In a world where most theoretical approaches to crime either focus on the socio-psychological backgrounds of criminals (most conventional criminology), the social contexts in which crime plays-out (labelling theory) or a combination of the two (radical criminology), one particular strand of criminology stands-out because it focuses less on trying to understand and explain why a minority of people commit crime and more on understanding and explaining why most people do not.

Control theories are, in this respect, a little different to most conventional forms of criminology and this set of pages from the University of Portsmouth looks at different aspects of this general perspective on crime through the work of different writers working in this tradition. In this respect it’s worth noting two things:

1. Control theories have a relatively long and persistent tradition – going back to the 19th century at least – in the explanation of crime and deviance.

2. The broad theoretical sweep of the general theory – explaining why most people obey laws and rules – means it has been interpreted in different ways by different writers, a diversity of opinion reflected in the following pages: 

Introduction: Short introduction to the basic idea of control theory and its origins in Durkheim’s ideas about social integration and regulation.

Reiss: Personal and Social Controls – how the “functional failure of social controls” causes criminal behaviour.

Nye: Family Focused Theory of Social Controls explores different types of family controls and their relative importance in control of the individual.

Reckless: Containment Theory looks at the relationship between self (internal) and social (external) controls in inhibiting criminal behaviours.

Matza and Sykes: Neutralisation and Drift. While many theories of crime take a “deviants are different” approach to explaining criminality, Delinquency and Drift both emphasises the similarities between delinquents and non-delinquents and argues it is the over-application of inappropriate forms of social control that confirm deviant identities.

Hirschi: Control Theory. This influential – at least in America – take on control theory saw Hirschi widen the scope of social controls. While earlier control theorists focused on primary family attachments Hirschi theorised the nature of “bonds of attachment” between the individual and the wider community within which they are located. This page also looks at some brief criticisms of control theory, although one more question you might like to ask is the extent to which Control Theorists underestimate the amount of criminal behaviour committed by “law-abiding individuals”.


Having carefully listed each page in this particular Learning Object I’ve since discovered a link to the whole object (i.e. the menu system within which the pages are located and linked).

If you want an easier way to examine these pages, therefore, try this Menu Link.

If you find there’s a display problem – it tells you access to the content is blocked – just refresh the page…


If you want to add a little more up-to-date ideas about the application of Control Theory our latest crime film – Space, Place and (Broken) Windows – gives a contemporary twist in the shape of environmental criminology. It also demonstrates how Wilson and Kelling’s “Broken Windows” has its origins in Control Theory.

Sociology: Space, Place and (Broken) Windows from ShortCutstv on Vimeo.

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