Criminology Control Balance Theory
Theodore R. Curry
  • LAST REVIEWED: 05 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0103


Control balance is an original theory of deviant behavior developed by Charles R. Tittle, who presented the initial statement of the theory in his book, Control Balance: Toward a General Theory of Deviance (Tittle 1995, cited under Initial Statement of the Theory). Following its 1995 publication, the book received distinguished scholarship awards from both the American Sociological Association and the American Society of Criminology. Tittle’s control balance theory also became the focus of scholarly conference sessions and the subject of several book reviews (Savelsberg 1996, cited under Theoretical Development), and it was featured in two exchanges between Tittle and critics of the theory in the journal Theoretical Criminology (Braithwaite 1997 and Tittle 1997, cited under Theoretical Development). In the ten years following its publication, a dozen journal articles empirically tested various hypotheses and other features of the theory, and Tittle published a major revision of the theory in 2004 (Tittle 2004, cited under Theoretical Development). In spite of this initial flurry of debate, discussion, and research, attention to the theory waned between 2005 and 2010, with only three new empirical pieces testing control balance theory. The complexity of control balance theory, combined with the need for primary data to measure and test hypotheses, may account for this development. However, the period of 2014–2018 witnessed a new spate of research, much of it focused on stalking behavior. Control balance theory is predicated on the idea of control, which is (1) the degree to which others and a person’s surroundings can limit an individual’s behavioral options and (2) the extent to which an individual can escape from these controls and exercise such controls over others. The ratio of controls exercised to controls experienced constitutes the control ratio, which is the central cause of deviance in the theory. The key assertion of control balance theory is that control ratio imbalances will be associated with deviance because they will lead to an imbalance between motivation toward deviance and constraints on deviance behavior. Control imbalances can be of two types: (1) control deficits, which occur when the control that individuals can exercise is exceeded by the amount of control to which they are subject, and (2) control surpluses, which indicate that the controls that individuals can exercise surpass the controls they experience. Importantly, in this initial statement of the theory, control deficits are hypothesized to impact only “repressive” types of deviance (similar to street crime), whereas control surpluses should affect only “autonomous” deviance (analogous to white-collar crime and elite deviance). As control ratios approach a balanced point, in which controls exercised and controls experienced are equal, deviance becomes less likely, because deviant motivation and constraints on deviance will be balanced. Direct tests of control balance theory, however, showed that both control deficits and control surpluses tended to be associated with deviance, regardless of whether it was repressive or autonomous. Tests that examined contingent or causal chain relationships between control ratios and other theoretical variables also tended to be supportive and, again, generally without regard to the type of deviance in question. In response to empirical findings and published critical appraisals, Charles R. Tittle removes the typology of repressive and autonomous deviance in his 2004 revision. In its place, he develops the concept of the “control balance desirability” of deviance, which represents how effective a given deviant act is at improving a control ratio imbalance and how impersonal it is. Deviance that requires less direct involvement from actors and that (if successfully completed) is likely to result in substantial improvements to a control imbalance is seen as having greater control balance desirability. However, to date, no research testing the revised theory has been published.

Initial Statement of the Theory

Control balance theory endeavors to account for variation in individual deviance, as well as the seriousness of these actions. Unlike many other theories, control balance seeks to explain not only adolescent delinquency and other street-crime types of deviance, but also the deviance of powerful actors, often called white-collar crime or elite deviance. In addition, control balance theory also addresses variation in deviance across population aggregates, but this aspect of the theory has received little attention. Tittle 1995 provides a new definition of deviant behavior and an accompanying typology by which different deviant acts can be categorized according to whether they are repressive or autonomous, as well as their seriousness within these types. Deviance is portrayed as instrumental behavior that is employed in an effort to improve the actor’s control ratio. The crux of the theory is that deviance will increase as control ratios become increasingly imbalanced. This results from the effect of control ratios on other causal process variables, particularly deviant motivation and constraints on deviant acts. In this original formulation of the theory, control ratio imbalances are also theorized to affect the seriousness of the deviance that individuals perform, a provision that is removed in Tittle 2004, a major revision (cited under Major Revision) and replaced by the idea of “control balance desirability.”

  • Tittle, Charles R. 1995. Control balance: Toward a general theory of deviance. Boulder, CO: Westview.

    Control balancing is complex but centers on the interplay between deviant motivation and constraint, both of which stem from control ratios. Sufficiently motivated individuals will engage in deviance within a specific zone of Tittle’s deviance typology, depending on their control ratio. Deviance represents a device intended to improve control ratios; the more serious the deviance, the greater the improvement.

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