The General Theory of Crime explains, like other control theories, the absence and not the emergence of crime. This leads them back to self-control. If an individual has little self-control, and has the opportunity to commit crime, criminal behavior becomes more likely. Since the opportunities for crime are widespread, lack of self-control is to be seen as the main cause of crime.
Michael R. Gottfredson and Travis Hirschi
Gottfredson and Hirschi’s General Theory of Crime explicitly aims to explain all forms of crime. It distinguishes between:
- “criminality” – the inclination or tendency to criminal behavior
- “crime” – the actual act by which the law is broken
Gottfredson and Hirschi realize that a crime can only take place when the propensity for crime coincides with an opportunity. However, since multiple opportunities present themselves for most forms of crime, the decisive factor is the “criminality” of the potential perpetrator.
The tendency to criminal behaviour is a consequence of low self-control. This self-control develops early in a person’s life. A lack of self-control occurs when parents do not adequately supervise their children, do not recognize deviant behaviour in their children, or do not respond appropriately. Self-control cannot be sufficiently developed even if the parents themselves have not developed the appropriate skills.
People who have developed sufficient self-control find it easier to resist impulses to commit crimes. People who lack self-control tend to live in the here and now: Gottfredson and Hirschi describe in particular that they strive for “money without work, sex without courtship, revenge without court delays” (1990:89).
Furthermore, low self-control also goes hand in hand with qualities such as little conscientiousness, little stamina and lack of reliability. According to Gottfredson and Hirschi, the “General Theory of Crime” explains all forms of crime, in every age, as well as many other forms of deviant behaviour.
Implication for criminal policy
The General Theory of Crime as well as the social bonds theory focus in their explanation of deviant behaviour on the social control exercised by institutions on the individual. At different times in a person’s lifespan, different institutions are given special importance.
While the social bonds theory assumes a continuing importance of the institutions in a person’s life, in the General Theory of Crime they are especially important in the early years of life.
The criminal policy implications of the two theories are therefore similar, but not identical. The aim of both theories is to strengthen the institutions that establish social control. Control theories are therefore also used as a basis for social crime prevention programs. These include programmes that aim to involve young people more closely in conventional activities and programmes that support parents in bringing up their children from an early age.
The criminal policy implications of control theories therefore stand above all for preventive and educational measures that focus on strengthening the community. In order to prevent deviant behaviour, the emphasis on common values is important in education. These can, for example, be exemplified and embodied in educational institutions.
Control theories, however, also form the basis of Right Realism in criminology. This can probably be explained by the fact that the strengthening of the family and the strong orientation towards traditional values also resemble conservative politics. However, in ‘Right Realism’ they do not lead to the conclusion that crime is best prevented by social programmes and family support.
Control theories continue to be important for restorative justice approaches. Reintegrative Shaming according to John Braithwaite contains many basics of control theories.
Critical appreciation & relevance
Empirically, various studies have shown a connection between self-control and deviant behaviour. In a meta-analysis conducted in 2000 of a total of 21 studies, Pratt and Cullen found that self-control accounts for an average of 19% variance in deviant and criminal behaviour. Akers and Seller (2004) came to a similar conclusion in a review of the various studies. They attest to the control theory that there is a weak to moderate correlation between self-control and deviant behaviour (Akers & Seller 2004).
However, Gottfredson and Hirschi’s assertion that all forms of crime can be explained with this theory cannot be empirically proven.
Another point of criticism is that a lack of self-control cannot be seen as the only cause of crime. Some critics go so far as to call the General Theory of Crime tautological and accuse it of circular reasoning (Akers and Sellers 2004). If low self-control is defined as a lack of ability to resist the temptation to deviant behavior and then the same lack of self-control is seen as the cause of crime, then the theory is indeed tautological. Gottfredson and Hirschi define the concept of self-control only in the context of crime. Accordingly, the theory says: Criminality arises when individuals have a tendency to behave criminally. According to Akers and Sellers, in order to avoid this problem it would be necessary to develop a more comprehensive definition of self-control.
- Gottfredson, Michael R., and Travis Hirschi. (1990). A General Theory of Crime. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
- Akers, R.L., and Sellers. C.S. (2004) Criminological Theory: Introduction, Evaluation, and Application. 4th Edition. Los Angeles; Roxbury Publishing.
- Pratt, Travis C.; Cullen, Francis T. (2000). The emperical status of Gottfredson and Hirschi’s “General Theory of Crime”: a meta-analysis. Criminology, 38(3), 931-964.
- Hirschi, Travis; Gottfredson, Michael (1993). Commentary: Testing the General Theory of Crime. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 30(1), 47-54.
- Evans, T. David et. al. (1997). The social consequences of self-control: Testing the General Theory of Crime. Criminology, 35(3), 475-504.