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Journal o f Quantitative Crim&ology, VoL 7, No.

2, 1991
Sel f - Cont rol as a General Theory of Cri me I
Ro na l d L. Ak e r s 2
A Ge ne r al The o r y o f Cri me. By Michael R. Gottfredson and Travis
Hirschi. Stanford University Press, Stanford, CaliL, 1990,
xvi + 297 pp.
1. INTRODUCTION
This is an important book that already has begun to have a major
impact on theoretical and methodological discourse in criminology. It should
be moved ahead of others on your to-be-read list. Even those who will take
issue with many of its assertions (I count myself among this number) must
admit to the power, scope, and persuasiveness of its argument. The team of
Travis Hirschi and Michael Gottfredson is one of the most productive and
influential collaborations in criminology. A General Theory of Crime is the
culmination of that collaboration and marks another milestone in crimino-
logical theory. It can be placed among recent books, such as Hagan and co-
workers' (1989), Braithwaite's (1989), and Katz's (1989), which have kept
the theoretical waters churning. Let's have more.
Gibbs (1989) makes a strong case that the concept of "control" in all
of its manifestations is the best candidate for a central and unifying "notion"
for all of sociology. Although they make no reference to Gibbs, Gottfredson
and Hirschi (G&H) offer a variation on this theme for all of criminology.
They propose "self-control" as a general concept around which all of the
known facts about crime can be organized. They argue, especially, that the
facts revolving around the stability of differences in the propensity to crime
and the versatility of crime committed by the same individual, can be
accounted for only by their theory of self-control.
JReview essay.
2Department of Sociology, Center for Studies in Criminology and Law, University of Florida,
Gainsville, Florida 32611.
201
0748.4518/91/0600-0201506.50/0 9 1991 Plenum Publishing Corporation
202 Akers
2. OVERVI EW OF THE BOOK
Part I covers the "nat ur e of cri me" and defines crime as "act s of force
or fraud undert aken in pursuit of self-interest" (p. 15). Cont rol t heory is
described as a classical, choice t heory t hat st ands in stark cont rast to all ot her
biological, psychological, or sociological "positivistic" theories of crime. In
Part II, these other theories are reviewed t o show how t hey are incapable
of account i ng for either crime or criminality. Chapt er 5, "The Nat ure of
Cri mi nal i t y: Low Sel f-Cont rol , " is the heart of the book. It offers "l ow self-
cont r ol " as the best approach to explaining the individual' s propensi t y to
commi t or refrain from crimes. In Part III, the t heory is applied to age,
gender, and race variations in crime, peer groups, schools, and the family,
cross-cultural comparisons, white-collar crime, and organized crime. The
distinction between crime, as the commission of acts in a given situation, and
the individual' s propensi t y to commi t crime across situations is mai nt ai ned
t hroughout . In Part IV, G&H spell out what t hey see as the implications of
the self-control approach for research. The maj or research implication is
t hat l ongi t udi nal research is not superior to, and in some ways is not as
good as, cross-sectional research. There is no new measure of crime, crimi-
nality, self-control, or ot her concepts suggested. In the last chapter, G&H
offer implications of self-control t heory for public policy. Policies designed
to deter or rehabilitate offenders will cont i nue t o fail. The onl y state policies
likely to reduce crime are those which support and enhance socialization in
the family.
3. THE CONCEPT AND THEORY OF LOW SELF- CONTROL
Self-control is directed to the fact t hat
[i]ndividual differences in the tendency to commit criminal acts.., remain reason-
ably stable with change in the social location of individuals and change in their
knowledge of the operation of sanction systems. This is the problem of self-control,
the differential tendency of people to avoid criminal acts whatever the circum-
stances in which they find themselves. Since this difference among people has
attracted a wide variety of names, we begin by arguing the merits of the concept
of self-control. (p. 87; italics in original)
Those wi t h high self-control will be "subst ant i al l y less likely at all
periods of life to engage in criminal act s" (p. 89). Low self-control can be
count eract ed by circumstances and therefore does not "requi re crime. "
Crime and "anal ogous behavi or" such as smoking, drinking, drug use, illicit
sex, and even accidents are "mani fest at i ons of " low self-control and commit-
ted at a high rate by persons with low-self control. Therefore, there is great
versatility in the types of crime and anal ogous behavi or t hey commit.
Self-Control as a General Theory of Crime 203
The cause of low self-control is ineffective or incomplete socialization,
especially ineffective child-rearing. Parents who are attached to their chil-
dren, supervise their children closely, recognize lack of self-control, and
punish deviant acts will socialize children into self-control. The explicit dis-
approval of parents or others about whom one cares is the most important
negative sanction. This perspective is then applied to the criminality of par-
ents, family size, single-parent families, working mothers, and the school.
Socialization occurs throughout life, but once formed in childhood, self-
control remains relatively stable throughout life (although apparently not
the actual commission of crimes, since these always decline with age). Self-
control accounts for all variations by sex, culture, age, and circumstances
and "explains all crime, at all times, and, for that matter many forms of
behavior that are not sanctioned by the state" (p. 117) . 3
This is a very large claim, which G&H support mainly by reviewing,
in subsequent chapters, the known official and unofficial distribution and
correlates of crime and delinquency and interpreting them as consistent with
the social control concept. G&H do an impressive j ob of showing how the
concept of low self-control is consistent with a great deal of what we know
about crime. There is, however, no general or specific empirical test of the
theory offered.
4. IS THE THEORY OF SELF- CONTROL TAUTOLOGI CAL?
At first glance the theory would appear to hypothesize that low self-
control is the cause of the propensity to commit criminal behavior. It is
the cause of crime, because persons with low self-control seek immediate
gratification and have less ability than those with high self-control to resist
the temptations of the immediate rewards universally derivable from crime
and to be affected by the longer-term costs of crime and benefits of confor-
mity. G&H "ascribe" stable individual differences in crime to low self-
control and propose that crime and other behavior "st em" from or are
"manifestations" of low self-control. Low self-control explains bot h the
stability and the versatility of crime.
The testability of this explanation is put into question, however, by the
fact that G&H do not define self-control separately from the propensity to
3The "el ement s" of low self-control are elucidated by reference t o what criminal acts "provi de"
for the offender--i mmedi at e gratification, easy gratification, excitement, and risk-taking, with
few long-term benefits. The elements also include low manual and academic skills, self-cen-
teredness, indifference t o t he suffering of others, and minimal tolerance for frustration. G&H
also describe four "general elements" of low sel f-cont rol --basi c stability of individual differ-
ences, versatility in criminal acts, equivalence of criminal and noncri mi nal acts, and inability
to predict the specific form of deviance.
204 Aker s
commit crimes. G&H use "low self-control" and "high self-control" simply
as labels for this differential propensity to commit crime. In the past they
have attached a different label to it---vriminality. But they now reject crimi-
nality and other terms such as conscience and antisocial personality in favor
of self-control (although they continue to use criminality as synonymous
with low self-control).
Thus, it would appear to be tautological to explain the propensity to
commit crime by low self-control. They are one and the same, and such
assertions about them are true by definition. The assertion means that low
self-control causes low self-control. Similarly, since no operational definition
of self-control is given, we cannot know that a person has low self-control
(stable propensity to commit crime) unless he or she commits crimes or
analogous behavior. The statement that low self-control is a cause of crime,
then, is also tautological.
G&H explicitly exclude the overt commission of criminal acts in the
definition of low self-control. They argue that crimes are circumscribed
events under a set of necessary conditions and that "criminal acts are, at
best, imperfect measures of self-control" (p. 137). Crime can change while
self-control does not and low self-control can exist without crime. Thus, it
is possible that some independent indicator of low self-control could be
devised and related to separate measures of criminal behavior including
separate indicators of criminal propensity. This resolution of the tautology
problem is short-circuited, however, by the contradictory assertion by G&H
that the offenses themselves, indeed, can be taken as the measures of self-
control, with the proviso that "offenses vary in their validity as measures of
self-control" (p. 90). Throughout the chapters on application of the theory,
although not directly offered as empirical measures of self-control, both
stability and versatility of crime are discussed as if they can be taken, them-
selves, as indicators of low self-control.
To avoid the tautology problem, independent indicators of self-control
are needed. But nowhere do G&H tell the reader in clear, unequivocal terms
how to measure self-control separately from crimes or the propensity to
commit crime. 4 The only clue as to how "to measure criminal tendencies
independent of opportunity to commit criminal acts" is to assess the tenden-
cies "before crime is possible" (p. 220). Measures of some preadolescent
noncriminal misbehavior can be used as predictor variables for subsequent
delinquent and criminal behavior, thereby demonstrating the stability of
low self-control from early childhood. This does not resolve the tautology,
4Moreover, t hey seem, at one poi nt , t o close t he door on an i ndependent measur e because t hey
emphasi ze t hat t he only consi st ent di fference t hat can be f ound among i ndi vi dual s who differ
in t he pr opensi t y t o commi t cri me is t hat sel f-same difference in cri mi nal pr opensi t y.
Self-Control as a General Theory of Crime 205
however, because G&H emphasize that a variety of acts, both criminal
behavior (as force or fraud committed in self-interest) and analogous beha-
vior, are signs of the same low self-control. Much childhood misbehavior
fits this definition, and if that earlier behavior is posited as a cause, and not
just a predictor, of later behavior, the conclusion again is reached that low
self-control causes low self-control.
The most promising resolution lies in G&H' s statement that the versatil-
ity of crime may be taken as an expression of an "underlying construct, a
construct we refer to as self-control" (p. 253). Thus, low self-control may
be more of a general organizing or sensitizing construct rather than an
explanatory theory. It may help to make sense of, integrate, and propagate
various nontautological propositions about crime without the underlying
causal assumptions being testable. I believe that the concept of low self-
control is important enough that it would be worthwhile for G&H to resolve
this tautology issue in their subsequent development of the theory.
5. WH A T I S T H E R E L A T I O N S H I P OF SELF-CONTROL
T H E O R Y T O S O C I A L B O N D I N G A N D O T H E R
CONTROL THEORIES?
The distinction G&H make between high and low self-control bears a
very close resemblance to Reckless and co-workers' (1956) notion of the
insulated vs vulnerable self-concept, as well as to Reiss's (1951) "personal"
control and Nye's (1958) internal, indirect control. G&H stress the learning
of self-control in the family and the stability of self-control after early child-
hood. Reckless et al. also stress that the self-concept is the product of social-
ization, is essentially formed by age 12, and predicts later delinquent
involvement. Nye emphasizes control in the family. With such similarity, it
is surprising that G&H show little interest in prior control theory. Most
puzzling, there is no attempt to tie in self-control concepts to Hirschi's (1969)
own social bonding theory. 5 The concept of self-control plays almost no
role in social bonding theory; rather it is subsumed under the element of
attachment on the grounds that notions such as conscience and self-control
are internal to the individual and less objectively observed than attachment.
In contrast, self-control (an internal, unobserved individual trait) is abso-
lutely central to the present theory and the other elements of the bond, belief,
attachment, commitment, and involvement are absent. That the conse-
quences of acts are causally important is only implicitly and indirectly recog-
nized in social bonding theory. Under the concept of commitment, deviance
5Can self-control be subsumed under social bonding theory or does self-control now supersede
social bonding? Can all previous control perspectives be subsumed under self-control?
206 Akers
is prevented because of the costs associated with losing investments in con-
formity, but the social bonding theory as stated by Hirschi contains no
systematic analysis of cost/benefit consequences of actions. This contrasts
with A General Theory of Crime, which is filled with explicit references to
the consequences of acts including immediate gratification and legal, moral,
and political sanctions. The current theory shares social bonding' s earlier
focus on the family's disciplinary and supervision style but goes beyond that
to give a central place to punishment for deviant acts by parents (and, by
implication, reward for conformity).
I am especially interested in this movement of control theory to incorpo-
rate consequences of behavior and external sanctions such as those used
within the family, because I have previously argued (Akers, 1985, 1989) that
this is one of the directions social bonding theory should take. Hirschi saw
parental supervision and family relationships as indicative of attachment
and commitment in social bonding, but I suggested that "t hey may also be
seen as indicative of the extent to which the family group is able to sanction
the individual behavior effectively in the direction of conformity. Thus, the
direct role of sanctions in the socialization process--the molding of the
individual's commitment to conformity and development of self-control--
could be made a part of control theory" (Akers, 1985, p. 35; italics added).
G&H make no reference to this suggestion, but I am nonetheless pleased to
see that they have followed it.
6. THE OPPOSI TI ONAL STRATEGY IN THEORETICAL
ANALYSIS
G&H claim to be friendly to all other theories and to have begun with
the assumPtion that their theory Could be combined with the best of the
positivistic theories (pp. 86, 87). They conclude that this assumption was
mistaken, and the friendly attitude is quickly dropped. In nearly every chap-
ter at least as much effort is expended in pointing out the shortcoming,
foibles, and mistaken assumptions of other perspectives as is expended on
explicating self-control theory. There is much to agree with in their critiques
of other theories. They are most on target in pointing out that other theories
have not paid much attention to the stability of the propensity to commit
crime across situations and through time and that most other theories have
not done a good job of accounting for this stability. I disagree with G&H
that all other theories are incapable of accounting for it, but they certainly
have been relatively quiet about it.
Those criminologists who are skeptical of the claims of biological posi-
tivism will find Chapter 3 especially enlightening. G&H point to some very
critical problems with the methodology, measures, and samples of the most
Self-Control as a General Theory of Crime 207
frequently cited studies of the biological transmission of criminality from
father to son. They conclude that even the strongest hereditary link between
father' s and son' s criminality would produce a miniscule correlation. Biologi-
cal theorists will be less enamored of the analysis.
There is also much to dissent from in G&H' s strong critiques of psycho-
logical, economic, and sociological theories. For instance, they are quite
inaccurate in their depiction of all other theories as having an aversion to
general theory, predicting crime specialization, positing that different expla-
nations are needed for different crimes, and being embarrassed by the versa-
tility of offender behavior. Most will also find unconvincing G&H' s claim
that they have a definition of crime (fraud or force in the service of self-
interest) that is superior to definitions in other theories, which they claim
are stuck with a strictly legal definition of crime. G&H include accidents i n
their definition of analogous behavior, to which most theories of deviance
pay no attention. But virtually everything else that G&H include as crime
and analogous behavior woul d also be included by others' definitions of
crime and deviance. Indeed, G&H' s definition leads to the rather awkward
conclusion that any law violation, including legally defined murder, robbery,
or property crime, that is done for reasons other than self-interest is not
crime and cannot be explained by their theory!
There is value in this critical strategy. It dearl y draws the lines and
makes the theories confront the central facts about crime; it prevents the
papering over of real differences. The danger of unremitting attack on other
perspectives is that it sometimes leads to exaggeration of differences and
covering up of similarities. This is reflected most clearly in the tendency for
G&H to place control theory in one camp and lump virtually all other
theories together into one "positivistic" camp.
7. IS THE DI STI NCTI ON BETWEEN CONTROL THEORY AND
POSI TI VI STI C THEORI ES VALID?
G&H do not define exactly what they mean by the label of"positivistic, "
but it appears that they are referring primarily to theories which they charac-
terize as proposing one or more "positive" causes of criminal behavior,
while self-control theory proposes "negative" causes. G&H repeat Hirschi' s
(1969), long-held conviction that control theory asks a different question
than other t heori es--not why people commit crime but , rather, why they
don' t. Control theories are supposed to take variation in conformity as
problematic, whereas positivistic theories are supposed to take variation in
deviance as problematic.
Given the definition of low self-control (propensity to crime) as the
absence of high self-control (p. 95), this contrast with other theories has
208 Akers
some validity. However, I believe that it is a flawed distinction which does
not have real consequences for quantitative analysis, empirical testing, and
comparison of theories. There is great variation among the different theories
dropped into the same positivistic category in the extent to which they
hypothesize facilitative and inhibiting causes of crime, and social learning
theories in particular stake out claims to include bot h positive and negative
sanctions and to account for bot h conforming and deviant behavior.
Although G&H specifically disallow any positive learning in low self-control,
they do allow for positive motivation through the rewards of crime (albeit
more in the nature of a necessary rather than sufficient condition for crime)
and for positive learning in the acquisition of high self-control. Thus, there
is no clear-cut qualitative distinction that can be drawn between self-control
theory and all other theories in their choice of explanatory variables.
Much the same can be said about the dependent variable. Whatever
their other differences, all theories of crime, including control theory, ulti-
mately ask the same question: why some do and some do not commit crime.
Self-control is proposed as a general theory of crime, not a general theory
of conformity, altruism, meritorious achievement, or prosocial contributions
to the welfare of society. Although their nominal definition of crime is
different from others, in none of their empirical analyses in support of self-
control theory do G&H use a unique operational definition of crime or
conformity. They use the same dependent variables measured in exactly the
same way with official and self-report measures that everyone else uses. If
the dependent variable is the same, what difference does it make what one
assumes concerning what is "really" the problematic behavior to be
explained? Empirically, crime is measured by the commission of some act(s),
and conformity is measured by the absence, or low level, of crime. Thus,
conformity and crime are exact reciprocals. It makes no meaningful differ-
ence which the theory claims to account for, because to account for variation
in one is to account for variation in the other.
The label of positivistic also implies that a perspective focuses on the
characteristics of the offender rather than the offense. Positivism is supposed
to be deterministic, assuming that human behavior is (within limits) predict-
able. It is quantitatively oriented, emphasizes measurability, utilizes statisti-
cal analysis, and measures variables with objective, empirical indicators. By
these standards, as well, G&H' s self-control theory is as positivistic as most
perspectives in criminology t oday and is more positivistic than others, such
as interpretative, qualitative, or phenomenological theories.
8. SELF- CONTROL AND SOCIAL LEARNI NG THEORY
This tendency to exaggerate differences and downplay similarities to
other theories, sometimes leading to misrepresentations of alternative
Self-Control as a General Theory of Crime 209
theories, is also evident in G&H' s critiques of specific theories. As a social
learning theorist who has argued for the compatibility of social control and
social learning theory, I am understandably more sensitive to this issue with
regard to social learning theory.
For instance, G&H assert that "crime is caused or prevented by constel-
lations of pleasurable and painful consequences" (p. 5). This sounds like a
statement of differential reinforcement lifted straight out of social learning
theory in which "whether deviant or conforming behavior [is committed
and] persists depends on the past and present rewards and punishments and
on the rewards and punishment attached to alternative behavior. " G&H
recognize this possible overlap and attempt to show how very different the
perspectives are.
One of the ways they do this is by interpreting a statement by me
(regarding deviance resulting from the failure of social control directed
t oward conformity as well as the success of social control directed toward
deviance) as demonstrating that social learning theory only makes passing
references to "negative reinforcement" and really relies exclusively on learn-
ing through positive reward (p. 71). This is a misinterpretation. Social learn-
ing theory explicitly includes bot h positive and negative reinforcement and
punishment for bot h conforming and deviant behavior, recognizing that
deviant behavior can result from failures of learning as well as from success-
fully learning to do something (Akers, 1985, pp. 57-61).
The oppositional approach taken by G&H also overlooks the similarity
in the way in which they and I deal with the central process of socialization
and self-control. Compare the following, for instance.
G&H maintain that self-control is learned through socialization and
state that
most people are sufficiently socialized by familiar institutions to avoid involve-
ment in criminal acts. Those not socialized sufficiently by t he family may eventu-
ally learn self-control t hr ough t he operat i on of ot her sanctioning systems. (p. 105)
I also maintain that self-control is learned through socialization and
state that
over time, sanctioning behavi or may lead to the development of s e l f - c o n t r o l . . . .
Individuals learn from t hei r parents, peers, and others what are considered the
right and wrong things to say and do in a variety of contexts . . . . After t he initial
period of s o c i a l i z a t i o n most people conform by controlling their own behavi or
wi t hout furt her directly applied sanctions. Every social system relies t o a consider-
able degree on socialization t o develop self-control among the population. (Akers,
1985, p. 6; italics in original)
It is difficult to see how G&H' s theory, which stresses learning of self-
control through socialization, can be seen as diametrically opposed to social
learning.
210 Akers
G&H attempt in Chapter 7 to account for the consistent finding in
criminological research of the strong relationship of one' s own behavior to
peer behavior. They tend to dismiss rather than explain the relationship.
They deny any causal significance to similarity of peers' behavior first by
dismissing reports of peers' behavior as simply another measure of one' s
own deviance. They deny that any deviance-relevent learning, other than
additional failures of socialization, takes place in peer groups. Then, they
repeat the clich6 favored by the Gluecks (1950) that birds of a feather flock
together (in this case birds with low self-control) and misunderstand the role
that peer groups play in social learning theory. G&H believe that social
learning theory posits that the only learning that takes place in peer groups
is positive social reward of deviance and that peer groups socialize the adoles-
cent into a set of deviant values which "require" or compel deviance. This
ignores the fact that the theory stresses d i f f e r e n t i a l association and reinforce-
ment within and between peer groups, family, and other groups and that no
set of specifically prodelinquent values is necessary. It also ignores my stress-
ing that most of the peer influence is in a conforming direction and my
references to the effect of deviant behavior on choice of friends (Akers, 1985,
pp. 60, 116-117). Social learning admits that birds of a feather do flock
together, but it also admits that if the birds are humans, they also will
influence one another' s behavior, in bot h conforming and deviant directions.
9. CONCLUSI ON
Low self-control theory will have an impact on criminological theory.
G&H' s arguments are t oo forcefully and intelligently made to be ignored. I
anticipate that the theory will inspire a great deal of attention and research
(and much of it may be in an attempt to prove them wrong). The value of
self-control theory would be advanced even more, however, if G&H would
grapple with the tautology problem, attend to theoretical linkages with prior
control theory, and ease off a bit from the oppositional strategy in comparing
their theory with other theories.
REFERENCES
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in the Study of Deviance and Crime, SUNY Press, Albany, NY, pp. 22-36.
Braithwaite, J. (1989). Crime, Shame, and Reintegration, Cambridge University Press, Cam-
bridge.
Gibbs, J. (1989). Control: Sociology's Central Notion, University of Illinois Press, Urbana.
Se r f - Cont r ol a s a Ge n e r a l Th e o r y o f Cr i me 2 1 1
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Hirschi, T. (1969). The Causes of Delinquency, University of California Press, Berkeley.
Katz, J. (1988 ). Seductions of Crime: Moral and Sensual Attractions of Doing Evil, Basic Books,
New York.
Nye, F. I. (1958). Family Relationships and Delinquent Behavior, Wiley, New York.
Reckless, W., Dinitz, S., and Murray, E. (1956). Self-concept as an insulator against
delinquency. Am. Sociol. Rev. 21 : 744-746.
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