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General Theory of Crime

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There has been much controversy and studies done on Gottfredson and Hirschi’s development of their book-length theory, General Theory of Crime. They discuss ideas and concepts concerning self-control and how that affects an individual’s likelihood of committing criminal acts. If a person lacks in self-control, they are more prone to being deviant given the correct circumstances and factors surrounding their situation. Considered to be such a simple theory, it offers empirical evidence and various explanations as to why deviant individuals choose a different path in contrast to non-deviant, rule-following individuals. However, while simple, it does work to explain a broad spectrum of ideas and provides space for interpretation. In this paper I will be discussing the ideas presented by Gottfredson and Hirschi in their theory regarding self-control as well as the historical and empirical studies done surrounding the General Theory of Crime. Michael Gottfredson is an American Criminologist who was also the provost at UC Irvine and is currently the president of the University of Oregon. Travis Hirschi, too, is an American criminologist who received his Ph.D. in sociology from UC Berkeley.

He developed the Social Control Theory, which describes that the absence of social bonds and attachments to society can result in the increased likelihood of delinquency. In this theory, Gottfredson focused more on the societal controls on an individual. In 1990, Gottfredson and Travis Hirschi developed the theory of self-control, which focuses on the existence or the lack thereof self-control within an individual. Gottfredson and Hirschi make the switch from external control to those of internal causation. However, a relevancy does exist, for Hirschi believes that social controls can be used in explaining criminal behavior. Those controls have the competency to influence self-control, which according to Hirschi, is ingrained in an individual around the age of eight and should remain consistent from thereafter (Bernard et al. 2010). Corresponding with this theory, criminal acts are characterized as so: provide immediate gratification of desires; easy and simple gratification of desires; exciting, risky and thrilling; tend to provide few or meager long-term benefits; require little skill or planning; and often result in pain or discomfort for the victim (Gottfredson and Hirschi 1990).

As for the characteristics of the individuals who commit these criminal acts; they’re known to be impulsive, insensitive, physical, risk taking, short sighted, and non-verbal. A major cause of low self-control can said to be brought on by ineffective child rearing, meaning that if parents fail at appropriately disciplining, nurturing, and raising their children that can lead to low self-control which in turn causes a chain of delinquent and analogous behaviors. The General Theory of Crime is also known as a theory that explain all crimes at all times which could have the possibility of finding a resolution to ending all crime (Schulz 2004). In turn, the lack of self-control could therefore explain why individuals cannot not keep a stable job, do not perform well in school, or fall short in the ability to have healthy relationships with people. These events that can occur in an individuals life elaborates on the idea that low self-control can cause many things in one’s life to go astray. Gottfredson and Hirschi present an emphasis on how child rearing is one of the major components of an individual having low self-control.

According to them there are 3 aspects that must exist in order for an individual to have a high amount of self-control and that is: monitoring and tracking child’s behavior, recognizing deviant behavior when it occurs and consistently and proportionately punishing the behavior upon recognition (Bernard et al. 2010). This General Theory of Crime also relates to the Classical and Rational Choice Theory, which was first presented by Beccaria. In summary, these theories basically state that if the costs outweigh the benefits the individual is less likely to commit the crime. Usually the benefits outweigh the costs because the benefits are more tangible and immediate. In addition, Gottfredson and Hirschi’s define crime as “acts of force or fraud undertaken in pursuit of self interest” (1990), their theory of self-control elaborates on the idea that individuals who have low self-control commit crime because they desire for easy and immediate gratification and its in their own interest that these crimes will be beneficial to them. They also explain that the lack of self-control is not meant to determine one set of deviant acts but to express that low self-control has the capability of causing any deviant acts, no matter the level of criminality, such as analogous behaviors (smoking, drinking, gambling).

These behaviors are not necessarily criminal but may be seen as deviant according to society. After much research was done on the idea of self-control and revealing that self-control actually plays a smaller role as the cause of crime than we think it to have, Hirschi then redefined self-control from what he originally conceptualized it to be: “Self-control becomes the tendency to consider the full range of potential costs of a particular act,” this new definition shifted the view of self-control from viewing the long-term entailment to the more imminent ramifications (Bernard et al. 2010). While this theory does much to explain various aspects of crime and why it may occur, it does not exist without criticism. There have been many empirical studies done to test the validity and credibility of Gottfredson and Hirschi’s theory regarding self-control. A study done by Matt DeLisi and Michael G. Vaughn titled, “Reconciling Self-Control Theory, Criminal Careers and Career Criminals,” focused on the concept that low-self control is similar to individuals having the natural tendency to commit crime and thus they “examine[d] its predictive validity of career criminality among 723 incarcerated delinquent youths,” (2007).

While DeLisi and Vaughn worked to prove that career criminals could be targets of study in regards to whether lower self-control can affect them as well, Hirschi and Gottfredson critique the idea of studying career criminals. They claimed that the concept of a career criminal is more than a century old and is insufficient because career criminals tend to be older when the criminal justice system realizes that they do indeed have a lengthy record of criminal activity (DeLisi and Vaughn 2007). Gottfredson and Hirschi also claim that the funding implications of career criminal research are far too great because one would have to follow a criminal throughout his life span. In DeLisi and Vaughn’s study, their findings revealed that career criminal’s low self-control can be measured and their targets they chose are measurable. From their research four findings emerged: Career criminals had lower levels of self-control in comparison to non-career criminals. Youths who scored one standard deviation above the mean on the self-control scale were more likely to become a career criminal. Third, self-control predicted career criminal membership with receiver operator characteristic…Fourth, low self-control was overwhelmingly the strongest predictor of career criminality, more so than the impact of age, race, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, etc.,” (DeLisi and Vaughn 2007).

For this study DeLisi and Vaughn interviewed face to face and they constructed a 15-item self-control scale that had elements that reflected Gottfredson and Hirschi’s theory on self-control. When referring back to Gottfredson and Hirschi’s original theory on self-control, one can see that their study focused on how self-control is developed around age eight and this research on career criminals aims to study individuals throughout their life as opposed to a single point in one’s life. It, in a subtle way, goes against the concepts developed in the General Theory of Crime by promoting longitudinal studies. A criticism that Gottfredson and Hirshi worked hard to invalidate was that criminals, such as white-collar or organized crimes, do not have low self-control. Their argument was that, “’Organized crime’ is not really organized and that any apparent organization is short-loved and consists of unstable temporary alliances,” (Bernard et al. 2010). It was pointed out that organized criminality is never truly successful due to the fact that those individuals involved, lack self-control, supporting their basic premise of their theory.

The relationships formed within a circle of organized crime between the individuals are not reliable, trustworthy, or cooperative for long periods of time to allow the crimes to continue on and the organization to maintain stability. In their book, General Theory of Crime, Gottfredson and Hirschi state that it not necessary to create specific theories to account for gang, organized, or professional crime but that their theory regarding self-control has the span to account for these variety of categories, “…once they’ve been stripped of the social-organizational myth,” (1990). A study conducted by Sally Simpson and Nicole Piquero titled, “Low Self-Control. Organizational Theory, and Corporate Crime,” worked to disprove Gottfredson and Hirschi’s claim that self-control can be used to explain organized crime. The data that was gathered from a factorial survey done on corporate managers and managers in-training revealed that the natural tendency to commit corporate offenses and self-control are unrelated. They instead used the integrated materialistic and cultural organizational theory to explain why managers committed crimes, meaning that if a manager is being supervised by an individual who orders them to offend, they are then more likely to commit an offense or if their company will benefit in some financial gain then they are more inclined to offend as well.

However, it could be argued as well that if these managers are submissive to their supervisors to the point of committing illegal acts they then lack the self-control to resist engaging in acts of immoral nature. Variables, such as race, gender, and socioeconomic status are also known to be constant topics of discussions when researching about self-control. Theorists seek to find if these variables play an impact on the association between self-control and deviant behaviors and if those impacts differ from each other. A study done by John McMullen testing the Self-Control Theory using general patterns of deviance suggests that gender, as a control variable, does have a strong impact on criminal, deviant, and risk-taking behaviors (1999). The sample for this study consisted of 415 students who were similar racially but with variation in regards to gender and parental education level. The information that was gathered related to any recent involvement they had in crime, deviance, and risk-taking behavior. Another study was done using students from Honk Kong. This focused on self-control and delinquency in the Chinese setting, which speaks on the theoretical issue of whether the impact of self-control is universal across cultures (Cheung and Cheung 2007).

Data was collected 1,015 Chinese secondary school students in Hong Kong between the ages of 14 and 19. The results showed that low-self control was correlated with delinquency in the Chinese setting. This study also found that low self-control is connected to a range of negative social conditions in Chinese adolescents, including disrupted social bonds, delinquent association, negative relations with peers, etc. (Cheung and Cheung 2007). While this theory helps to support the culture-free proposal by the self-control theory, it only partially supports it. This study on Chinese adolescents suggests that not only does self-control affect delinquency but social factors also play a role. However, Gottfredson and Hirschi believe that the social factors that do exist are results of the lack of self-control, meaning that an individual would not be labeled as a criminal if their self-control had kept them from a committing a crime.

Gottfredson and Hirschi’s work General Theory of Crime provided groundbreaking work for the criminal justice system. Additionally, it also served to spark many arguments and controversies revolving around the idea of self-control and whether or not it can be an explanation for all crime. Multiple studies and much research have been done to test the self-control theory as well as disputing its claims. Gender and race have been tested to see if these variables affect self-control; the types of crimes and criminals have also been researched upon to figure out if self-control plays a factor in their existence. This theory of self-control does much to explain the realm of crime and while it may give substance to a variety of delinquent behaviors it does provide a foundation for present and future criminologists and even sociologists to progress their own fields of work.

Works Cited

Bernard, Thomas J, Jeffrey B. Snipes and Alexander L Gould. 2010. Vold’s Theoretical Criminology. New york, Oxford University Press. Cheung, Nicole W. T. and Yeut Cheung. 2007 “Self-control, Social Factors, andDelinquency: A Test of the General Theory of Crime Among Adolescents in HonkKong.” Journal of Youth and Adolescence 37(4):412-430. Retrieved from Ebsco onNov 28, 2012 DeLisi, Matt and Michael G Vaughn. 2007 “Reconciling Self-control Theory, CriminalCareers and Career Criminals.” International Journal of Offender Therapy andComparative Criminology 52(5):520-537. Retrieved from Ebsco on Nov 28, 2012 Gottfredson, Michael R and Travis Hirschi. 1990. A General Theory of Crime. Stanford,Stanford University Press. McMullen, John C. 1999. A Test of Self-Control Theory Using General Patterns ofDeviance. Blacksburg, VA. Schulz, Stefan . 2004 “Problems with the Versatility Construct of Gottfredson andHirschi’s General Theory of Crime.” European Journal of Crime, Criminal Lawand Criminal Justice 12(1):61-82. Retrieved Simpson, Sally S. and Nicole Piquero. 2002 “Low Self-Control,Organizational Theory, and Corporate Crime.” Law and Society Review 36(3):509-.Retrieved from Ebsco on Nov 28, 2012 from Ebsco on Nov 28, 2012 Welch, Kelly. 1998. Two Major Theories of Travis Hirschi.http://www.criminology.fsu.edu/crimtheory/hirschi.htm. Nov 28, 2012

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