Social bond theory (sometimes called “social control theory”) diverges from some theories of deviant behavior that try to explain why people deviate, as it focuses on explaining why people conform to the extent that they do. The theory assumes that without social control in effect, people would deviate from societal norms. The general principle permeating varieties of social bond theories is that bonds to conventional society can mitigate the power of negative influences. Largely credited to Travis Hirschi, the theory asserts that the social bonds to societal institutions, such as schools, teams, clubs, family, and/or religious organizations, exert some control over impulses. Stemming from Emile Durkheim’s early thesis about the importance of social connections, Hirschi argued that the stronger a person’s bonds or affiliations, the greater his or her “stake in conformity” would be. Investment in the opinions of significant others would prevent negative behaviors.
Social bond theory surmised that delinquent associations (best exemplified by Edwin H. Sutherland’s “differential association theory”) would not sway a juvenile into delinquency if the proper bonds to society were sufficiently strong. By implication, the best way to prevent delinquency would be to seek out aspects of conventional institutions to which juveniles could attach. Delinquency prevention programs, often in the form of team sports, are based on this premise.
Earlier incarnations of bond theory focused on the effect of personal controls, such as self-esteem, on the likelihood of being pulled into delinquent behavior. Later versions try to explicate the mechanisms by which attachments to society work to prevent delinquency. Hirschi and Michael Gottfredson refined the theory to explain the conditions in which youth would create bonds as well as explain why some youth do not. They attribute the lack of bonds to “impulsive personalities” among some youth; low self-control among impulsive individuals would lead to weakened attachments.
Social bond theory is still being tested and refined, although empirical support exists for the basic premise of the theory inasmuch as delinquent youth tend to have uneasy relationships with family members. Investment in school tends to mitigate delinquent influences as well. However, discussion continues about the ways in which social bonds work. For example, social bonds to conventional institutions, such as schools, may prevent delinquency variably, depending upon age of the child. In addition, engagement in delinquent behavior itself may diminish attachments. Attachment to law-breaking parents may not inhibit delinquency in the same ways that researchers expect. In addition, researchers have not fully addressed the interaction between the various elements of social bonds, such as how familial attachment works in the face of weak school attachment or vice versa. In general, the complex webs of attachments that individuals experience in the social world make parsing out the relative influence of various bonds difficult but provide researchers plenty to refine for the foreseeable future.
- Agnew, Robert. 1993. “Why Do They Do It? An Examination of the Intervening Mechanisms between ‘Social Control’ Variables and Delinquency.” Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 30:245-66.
- Gottfredson, Michael R. and Travis Hirschi. 1990. A General Theory of Crime. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
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