PYJ — Social Control Theory



“Attaching and Belonging”

Two broad bodies of research-based theory have directly informed youth development policy and practice, and in turn helped to inspire the the Positive Youth Justice Model: social learning theory (e.g., Bandura 1977) and social control theory (Hirschi 1969).

Social control theory suggests that the strength and durability of an individual’s bonds or commitments to conventional society inhibit social deviance (Hirschi 1969; Simpson 1976). The need for belonging and attachment to others is fundamental, influencing many behavioral, emotional, and cognitive processes. Numerous studies highlight the association between attachments and positive youth outcomes. Early sociologists argued that the various forms of social deviance, including criminal behavior, emerge when the connections between individuals and the larger society are weak (Durkheim 1947).


In one of the foundational applications of social control theory to the field of crime and delinquency, Hirschi (1969) argued that the most important question is not “why do they do it?” (i.e., why do criminals commit crime), but rather “why do the rest of us not do it?” Social control theory offers an explanation—social bonds. When an individual’s bonds to society are strong, they prevent or limit crime and other deviant behavior. When bonds are weak, they increase the probability of deviance. Weak or broken bonds do not “cause” delinquency, but rather allow it to happen (Whitehead and Lab 2009: 89). Hirschi proposed four elements that help to shape the social bonds between individuals and their society:

  • Attachments—expressed concern about what others think, or “sensitivity to the opinion of others”(Hirschi 1969: 22) that would lead individuals to avoid crime and negative behavior in order to avoid disappointing a respected individual or group (e.g., teachers or parents);
  • Commitments— “investment of time, energy and oneself” in a particular form of conventional activity and awareness that deviant behavior would place such investment at risk (Whitehead and Lab 2009: 89);
  • Involvements—sufficient time and energy spent on conventional activities such that less time remains for delinquent behavior; and
  • Beliefs—the extent to which an individual “has been socialized into and accepts the common belief system” (Whitehead and Lab 2009: 89), assuming there is “a common value system” within the society or group” (Hirschi 1969).

Although theoreticians continue to debate the relative strength or salience of the particular elements of social bonds (e.g., involvements), the basic tenets of social control theory are strongly predictive and have been supported by rigorous research for decades (e.g., Wiatrowski, Griswold and Roberts 1981). The strength of an individual’s social bonds decreases the propensity for criminal or deviant behavior. In other words, youth are less attracted to criminal behavior when they are involved with others, learning useful skills, being rewarded for using those skills, enjoying strong relationships and forming attachments, and earning the respect of their communities. As these social bonds become internal, they build social control, which deters individuals from committing unlawful acts.


Durkheim, E. (1947). The division of labor in society (George Simpson, Trans.). New York: The Free Press.

Hirschi, T. (1969). Causes of delinquency. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Simpson, A.L. (1976). Rehabilitation as the justification of a separate juvenile justice system. California Law Review, 64(4), 984–1017.

Whitehead, J. and S. Lab (2012). Juvenile justice: An introduction. Elsevier.

Wiatrowski, M., D. Griswold and M. Roberts (1981). Social control theory and delinquency. American Sociological Review, 46, 525-541.