In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Social Control Theory

  • Introduction
  • Origins of the Theory
  • Development of the Theory
  • Hirschi’s Elements of the Social Bond
  • Recent Discussions

Criminology Social Control Theory
Kimberly Kempf-Leonard, Nancy A. Morris
  • LAST REVIEWED: 17 June 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 July 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0091


Unlike most criminology theories that purport to explain why people offend, control theory offers the justification for why people obey rules. Control theory provides an explanation for how behavior conforms to that which is generally expected in society. Some control theories emphasize the developmental processes during childhood by which internal constraints develop. Social control theories, however, focus primarily on external factors and the processes by which they become effective. Deviance and crime occur because of inadequate constraints. For social control theory, the underlying view of human nature includes the conception of free will, thereby giving offenders the capacity of choice, and responsibility for their behavior. As such, social control theory is aligned more with the classical school of criminology than with positivist or determinist perspectives. For the most part, social control theory postulates a shared value or belief in social norms. Even those who break laws or violate social norms are likely to share the general belief that those rules should be followed. Crime and deviance are considered predictable behaviors that society has not curtailed. Explaining conformity, particularly the process by which people are socialized to obey the rules, is the essence of social control theory. Thus, social control theory focuses on how the absence of close relationships with conventional others can free individuals from social constraints, thereby allowing them to engage in delinquency. Alternatively, other prominent criminological theories focus on how close relationships with delinquent peers or negative relationships with others can lead or compel individuals to commit delinquency.

Origins of the Theory

The first notions of social control theory may be found in the work of some of the Enlightenment thinkers and the classical school of criminology. One author, Thomas Hobbes, an English philosopher writing in the seventeenth century about the inherent tendency toward self-indulgence and evil that requires external restraint and the corresponding role of government, is frequently mentioned (see Hobbes 1957, first published in 1651). More often, the origin is connected to Emile Durkheim, the prolific French writer who many consider the founder of sociology and structural functionalism. In addition to explaining the condition of anomie that results from a breakdown in social norms, Durkheim also offered crime and deviance as social facts, present in all societies (Durkheim 1938, originally published in 1895). Durkheim said, “We are moral beings to the extent that we are social beings” (Durkheim 2002, p. 64). In his view, crime serves the function of identifying boundaries for behavior, which are recognized collectively in communities and reinforced by negative societal reactions. Social order is thereby maintained by the process of being socialized to avoid disapproval associated with deviant acts. This process also is the means by which boundaries are altered and social change occurs. Durkheim’s view of social control is conveyed as follows: “The more weakened the groups to which [the individual] belongs, the less he depends on them, the more he consequently depends only on himself and recognizes no other rules of conduct than what are founded on his private interests” (Durkheim 1951, p. 209; originally published in 1897).

  • Durkheim, Emile. 1938. Rules of the sociological method. Translated by Sarah A. Solovay and John H. Mueller. Edited by George E. G. Catlin. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    This book advances Durkheim’s conception of social facts, sociology as an objective science, and the methods of investigation. First published in 1895. Copyright renewed in 1966.

  • Durkheim, Emile. 1951. Suicide. Translated by John A. Spaulding and George Simpson. New York: Free Press.

    This scientific investigation of suicide exemplifies Durkheim’s theory of anomie and is considered the first sociological study. First published in 1897 as Le Suicide: Étude de sociologie (Paris: Alcan). First translated 1930 by Marcel Mauss.

  • Durkheim, Emile. 2002. Moral education. Translated by Everett K. Wilson and Herman Schnurer. Mineola, NY: Dover.

    Originally published in 1961. This book of lectures conveys Durkheim’s belief that morality is learned through a process of developing self-discipline and understanding the importance of the collective interest across individuals.

  • Hobbes, Thomas. 1957. Leviathan, or, The matter, forme and power of a commonwealth, ecclesiasticall and civil. Edited by Michael Oakeshott. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

    Reprint. One of the Enlightenment thinkers who wrote about human nature, the social contract, and sovereign rule during the English Civil War. First published in 1651.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.