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Control Theory

Control Theory

Author: Zach Lamb

This lesson explains Travis Hirschi's Control Theory.

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Source: Intro Music by Mark Hannan; Public Domain

Video Transcription

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[MUSIC PLAYING] Hello, welcome to Sociological Studies. As always, thank you for taking the time out of your busy day to study society. In today's lesson, we're going to look at the work of sociologist, Travis Hirschi, a rather unfortunate name, if you ask me. But nonetheless, he came up with a very great theory, control theory, to explain why people engage in deviant behavior. Control theory really looks at how our social ties, connections, opportunities, and involvement in society at large control and restrain our propensities towards deviance.

Think about it. I mean, if somebody is deeply enmeshed in society, they have a family, a job that makes money, and they participate in civic life, they're much less likely to act out deviantly because forces constrain them and control their behavior, channel it towards the positive. On the other hand, somebody who lacks a lot of social connections, has a lot of weak ties, doesn't have a good stable job, they're much more likely to engage in deviant behavior, this theory holds, because the temptation is stronger because they don't have those mechanisms of social control.

So control theory then holds that we're socialized to learn to anticipate the consequences of our action in the eyes of others. We're constantly putting ourselves in the place of others to then become reflexive and look back at ourselves and see how our actions might be perceived. And knowing that our actions are going to be perceived negatively by those who we care about, this is enough to control our deviant behavior, according to control theory.

So for instance, in addition to this job, I also work at a clothing store selling lots of really nice clothes. Yeah, of course I want them even though I can't necessarily pay for them all. But I'm not going to go take them and steal them because thinking about how I would lose face and honor in the face of my girlfriend, family, coworkers, things like that, knowing that is enough to control my behavior. So control theory is a really important way to look at deviance.

So now let's look at how control theory operates in a little more depth. There are four mechanisms of control theory as Hirschi theorized, and we're going to look at them in turn, the first of which is what we call attachment.

So the first of what I'm going to call Hirschi's forces of control is attachment. Someone with many and strong attachments to family, friends, and people in society is much less likely to act out deviantly, the theory goes, because like I said before, they then reflect on how their actions are going to be perceived in the eyes of others. And this stops deviant action most of the time before it even occurs.

This is the same reason that in a relationship, you're less likely to cheat on your partner if you have a strong connection with them because putting yourselves in their shoes is a skill we learn. And we learn to develop and control our deviance in response to looking at how others will see us. So attachments then are constitutive of social good behavior.

On the other hand, think about the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, who lived alone in a cabin and mailed bombs to people in society in an indictment of technological society. He lived alone in the woods for many years. He had few social connections, few strong ties to family, things like that. He was much more likely to act out deviant then, the theory went.

So this attachment mechanism is why we're suspect of people who are loners in society, people who always keep to themselves. Well what are they doing, we think. They must be up to something. Why do they want to be alone? Why don't they have attachments? So this stuff is really actually pretty simple theory. We all know it in our day to day interactions.

The second force of control is opportunity. The more bright your future seems to be, the more opportunities you have for conventional success in life, the less likely you are to want to compromise that and to act out deviantly. For instance, if you're in high school and you know you have a ready path to college, and then from there your future prospects to employment look pretty good, you're much less likely to want to compromise this rosy future and act out deviantly.

This point dovetails nicely with Martin Strain theory because when someone has no opportunities for future success, that strain they feel, they're more likely to act out deviantly then. As you see, these theories of deviance are not always right or always wrong. There's elements of all theories of deviance happening in every deviant act. That's why these things are so powerful to think about together.

And I encourage you to watch all of these theories of deviance tutorials one in a row. If I had my way, we could present them all in a 45 minute lecture, handle them all together, bounce them off one another. But given that the constraints of the course, we can't do that. So, like I said, I encourage you watch them in a row if you can.

The third force of control we have is involvement, which very simply says, the more involved you are in social life, the more things you have going on, the more social groups you belong to, the more things you're doing, the less likely you are to act out deviantly because you have all of these potential sources of control. This clause is really what's behind the phrase that we all know that goes, "the devil will find work for idle hands to do." This is what that means. Idle hands are much more likely to engage in deviant behavior because they're not as involved. They don't have all those constraints of group participation weighing them down. So if you're a member of a church, or if you have an active civic life in politics, or whether you belong to many various social groups or clubs, going out for sports, or just simply being active, living an active life, you're much less likely, this theory goes, to engage in deviant behavior.

The fourth and final force of control is belief. People who have strong moral convictions and who subscribe to the authorities of society are much more likely to follow the rules. Quite simply, if you believe the authority is legitimate, why wouldn't you follow their rules?

But what if you believe the authority's illegitimate? You're much more likely then not to care about that authority and the rules of the games. You're much more likely to act out deviantly. And this force of control, belief, dovetails nicely with the social conflict theorization of deviance.

The power structure in society sets up what is deviant and what's not. And so if you dovetail with the power structure, you're less likely to be labeled deviant. So again, this is another reason why you should watch all these tutorials in session because they all relate to each other. So what Hirschi did with this, then, was really to give us a more micro level complement to Martin's macro level theorization of deviance. And for that regard, they're both great to work with.

Well I hope you enjoyed this tutorial. Have a great rest of your day.

Terms to Know
Control Theory

A sociological theory of deviance that argues that our social ties, connections, opportunities, and involvement in society, control and restrain our propensities towards deviance.

Travis Hirschi

An influential criminologist who made important contributions to the development of control theory.