John Hagan’s Power Control Theory explains differences in crime rates between men and women. It attributes them to the fact that girls and boys in families are brought up differently. While boys have more freedom and are therefore more prone to delinquency, girls are more strongly regulated. As a result, they develop more self-control and are less prone to delinquency and risk behaviour even as adults.
Power Control theory integrates feminist theories, Marxist theories and control theories to explain different crime rates among men and women.
The basis of the Power Control theory is the basic assumption of the control theories that not deviant but adapted behaviour must be explained. Every person would behave deviantly if he or she were not prevented from doing so by social control. For power control theory, it is primarily the family that exercises control early in a person’s life. If this control is lacking, a greater freedom and choice of behaviour possibilities arises. Depending on the educational goal, each person develops a certain degree of self-control (see: General Theory of Crime). This will encourage him or her to adhere to norms even in situations where there is no direct control. Thus, Deviante’s behavior is most likely when no sufficient self-control has been developed.
With this theory, Hagan directs his attention to gender and power relations. He examines the power relations within families and distinguishes between patriarchal, matriarchal and egalitarian families. Hagan derives the power position of the individual family members from their occupation outside the family. If only one spouse is employed, he or she has more power, possibilities and resources than the other. In patriarchal families, the male partner has more power. Girls are socialised into the ‘inferior’ role at an early age and are exposed to more intensive control than boys. They are granted more freedom, allowing them to engage in more delinquent behaviour.
In families that are more egalitarian, this form of socialization changes and girls have more freedom. As a result, they also tend to risk behaviour and delinquency. Boys, on the other hand, show less delinquent behaviour in egalitarian families because the expectations of their roles change.
Hagan and his colleagues, who continued to refine their reflections through empirical research, found that the shift to more egalitarian family structures had the greatest impact on the relationships between mothers and sons. As women take on more power, the way boys are educated also changes. Less risk-taking behaviour is reinforced in boys. As a result, boys in egalitarian families are less prone to delinquency than boys in patriarchal families.
Critical Appraisal & Relevance
Hagan’s Power Control theory draws her attention to a neglected topic in criminology, namely the question of why men are so much more likely than women to be conspicuous as perpetrators. Empirical studies confirm the connections between family structure and tendency to delinquency. Power Control Theory thus performs the important task of combining political structures and explanatory approaches that are related to the individual. It shows that it is no coincidence how individuals are socialized and how much self-control they build up. On the contrary: the role of certain groups within a society is reproduced in families and there is a direct connection between social structures and family structures.
The power control theory, however, has some limitations. In particular, it cannot explain exactly how the social position of individuals affects their educational style. The distinction between the three family types is very static and completely neglects class affiliation. Moreover, this model does not explain the behaviour of children from atypical families (e.g. single mothers).
Morash and Chesney-Lind (1989, 1991), two other feminist theorists, criticize Hagan’s focus on control in the socialization of girls. They argue that women show less delinquent behavior because they are socialized into a role that is caring and pro-social.
- John Hagan, A. R. Gillis, and John Simpson, “Class in the Household: A Power-Control Theory of Gender and Delinquency,” American Journal of Sociology, 92 (1987): 788-816.
- John Hagan, A. R. Gillis, and John Simpson “Feminist Scholarship, Relational and Instrumental Control, and a Power-Control Theory of Gender and Delinquency“ http://www.jstor.org/stable/590481?seq=2
- Morash, M. & Chesney-Lind, M. (1991). A Reformulation and Partial Test of the Power Control Theory of Delinquency, Justice Quarterly, 8:347-377.
Interesting examples of how children are taught gender roles at an early age can be found on the blog “Sociological Images”:
In this video, TheSecondCityNetwork looks at the message that is conveyed to girls in Disney movies (here “Beauty and the Beast”):