Hirschi’s Social Bond Theory is a criminology theory developed by Travis Hirschi in the late 1960s. It suggests that individuals are less likely to engage in criminal activities when they are connected to society, and have strong attachments to family, school, and work.
The theory states that individuals will choose to obey the law when they have strong social bonds.
The work of Emile Durkheim, especially in his study of suicide rates during the industrial revolution(1760-1840), is echoed in Hirschi’s Social Bond theory. Durkheim states:
“the greater the integration of religious, familial, and political groups to which an individual belongs, the greater is his immunity to suicide”(Marks, 1974, p. 332).
Hirschi (2001) himself states that:
“Sex, race, social class, neighborhood, mother’s employment, the broken home, size of family, and so forth, are the stuff of which most empirical studies, textbooks, and theories of delinquency are constructed” (p. 63).
However, Hirschi’s control theory focuses on the prevention of deviance through his concept of attachments:
“Control theory assumes that the bond of affection for conventional persons is a major deterrent to crime. The stronger this bond, the more likely the person is to take it into account when and if he contemplates a criminal act” (Hirschi, 2001, p. 84).
Examples of Hirschi’s Bond Theory
- A child who has a strong bond with their family is less likely to engage in criminal activities.
- Students who have a good relationship with their teachers and classmates are less likely to commit crimes.
- Employees who are connected to their workplace and have a good relationship with their colleagues are less likely to break the law.
- Individuals who have close relationships with responsible friends are less likely to commit crimes.
- People who participate in after-school activities such as sports, clubs, or volunteer work are less likely to break the law.
- Individuals who have a connection to their faith community, such as a church or religious group, are less likely to engage in criminal activities.
- People who are involved in their local community are less likely to commit crimes.
- Individuals who have a positive relationship with their peers and are accepted into their social group are less likely to engage in criminal behavior.
- People who have a strong connection to their culture are less likely to commit crimes.
- Individuals who feel connected to their country and have a sense of national pride are less likely to break the law.
1. Family Bonds
A child who has a strong bond with their family is less likely to engage in criminal activities.
It has been shown that children who have strong bonds with their families are less likely to engage in criminal activities in life. This is especially true for those who have strong relationships with both their parents. The presence of a strong support system can help to provide children with the guidance and protection they need to avoid a deviant lifestyle.
Researcher’s Schreck and Fisher (2004) affirm by stating that a deep bond with parents often encourages children to stay close to home rather than associate with unfamiliar people. Furthermore, strong attachment may prompt parents to manage their children’s social circle. For example, involving acquaintances in family events, and learning about their families to ensure that their children are spending time with people who will be a good influence on them (p.1024).
2. Faith Communities
Individuals who have a connection to their faith community, such as a church or religious group, are less likely to engage in criminal activities
The connection that individuals in religious a community share is the social and moral support that they receive from their peers. The reinforced sense of morality, can deter members from engaging in illegal activities. Further research has also found that religious beliefs can help provide a sense of purpose and meaning, which can also act as a compass for people’s actions.
Ellis (1985) explains that “religion is a focal point of group solidarity and commitment to a common set of moral principles”(p. 303). It is believed that the more commitment to a religious community, the fewer violations of criminal law that will occur from members of that community.
Strengths of Hirschi’s Social Bond Theory
Hirschi’s Social Bond Theory offers a comprehensive explanation of why people choose to conform to societal norms and why they engage in criminal behavior.
It is based on four elements: attachment, commitment, involvement, and belief.
While stressing the importance of socialization and how it can influence the development of an individual’s behavior, it provides us with an understanding of why people commit crime and how certain social bonds can help protect individuals from criminal activity.
The theory is seen as a major breakthrough in the field of criminology and has been widely accepted by sociologists. Hindelang (1973) reaffirms this sentiment in this statement:
“Hirschi clearly reversed a two-decade trend in criminology by assembling and integrating a major theory of delinquency causation which presents, examines, and is generally supported by research findings” (p. 471).
Another clear strength is that Hirschi’s theory is relatively easy to understand and can be applied to various criminal activities.
It is highly compatible with other theories of crime causation, such as the Rational Choice Theory, Differential Association Theory, and Social Learning Theory.
It is seen by many sociologists as an effective to address the root causes of crime and to help people lead more productive lives.
Criticisms of Hirschi’s Social Bond Theory
While Hirschi’s theory is revered by some, it has also been criticized for a number of reasons.
Some of them include:
- A limited application
- An overly simplistic view on human behavior
- A lack of sufficient empirical support
- Gender bias
- Over-reliance on social control ideals.
Three are detailed below.
1. Limited applicability
Some of his strongest critics claim that the limited applicability of the theory fails to explain why some people with stronger social bonds still choose to commit deviant acts.
In Dr. John Hollis’s book, Why Do Good People Do Bad Things, this is addressed in detail. He asks the question:
“How is it that there can be so many discrepancies between our professed values, our presumptive virtues, and our many embarrassing, often destructive, behaviors?”(p. 14).
Hollis believes that despite how strong our social bonds were or are people are full of complexities.
These complexities can manifest themselves to be both a good side, and a more deviant side. He draws on the past work of Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud to analyze the dark side of people.
2. Lack of empirical data
Other critics accused Hirschi of having a lack of empirical data to support his theories.
Costello & Lamb (2019) exemplify this in their analysis of a harsh review that Hirschi’s theory received from a contemporary academic in 1970.
They state that H.B. Gibson wrote a highly critical review of Hirschi in the Sociological Review.
Gibson felt that Hirschi was misguided in attempting to explain crime through psychology, basing his theory on principles from Thomas Hobbes rather than current psychological research and theory.
Gibson went on to say that the methodology used was substandard, and the 51-page questionnaire given to children was a “disaster”.
Gibson concluded that, due to the poor quality of the research, it would be unwise for anyone to draw any reliable conclusions from Hirschi’s data (pp. 27-28).
Hirschi’s Social Bond Theory is also criticized for its over-reliance on social control to explain deviant behavior (hence why it’s also called social control theory).
While social control can be an important factor in explaining deviant behavior, it fails to consider other important factors in human behavior.
For example, Salvatore & Taniguchi (2012) research examines the concept of emerging adults.
If someone did not have sufficient social bonds when they were younger, life events like marriage or having a child, can create new bonds that might change their deviant life trajectory towards a more honest and normal lifestyle.
In other words, pivotal moments in life can be the catalyst for positive transformation in a person.
For instance, getting married may not immediately lead to a person ceasing to engage in improper behavior, but it could start a sequence of events that eventually lead to the individual to start distancing themselves from criminal activities.
Costello, B., & Laub. (2019). Social Control Theory: The Legacy of Travis Hirschi’s Causes of Delinquency. Annual Review of Criminology, 21–41. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-criminol-011419-041527
Ellis, L. (1985). Religiosity and Criminality. Sociological Perspectives, 28(4), 501-520. https://doi.org/10.2307/1389231
Hirschi, T. (2001). Causes of Delinquency. London: Routledge.
Hindelang, M. J. (1973). Causes of Delinquency: A Partial Replication and Extension. Social Problems, 20(4), 471–487. https://doi.org/10.2307/799709
Hollis, J. (2008). Why Good People Do Bad Things: Understanding Our Darker Selves. New Haven: Avery.
Marks, S. R. (1974). Durkheim’s Theory of Anomie. American Journal of Sociology, 80(2), 329– 363. https://doi.org/10.1086/225803
Salvatore, C., & Taniguchi, T. A. (2012). Do Social Bonds Matter for Emerging Adults? Deviant Behavior, 33(9), 738–756. https://doi.org/10.1080/01639625.2012.679888
Schreck, C. J., & Fisher, B. S. (2004). Specifying the Influence of Family and Peers on Violent Victimization. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 19(9), 1021-1041. https://doi.org/10.1177/0886260504268002