that develops naturally as they grow up. Rather, it is something that must be instilled in children by their parents. To instill self-control, parents must do four things in regard to their children. They must (1) care for their children, (2) monitor their behavior, (3) recognize their wrongdoing, and (4) discipline or correct their wrongdoing when they observe it. If parents fail to employ this suite of practices, then their children will naturally develop with low self-control, and they will do so very early in life, typically before ages 11 or 12. After that, a person’s relative level of self-control is set and cannot be developed or augmented later in life.

Current Issues And Controversies

Informal Social Control And Desistance

The causal role of informal social controls in the desistance process is disputed. Some scholars who take a life course perspective believe that change is an ever present possibility and that even serious long-term offenders can and do desist at later stages in the life course (Maruna 2001; Maruna et al. 2009; Vesey et al. 2009). From this perspective, desistance is seen as a process that involves several mutually interacting factors, including turning points, informal controls, and the structuring effects of routine activities. In theory, the path to desistance begins when an individual experiences some sort of turning point, such as marriage, military service, moving to a new location, or finding a fulfilling job. Regardless what it is, this event sets in motion a series of changes in the offender’s life that may over time lead to “desistance by default.” Desistance by default expresses the idea that offenders do not necessarily make explicit and conscious decisions to change their lives and “go straight” as a result of some sort of epiphany or a single transformative event. Rather, their behavior and sense of identity change gradually and perhaps largely unconsciously as a result of experiencing a turning point that exposes them to new sources of informal social control and that also changes their routine activities.

Getting married, joining the military, or finding a job can serve to knife the offender off from his previous life style and expose him or her to greater informal social controls. Turning points also impose the structuring effects of conventional routine activities on offenders. Military service, marriage, and employment, all require time commitments. They require that one be at certain places at certain times. They impose duties to fulfill and obligations to keep. In short, individuals become caught up in a series of routine activities in which they spend time with conventional others doing conventional ordinary things. The time available to hang out with criminal peers and engage in deviant activities is gradually reduced until it reaches the point where an offender has for all intents and purposes desisted.

Another school of thought, however, holds that desistance is not caused by turning points and increased exposure to informal social controls. This school of thought, called the developmental perspective, holds that there are distinct developmental trajectories that people get locked into. Developmental trajectories are stable in the sense that once people enter a particular trajectory or developmental group, their future progress is more or less determined. For example, Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990) argue that criminal behavior results from an underlying behavioral propensity. At an early point in the life course, each individual’s propensity toward crime and deviance is established when their level of self-control is developed. From that point on, one’s level of self-control drives behavior independent of other factors and is largely resistant to change. Thus, the presence or absence of desistance in adolescence reflects only variation in this underlying propensity toward crime. Another developmental theorist, Moffitt (1993), argues that there are two distinct trajectories – life-course-persistent and adolescent limited. Individuals on the life-course-persistent trajectory are unlikely to experience turning points such as marriage, or to react badly if they do experience them, because of certain innate characteristics that are established early in life. These individuals never really desist from deviant or criminal behavior, even though the form in which their deviance is manifested may change as they age. For example, the teenage mugger becomes the adult wife-beater. Adolescent limited offenders engage in crime and delinquency for a few years during their teenage years and then desist largely for maturational reasons, not because they are exposed to new forms of informal social controls.

Developmental theorists do not deny that there is an association between exposure to informal social controls and reduced involvement in crime and deviance, but they believe that this association is spurious and not causal. Reduced involvement in crime and deviance may be associated with participation in social institutions such as marriage and work, but it is not caused by them. Rather, participation in these institutions is a matter of self-selection. It is, of course, possible and some research suggests that both social causation and self-selection are involved in the desistance process (Wright et al. 1999).

Origins Of Self-Control

Even though low self-control is an individual trait that would appear to bear strong similarities to other personality traits, such as impulsiveness, aggressiveness, and insensitivity, the originators of the term explicitly rejected the notion that it is biologically or genetically based (Gottfredson and Hirschi 1990). Rather, in their view, low self-control is caused solely by inadequate parenting early in a child’s life. Recent advances in behavioral genetics suggest that this conclusion is either not correct or greatly oversimplified. Insofar as genetic researchers have been able to determine, it appears that all individual traits are influenced to some degree by heredity, that is, by the genes that parents pass on to their children (Rutter 2007). Height, weight, body type, eye color, hair color, and facial appearance are some of the more obvious physical traits for which it often is easy to see physical resemblances between parents and their offspring. However, in addition to these gross anatomical characteristics, children also inherit psychological characteristics and behavioral tendencies from their parents (Plomin et al. 1990). For example, aggressive parents are more likely to have aggressive children than nonaggressive parents (Huesmann et al. 1984). A growing body of evidence now suggests that genetic factors also are implicated in the development of low self-control (Beaver 2011; Wright et al. 2008a; Wright and Beaver 2005).

Genetic factors may influence the development of low self-control in several different ways. First, low self-control appears to be a heritable trait or characteristic that parents pass on to their children. Thus, parental genotype directly influences offspring genotype, including the genes related to low self-control. Second, parents with low self-control tend to create home environments that are not conducive to the development of high self-control (Moffitt 1997). Indeed, their parental management techniques may be so inadequate that they actually foster the development of low self-control (Beaver 2011). In this case, the genetic effect is indirect in that the parent’s genotype is implicated in the creation of a particular home environment that then stimulates the development of low self-control in the child. Finally, children born with genetically influenced personality characteristics that make them difficult to deal with, such as lack of impulse control, aggressiveness, and resistance to parental authority, may provoke negative parenting practices that further exacerbate behavioral tendencies (O’Connor et al. 1998). This type of effect is an evocative gene environment interaction, meaning that the child’s genotype in a sense creates an environment that fosters the expression of behavioral tendencies inherent in the genotype.

Stability Of Self-Control

One of the most provocative and controversial aspects of low self-control theory concerns the stability of this characteristic over the life course. As noted above, the originators of the term contended that relative differences between people in self-control remain stable as people age. Note, this contention does not mean that people with low self-control never change the way they behave as they age. Rather the idea of relative stability means that even though persons with low self-control may exhibit more moderate behavior as older adults than they did as teenagers, they will still be more antisocial, self-centered, and short-sighted than their contemporaries who have adequate levels of self-control. Indeed, research does indicate that absolute levels of self-control increase with age for most people.

At this point in time, however, research on the relative stability hypothesis has produced mixed results. While it is clear that there is substantial continuity in antisocial behavior over the life course, it is also clear that the level of continuity is by no means perfect. Evidence for stability comes from a number of longitudinal studies. For example, in a study of 205 boys aged 10–16, researchers asked the mothers to recall how easy or difficult it had been to get along with their sons when they were 1–5 years old. Five years later, when the boys were 15–21 years old, those who had been characterized by their mothers as “difficult” were twice as likely to have an official record of delinquency as those rated “easy.” The difficult boys also self-reported committing delinquent acts at a higher rate than the easy boys (Loeber et al. 1991). Similarly, kindergarten children who are rated by their teachers as having high levels of hyperactivity are more likely to engage in delinquency during the transition from childhood to adolescence (ages 10–13) than children who do not exhibit hyperactivity (Tremblay et al. 2003). Finally, in a study using the Dunedin, New Zealand, data, White et al. (1990) found considerable continuity in antisocial and delinquent behavior from age 3 through the early teen years. Children who scored high on measures of disobedient and aggressive behavior at age 3 were more likely to exhibit other conduct disorders later in childhood and to be arrested by the police in their early teen years than children who scored low in disobedience and aggression (White et al. 1990). The fact that some children begin to show signs of abnormal conduct so early in life suggests that some forms of antisocial behavior reflect a general temperament that may persist over time (White et al. 1990). This study provides impressive evidence for continuity in antisocial behavior because it is a prospective study of a normal population (Wright et al. 2008b).

Thus, evidence for continuity in antisocial behavior is plentiful, but nevertheless, it must be interpreted carefully (Thornberry and Krohn 2003). Conduct problems at a young age do predict delinquency in the teenage years, but the success rate of these predictions is sometimes not very good. Most antisocial preschoolers do not go on to become antisocial adults or even antisocial juveniles. In the Dunedin study, for example, there was a high false-positive rate when antisocial behavior at age 3 alone was used as a predictor of antisocial behavior at age 11. Indeed, the predictions were wrong almost 9 times out of 10. The researchers note: “Of the 209 children predicted to have antisocial outcomes at age 11, 84.7 % did not develop stable and pervasive antisocial behavior” (White et al. 1990, p. 521). Other studies have had better results in the sense that the prediction rates are better. For example, Campbell and colleagues studied children from age 3 to age 13 with assessments at ages 4, 6, and 9 in between. Of the children who were rated as hard to manage by their parents at age 3, fully 48 % met formal criteria for having externalizing disorders (attention deficit, conduct disorder, or oppositional disorder) by age 9. In contrast, only 16 % of the children in a control group displayed externalizing disorders at age 9 (Campbell 1995). In statistical terms, the difference between 48 % and 16 % is large and represents a strong effect. However, in practical terms, one could say that the study actually shows that discontinuity is more likely than continuity as less than half of the problem group exhibited problem behaviors at both times. At this point, the most accurate summary of the research would be that continuity in behavior is indeed a widespread feature of human development, but it is not a universal feature.

Although research on continuity in antisocial behavior suggests that traits such as low self-control may be stable over the life course, they do not directly assess that stability. To date, there are few studies that directly investigate stability in selfcontrol itself over time. The few studies that are available, however, suggest that like antisocial behavior, relative levels of self-control can vary over the life course. That is, instability in individual rankings on self-control over time has been observed, suggesting that self-control may not be an immutable trait. The degree to which self-control is malleable, however, is still open to debate with some researchers finding more stability than others (Burt et al. 2006; Hay and Forrest 2006).

Future Directions

A large body of research now clearly indicates that both social control and self-control are important factors in the etiology of crime and behavior in general across the life course. Furthermore, it is becoming increasingly apparent that within the life course, self-control and social control have interactive effects on each other. For example, an individual’s level of self-control may influence how he or she reacts when confronted with a turning point, such as marriage, which would in turn affect the individual’s relative exposure to informal social controls. Likewise, it is possible that exposure to increased informal social controls may eventually lead to transformations in the individual that increase his or her level of self-control (Giordano et al. 2002; Laub and Sampson 2003; Sampson et al. 2006). Future research on self-control and selection effects is needed, as well as, research on the transformative power of informal social controls in regards to developing increased self-control in adulthood.

Research on the stability of self-control over the life course has largely ignored whether self-control is malleable in response to direct officially imposed rehabilitative or treatment interventions. This shortcoming is unfortunate, because, as Currie has noted, research showing continuity in antisocial behavior over time reveals only what happens when no effort is made to change how individuals develop (Currie 1998). Yet, a voluminous body of research suggests that a multitude of rehabilitative programs work in terms of reducing recidivism among offenders at all stages of the life course (MacKenzie 2006). If delinquent and criminal behaviors are an expression of low self-control, then it follows by implication that reductions in offending caused by treatment interventions may also be associated with changes, indeed increases, in self-control. Future research is needed that directly assesses whether and how measured levels of self-control can be changed in response to different forms of intervention and treatment.


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