Review of the Roots of Youth Violence: Literature Reviews

Volume 5, Chapter 12:

Social Control and Self-Control Theories11

Social Control Theory

Social control theory gained prominence during the 1960s as sociologists sought differing conceptions of crime. It was during this period that Travis Hirschi put forth his innovative rendering of control theory, a theory built upon existing concepts of social control. Hirschi’s social control theory asserts that ties to family, school and other aspects of society serve to diminish one’s propensity for deviant behaviour. As such, social control theory posits that crime occurs when such bonds are weakened or are not well established. Control theorists argue that without such bonds, crime is an inevitable outcome (Lilly et al., 1995). Unlike other theories that seek to explain why people engage in deviant behaviour, control theories take the opposite approach, questioning why people refrain from offending (Akers and Sellars, 2004). As a result, criminality is seen as a possibility for all individuals within society, avoided only by those who seek to maintain familial and social bonds. According to Hirschi, these bonds are based on attachment to those both within and outside of the family, including friends, teachers, and co-workers; commitment to activities in which an individual has invested time and energy, such as educational or career goals; involvement in activities that serve to both further bond an individual to others and leave limited time to become involved in deviant activities; and finally, belief in wider social values. These four aspects of social control are thought to interact to insulate an individual from criminal involvement (Siegel and McCormick, 2006).

Those seeking to test the strength of this theory as it specifically relates to young people have closely examined bonds with family, schools, community, and religion to determine the extent to which such bonds impact offending. The following discusses a selection of the literature on social control theory as it pertains to youth delinquency and offending.

Parental Attachment

Social control theory is situated amongst other sociological theories that focus on the role of social and familial bonds as constraints on offending. It is proposed that for young people, a key aspect of social control is found within the family, particularly through interactions with and feelings towards parents. Of the studies that have examined the impact of social control on delinquency, a large proportion has found a negative relationship between parental attachment and delinquency. As such, it has been found that the greater the attachment to parents, the lower the likelihood of involvement in delinquent behaviour. It should be noted that out of all of the studies reviewed for this report, only one found that parental attachment had no effect on delinquency (Brannigan et al., 2002).

In their study on the effects of adolescent male aggression during early adolescence on later violent offending, Brendgen et al. (2001) examined the role that parents play in juvenile aggression. More specifically, the authors were keenly interested in examining how parental monitoring impacted aggression leading to later violent offending. The sample of 516 Caucasian males from Montreal was assessed by their teachers with respect to aggressive behaviour. Self-report data were also collected from respondents approximately three and four years later, at the ages of 16 and 17, regarding the perpetration of physically violent offending. The extent of parental supervision and caregiving exhibited were also monitored at various junctures during this study period. Brendgen et al. (2001) found proactive aggression, aggression exhibited without the presence of provocation, to be an early predictor of later delinquent violent offending. In contrast, adolescent partner violence was associated with reactive aggression, or aggression categorized as defensive behaviour in response to perceived aggression. The authors further found that adolescent males who experienced less monitoring by parents were more likely to demonstrate proactive aggression and violence later on in adolescence. The authors conclude by suggesting that early intervention, in the form of differing parenting strategies, could indeed lead to the prevention of later adolescent violent offending. The findings of this study support the notion that parenting practices and parental support can impact violent offending by youth.

Attachment is a central component of social control theory, particularly as it relates to parental attachment. Research has found evidence that parental attachment can impact young people’s involvement in criminal activities. Amongst these studies was a research study conducted by Henrich et al. (2005) on the effect of parental and school connectedness on adolescent violence. The authors were particularly interested in how such attachments impacted young people’s violent offending with weapons. Henrich et al. (2005) obtained survey data on 7,033 young people from a national sample of 132 American middle schools, gathered through the National Longitudinal study of Adolescent Health. The authors found that young people who reported feeling a stronger connection with their parents were less likely to commit violent offences with a weapon (Henrich et al., 2005). Similarly, Herrenkohl et al. (2003) found that young people who exhibited less violent behaviour were more likely to hold stronger attachments to their parents. Chapple and Hope (2003) further found that parental attachment lowered the likelihood of intimate violence in their sample of 1,139 students. The findings of these studies support Hirschi’s conception of the role that parental attachments can play in insulating young people from criminal activity.

Parental controls were further found to lower delinquency among a sample of 980 Arkansas youth. Chapple’s (2003) 1997 study examined the connection between violent parents, parental bonds, and intimate violent offending. The research findings suggest that young people who had observed violence between parents held lower levels of parental attachment and were more likely to offend violently against an intimate partner. Further, lower levels of parental monitoring were also related to adolescent partner violence. Chapple (2003) concludes that the findings are consistent with the claim made by control theory that parental attachment and bonding reduce the likelihood of delinquency.

In contrast, research has refuted the notion that parental monitoring can impact youth aggression. In their study on the effect of family structure and parenting on childhood misconduct and aggression, Brannigan et al. (2002) found that positive parental contact and parental support were not found to affect childhood misconduct. Similar results were found regarding predictors of aggression, with parenting consistency not found to be a significant predictor of aggression. Such findings refute the notion that parental support necessarily impacts youth aggression.

School Attachment

In conjunction with parental attachment, adolescent attachment to school is seen by Hirschi’s social control theory as a fundamental means of establishing social control. A significant number of studies pertaining to social control theory include measures of the role of school attachment and school support in the lives of young people. A Canadian study of 1,311 young people from across the country found evidence demonstrating the impact of school attachment on delinquency. Sprott (2004) examined the effects of school support during childhood on later adolescent violent and non-violent offending. Data were collected from study participants on three separate occasions: in 1994/1995 when the participants were approximately 10 and 11 years of age; at the ages of 12 and 13 in 1996/1997; and then again at ages 14 and 15 in 1998/1999. Over all, Sprott (2004) found that young people who behaved violently often came from classrooms that provided little emotional support to the students. Students who were in classrooms characterized as having stronger supportive and social interactions at the ages of 10 and 11 were less likely to behave violently at the ages of 12 and 13. In addition, it was found that young people who displayed more aggression during the first data capture period were more likely to have been violent during the second data capture period. Sprott (2004) speculates whether school support plays a significant role in deterring future violent offending resulting from inadequate bonding in other aspects of the child’s life. As such, young people may then desist from violent behaviour in order to ensure the ongoing support that they are receiving from the school. Sprott et al. (2005) found further evidence to support these findings through their study on 1,956 Canadian youth. The authors found that strong attachment to school was associated with less violent offending. As a result, they conclude that the important effect of school attachment in the lives of young people should not be minimized.

The impact of school attachment on violent offending was similarly found by Brookmeyer et al. (2006) in their US-based study on characteristics of violent behaviour. Data on 6,397 youth from a national sample of 125 American schools were gathered through the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. The data, which consisted of both self-administered surveys of youth and interviews with parents, were collected on two occasions, in 1995 and again in 1996. Brookmeyer et al. (2006) found that those young people who had committed increasingly more violent offences in the second survey were more likely than other young people to express feeling less connection with their school. Further, a positive relationship was found between feeling connected to parents and feeling connected to school. The findings highlight the potential role that parents and schools can play in preventing violent offending amongst young people. Similar conclusions were found by Resnick et al. (2004) and Banyard and Quartey (2006) in their studies on adolescent violent offending risk factors. These authors similarly found that school attachment, amongst other social control factors, protected young people from violent behaviour.

Moreover, the significance of school attachment and adolescent delinquency was also stressed by Herrenkohl et al. (2003) in their study on the effects of both protective and risk factors on adolescent violence. Longitudinal data were obtained from the Seattle Social Development Project, which collected teacher-completed assessments of the sample (N=808) at various intervals during childhood. When youth were assessed at the age of 18, the authors found that those who had been assessed as exhibiting less violent behaviour during childhood were more likely to have stronger connections with parents, more likely to be religious, and more likely to have formed an attachment to school during mid-adolescence. The authors found that adolescents who had been assessed by teachers as aggressive during childhood (and thus, for whom violence had been predicted) were less likely to indeed be violent at age 18 if they had experienced the interaction of various social protective factors such as family involvement, religiosity, and peer interactions. The authors conclude that, as previous research has found, adolescent attachment to school appears to serve a protective function against later adolescent violence.

Role of the Community

The role of the community and neighbourhood as agents of social control has also been assessed in the social control literature. In their New England study on adolescent partner abuse, Banyard and Quartey (2006) surveyed 980 young people in grades seven through twelve on various aspects of risk-taking behaviour. Specifically, self-report data were collected on adolescent partner abuse, victimization, family background, and neighbourhood monitoring and support. The authors found that young people who admitted to physical and/or sexual partner offending had lower perceptions of neighbourhood monitoring than young people who did not report such partner abuse. Diminished feelings of social responsibility were also found to be related to delinquency amongst study participants. The role of communities in fostering values and normative beliefs on violence has been examined by other researchers, including Bernburg and Thorlindsson (2005). Utilizing national survey data on 2,941 Icelandic adolescents, Berburg and Thorlindsson (2005) sought to assess the effects of internal and external values and perceived norms on aggressive behaviour. The authors found a significant relationship between the neutralization of aggression within community norms and aggressive behaviour amongst both male and female respondents. Additionally, amongst male respondents, community conduct norms were found to be a stronger predictor of aggression than the effect of conduct norms and peers. Findings such as these support the notion that community groups that adhere to violent norms will likely affect the aggressive nature of individual members.


While not as widely studied as other facets of social control, the impact of religiosity on delinquency has been assessed by those seeking to understand this aspect of social control. Johnson et al. (2001) examine the debate on the effects of religiosity on youth delinquency, questioning whether young people who are more religious are less delinquent. The authors further sought to determine, if that was found to be the case, why religious adolescents did not engage in deviant behaviour to the same extent as their non-religious counterparts did. Data were obtained from the National Youth Survey, a national longitudinal study on American youth. Johnson et al. (2001) examined factors associated with social control theory related to bonding, including parental attachment, school attachment and religious beliefs. Religiosity was based on the extent to which individuals ascribed to the beliefs of a particular religion and were dedicated to attending services of that church on a regular basis. The authors found that religiosity had a negative effect on delinquency, which included a measure of violence. They argue that religion decreases delinquency due to the effect religion has on shaping beliefs. Further, it is suggested that religious youth may be less inclined to associate with delinquent peers. Research conducted by Benda and Turney (2002), Herrenkohl et al. (2003) and Resnick et al. (2004) further supports the notion that religiosity lowers the likelihood of delinquency among young people. However, it should be noted that such findings are not entirely conclusive, as other research has found otherwise. MacDonald et al. (2005), in a US study on the effects of life satisfaction and risky behaviours on various forms of youth violence, found no support for the notion that religious involvement lowered the likelihood of violent behaviour. The authors had initially hypothesized that young people who were found to be more religious would be less likely, compared with young people who did not have a strong religious affiliation, to participate in delinquent acts. While perceived as an insulating factor, this was not found to be the case. The effect of religion on delinquency was further questioned by Benda and Corwyn (2002), who found increased religiosity to be a strong predictor of violence among adolescents. At best, the extant literature on this aspect of social control demonstrates mixed findings on the role of religion as a mechanism of social control against delinquency.


Despite research that supports the tenets of social control theory, some scholars have questioned the strength of the theory. As Gibbons (1994) notes, some have questioned whether the notions of self-control as proposed by Hirschi can be used to explain more serious offending behaviour. Critics of the theory contend that the theory may be better able to explain minor offending, but does not necessarily adequately account for more serious crime (Gibbons, 1994).

Policy Implications

Research examining the impact of various aspects of social control theory can shed some light on potential areas of policy development. As discussed, social control theory asserts that the role of the parent is paramount to the bonding of young people to the family. This bond is seen as fundamental to diminishing a child’s propensity for delinquent involvement. As research in this area has largely found a strong relationship between parental attachment and lower levels of delinquency, providing support to parents in the form of parenting skills training could be an effective step toward addressing youth crime by building strong bonds between parents and children. Beyond the family, schools play a prominent role in the socialization of young people and could also play a key role as an insulating factor against crime. The school can provide support to young people that they may not be receiving elsewhere. In light of this, Sprott et al. (2005) advised that, as school bonds have been found to play such a significant role in reducing violent offending, it seems antithetical for schools to implement “zero tolerance” policies, which only serve to further exclude and isolate young people who have acted violently and sever their ties to the school. Alternatively, young people deemed to be at risk or delinquent should receive greater support from the school, not less. The authors suggest that policies promoting school cohesion and bonding young people to their schools should be favoured.

Self-Control Theory

The general theory of crime, also known as self-control theory, emerged through the evolution of social control theory. Just as Hirschi had built upon previous control theories with his introduction of social control theory, Gottfredson and Hirschi further developed their conception of the causes of crime and encapsulated it within a new theory: the general theory of crime. While control theory emphasizes the importance of social bonds as an insulating factor against criminal involvement, the general theory of crime posits that low self-control is a key factor underlying criminality. This newer control theory is often referred to as self-control theory due to its focus on this aspect. Gottfredson and Hirschi integrated aspects of other theories to form the general theory of crime, borrowing notions from routine activities theory, rational choice theory, and other psychological and biologically based social theories of crime. The two theories differ in what is believed to be the fundamental propensity towards crime; however, both theories are centred around aspects developed in childhood through effective parenting (Siegel and McCormick, 2006). Although focused on internalized control rather than social control, the general theory of crime shares commonalities with the former theory through its emphasis on the role of parenting in instilling self-control during childhood. Like other control theories, the general theory of crime places significant weight on this early developmental process as setting the stage for later life.

Gottfredson and Hirschi shifted their focus away from an emphasis on the role of social control as protecting people from participating in criminal activities towards the conception that self-control, or lack thereof, could be used to explain criminal behaviour. For Gottfredson and Hisrchi, crime is thought to occur through the following process: “(1) an impulsive personality to (2) lack of self-control to (3) the withering of social bonds to (4) the opportunity to commit crime and delinquency to (5) deviant behaviour” (Siegel and McCormick, 2006: 286). According to the general theory of crime, crime is seen as a means of obtaining immediate gratification, and the ability to delay such short-term desires is linked to self-control. As such, those with a propensity for criminal involvement are thought to lack sufficient self-control. This lack of self-control is traced back to childhood where, the theorists suggest, the initial indications of deviant behaviour emerge. For those with limited self-control, participation in deviant behaviour only continues throughout the life course (Lilly et al., 1995). As such, while it is believed that self-control is obtained during early childhood and does not necessarily change with time, the theory does propose that rates of offending decline with age, even for those who have lower levels of self-control. According to this theoretical perspective, “people don’t change, it is opportunity that changes” (Siegel and McCormick, 2006: 286).

As the general theory of crime focuses exclusively on the role that self-control plays in criminality, research has also focused on the relationship between self-control and a propensity for criminal behaviour. Other factors believed to be related to self-control have also been assessed within the extant research, including measures of risk-taking behaviour. A selection of the existing research that has tested this theory is reviewed below.

Research on the general theory of crime has largely focused on the effect of low self-control on offending. Baron’s (2003) study of street youth living in downtown Vancouver focused specifically on this aspect. The author conducted 400 interviews with street youth on various types of offending, including property crime, drug use and violent crime. Baron (2003) found a relationship between low self-control and violent behaviour, with low self-control being the most powerful predictor of violent offending. Despite these findings, the author notes that the findings are not necessarily supportive of the assertion that low self-control is a strong predictor of all criminal behaviour, suggesting instead that the theory can be used to explain certain types of offending. Similar conclusions were reached by Piquero et al. (2005). The authors examined the relationship between low self-control and violent offending and homicide victimization. They found a relationship between low self-control and both violent offending and homicide victimization. However, self-control was not found to be the only contributing variable. Race, age at the time of first offence, and criminal history also played a role. As a result, they argue that while self-control does appear to be a contributing factor in violent offending, the general theory of crime does not take into account other social and cultural factors that could also account for a propensity for violent offences. Research conducted by Unnever et al. (2006) further supports these claims.

Other research has sought to assess the strength of the general application of self-control to various offence categories. In their 1997 study, Chapple and Hope (2003) examined gang and intimate violence in relation to self-control. Self-report data were collected from 1,139 grade 9 to 11 students from two school districts in a city in the southern United States. The authors specifically focused on measures of parental attachment, self-control and opportunity for delinquency. Chapple and Hope (2003) found that lower levels of self-control were related to gang violence. They further found that young people who were reportedly involved in gang activity were four times more likely to have also been involved in dating violence offending. The authors of the present study conclude that such findings are indicative of commonalities among these two different groups of offenders. They further argue that the effect of self-control on the two types of offending discussed supports the benefit of a general theory of crime.

Additional research has examined self-control through participation in specific risk-taking behaviours. In their study on the effects of life satisfaction and risky behaviours on various forms of youth violence, MacDonald et al. (2005) examined survey data collected from 5,545 high school students from South Carolina. Legal behaviours such as smoking, alcohol and drug use, and sexual behaviour, thought to be risk-taking, were included under the measure of risky behaviour. The authors found support for self-control theory in that respondents who participated in risky behaviours were more likely to have been involved in violent behaviour.


Taken together, a large proportion of the studies conducted on self-control and delinquency have found a significant relationship between delinquency and lower levels of self-control. However, it should be noted that not all of these authors have interpreted these findings as indicative of the strength of the theory in predicting all crimes with a general theory of offending. The general nature of Gottfredson and Hirschi’s theory has proven to be seen as both novel and controversial. The theory is said to apply to various criminal acts, as it is suggested that low self-control contributes to the commission of offences ranging from burglary to murder (Siegel and McCormick, 2006). As discussed above, some have questioned the extent to which this conception of crime based exclusively on levels of self-control can be used to explain all offending. Further, critics of the general theory of crime have found the reliance on self-control as the underlying explanation of crime problematic. “It is doubtful that criminal and analogous (or deviant) behaviours will be correlated strongly among all offenders, including, for example, white-collar criminals who have evidenced delayed gratification in acquiring high-status occupational positions” (Lilly et al., 1995: 104). While many agree that this theory may hold true for some types of offending, how the theory explains other types of deviant behaviour is unclear to some.

Other scholars have been critical of the general theory of crime’s circular argument regarding the relationship between low self-control and crime (Siegel and McCormick, 2006). Gottfredson and Hirschi’s central argument is that crime is committed by those who lack adequate self-control. From a research standpoint, some have questioned how this conception of low self-control can be tested empirically, separating self-control from a proclivity for criminality. As Akers and Sellers (2004) suggest, the general theory of crime seems to suggest that “[p]ropensity toward crime and low self-control appear to be one and the same” (Akers and Sellars, 2004: 125). As such, the theory suggests that low self-control and criminality are always linked. However, critics of the theory are not as confident in the strength of the causal relationship between self-control and crime. Siegel and McCormick (2006) suggest that while self control may indeed contribute to criminality, it may not be the only factor. They propose that other factors could impact criminality, whether they be related or unrelated to self-control (Siegel and McCormick, 2006).

Finally, the assertion made within the general theory of crime that low self-control is stable across the life course presupposes that people’s propensities for crime also remain stable. This notion has been highly contentious for those who disagree with the idea that essentially nothing can be done to change the life trajectories of those who lack self-control (Siegel and McCormick, 2006). The resulting policy implications of such an assertion are further surrounded by controversy.

Policy Implications

Due to the great emphasis placed on the role of self-control, or lack thereof, in causing criminal behaviour, social programs aimed at intervening in the lives of young people at an early stage of development are stressed. These have included initiatives aimed at enhancing parenting skills in order to help parents instill self-control within young children. Such policies have been fuelled by the notion that, beyond early intervention, little can be done to later curb criminality (Gottfredson and Hirschi, 1990). As such, these types of social policies can be seen as serving a crime prevention function, rather than as a reactionary means of addressing crime within society. Programs directed at influencing parenting practices would be chosen over those aimed at the rehabilitation of the offender, which are seen as a futile approach to addressing crime (Akers and Sellars, 2004). As a result of such an assertion, policies that have stemmed from the general theory of crime have been surrounded by controversy. As the theory asserts that rehabilitation is not an effective mechanism by which to address criminality, the theory has been used in the United States to support the implementation of policies focused on the prolonged incarceration of offenders. This increasingly punitive approach to crime has been questioned by those who disagree with the notion that offenders cannot change and therefore should be incapacitated to avoid future criminality. Finally, Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990) suggest that “[e]ffective policy must deal with the attractiveness of criminal events to potential offenders” (Gottfredson and Hirschi, 1990: 274). While a secondary aspect of the general theory of crime and a potential area for policy development, in actuality, how such policies would look in practice is unclear. It is not surprising, then, that the authors and supporters alike have continued to stress the importance of early interventions in the lives of young people in minimizing the likelihood of future criminality.


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11 This section was prepared with the assistance of Natasha Madon, PhD candidate, at the Centre of Criminology, University of Toronto.


Volume 1. Findings, Analysis and Conclusions

Volume 2. Executive Summary

Volume 3. Community Perspectives Report

Volume 4. Research Papers

Volume 5. Literature Reviews