Understanding deviance

Social Control Theories- List, Definitions, and Examples


Social control theories are the ideas that attempt to explain why humans behave in the way they do. For example, some scholars argue that social institutions and social forces are in place to limit the negative actions of individuals. Social control theories try to explain why people do not commit deviant acts. They also help us to understand why individuals conform to social norms and expectations.

Social control is the process of controlling or limiting certain behaviors. It is the means that society uses to control behavior. Social control works by encouraging people to behave in a certain way and discouraging them from behaving in another way. A negative consequence can be enough to dissuade someone from committing a deviant act. We’ll examine more below!

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Self-control is the ability to regulate one’s actions. It’s a great contributor to social control. The theory of self-control suggests that humans act rationally most of the time. In this model, people have goals, and they act in ways that make it likely that those goals will be achieved.

People have different means to achieve these goals, and they must use self-control when choosing between means. People who have a problem with self-control are more likely to be involved with deviant behavior.

Several proponents developed social control theories. These include:

  • F. Ivan Nye
  • Walter Reckless
  • Travis Hirschi
  • Albert J. Reiss
  • Jack P. Gibbs
  • David Martza
  • Jackson Toby

F. Ivan Nye

F. Ivan Nye is a theorist who developed the idea of general strain theory. He argued that crime and deviance are most likely to occur in people who are currently experiencing strain.

People who experience strain will have one or more of the following: low self-esteem, poor interpersonal relationships, problems with drugs or alcohol, and poverty. Nye also argued that these strains are likely to lead to deviance.

Reinforcement theory is similar to general strain theory. The difference between the two is that the reinforcer stresses the importance of rewards and reinforcement. These rewards happen whether or not an individual will engage in certain behaviors.

Nye believed that an individual could break the law even without the negative social influences of their environment.

An individual may exhibit criminal behavior due to their personality characteristics and low self-control. However, these personality traits are the result of previous socialization experiences. Ivan explained three types of control, namely internal control, direct control, and indirect control.

Internal Control

It is the kind of self-control that comes due to guilt or conscience guidance. Values, norms, and beliefs encourage internal control. It is achieved through internalization. This kind of control is more likely to exist in individuals who have been exposed to consistent socialization from parents and other guardians.

Those who have experienced inconsistent socialization or have suffered from serious trauma are likely to be deviant even if they feel guilty about it. For example, prisoners are more likely to commit the same crimes they have been punished for it in the past.

Direct Control

Direct control occurs when people are physically forced to do or refrain from doing something. Direct control is associated with a high level of regulation over the behavior. It is enforced through punishments and rewards.

Some people are forced to do certain things, and they are prevented from doing other things. For example, schoolchildren who go to school regularly usually do not deviate from the path of success. This is a type of control that can be achieved by the public and private sectors. The government, parents and guardians, and schools can use this form of control.

Examples of direct control include parental supervision, requirements for licenses, and rules in schools. Individuals are tied to certain moral codes that keep them from engaging in deviant or criminal acts. This type is similar to internal control but with more restrictions and stronger punishments for non-compliance.

Indirect Control

It is self-control that occurs when peer pressure influences an individual’s behavior. It is a type of social control achieved through persuasion.

Efforts to control crime and delinquent behavior are usually implemented in the public sector. The government endorses different policies for social control of crime and deviance. One of the most common types of social control is law enforcement.

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Travis Hirschi

Travis Hirschi developed the idea of social control theory. He believes that people are most likely to abstain from crime and deviance when strongly committed to society. Travis worked with Michael Gottfredson on a thorough analysis of human behavior.

Gottfredson and Hirschi described three social bonds that people develop in their life: attachment, commitment, and involvement.


Attachment refers to the bond between a child and their parents. If parents are competent in raising children, they will have a close relationship with their children. Therefore, the likelihood of a child engaging in criminal activities will be very low.

Children and adolescents who are not well taken care of will develop a different type of attachment. They may develop negative attachments with other people, such as gangs or drug dealers who provide them with material comfort. These individuals are the most likely to break the law.


Commitment refers to the bond between an individual and society. It is usually achieved through membership in a group or organization. An individual’s commitment to the group is expressed through loyalty to shared values. The more an individual identifies with these values, the higher social bond they will develop.

Hirschi explains that commitment to relationships, jobs, groups, and goals is important. If individuals are committed to relationships with their families and community, they will voluntarily resist crime.



It refers to an individual’s participation in society. This bond is similar to commitment but is achieved through active participation in work, volunteering, and other activities.

Involvement develops as an individual learns more about their societal role. It also develops as individuals are exposed to social norms and values. They will have a strong commitment to the larger society. Involvement is a social bond theory that reduces delinquent behavior.

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Walter Reckless

Another theorist, Walter Reckless, also proposed a theory on social control. He uses the term internalized values in defining social control. Walter discussed two aspects of social control:

  • Inner containment
  • Outer containment

Inner containment

It refers to people’s emotional restraints that individuals impose on themselves to not engage in criminal acts.

Inner containment is a source of control that individuals exercise over themselves. It is a strong force that can guide an individual’s choices and actions to avoid deviance or crime.

Outer Containment

The second aspect of social control is outer containment that refers to the external restraints on an individual. These are forces that limit an individual’s behavior. These are found in both the public and private sectors. They include but are not limited to:

  • Government laws and regulations
  • The criminal justice system
  • Private security agencies
  • Powerful peer groups.

Outer containment also refers to laws that are used as deterrents to criminal activity. Peer pressure is a form of outer containment. It’s one of the most important factors in inner containment that limits a person’s freedom to engage in deviant behavior.

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Albert J. Reiss

This theorist proposed that social control is maximized when individuals take responsibility for their actions. When they are engaged in this type of behavior, it leads to inner containment and authority control.

Albert J. Reiss also believes that social control is two-way and dynamic. It will have an interactive effect on the individual, society, and the environment.

According to this theorist, when an individual is aware of the consequences of their antisocial behavior, they are more likely to modify or avoid it.

When an individual is motivated, they will also be more likely to change their behavior in the interest of society.

Reiss highlights the role of values in regulating behavior. He believes that these shared norms will shape an individual’s behavior. The social norms also decrease the propensity to commit deviant acts.

Jack P. Gibbs

Jack P. Gibbs also proposed a social control theory. This theorist believed that when individuals become engaged in productive activities, they are less likely to commit deviant acts.

Jack P. Gibbs also emphasized that social control can develop both directly and indirectly. It is formed based on the individual’s actions or a relationship between an individual and authorities.

This theorist believes that social control is not related to the rules. It is instead based on a voluntary responsibility of individuals. These individuals voluntarily limit their behavior as they understand its negative consequences.

Jack P. Gibbs also commented on the power structure. This theorist believes that in a democratic society, people must accept the norms and values of the community voluntarily.

David Martza

In defining social control, David Martza used social cohesion, referring to a group’s shared values. The ties that bind these groups create a strong sense of solidarity.

Martza believes that as long as the groups have this value in common, the individuals will manage their behavior. They will be able to control their actions voluntarily.

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Jackson Toby

Theorist Jackson Toby proposed that social control is a shared idea. He argued that it is an idea that bonds individuals together as a society.

This theorist believed that social control could be achieved through conformity. And this is done by cooperation with others in a particular society or group.

Jackson Toby explained social control based on the concepts of power and authority. Authority refers to an individual’s willingness to conform to social norms and expectations in a particular group.

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Michel Foucault

Michel Foucault proposed a mechanism used by the government to maintain power. In this definition, the government’s hegemony is maintained by controlling its citizens.

Foucault also argued that social control is achieved through the use of surveillance and discipline.

This theorist believed that social control is achieved through education and punishment. He argues that individuals are made to obey the law using these two mechanisms: surveillance and discipline.


Foucault believed that the government could control its citizens by monitoring their actions. It then exercises punishment in ways that ensure individuals will not deviate from the law.

Surveillance is done through closed-circuit television cameras (CCTV), cell phone monitoring, and GPS tracking, etc.

These surveillance methods use network technology to monitor the actions of individuals. The government can control its citizens from a distance by using these technologies.


Foucault approaches discipline as a method of controlling an individual’s actions. In this way, the government can control its citizens’ actions and ensure they will not deviate from the set law.

Disciplines are needed to ensure that the power structure of society remains intact. Michel Foucault advanced this definition in his book, Discipline and Punish. Foucault’s definition is simple to understand as he used illustrations to explain his point of view.

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George Cressey

George Cressey used the term social regulation, meaning an individual’s adherence to the values of a particular group or society. He argues that social control is achieved through such a process.

In the view of George Cressey, individuals are expected to follow the accepted norms and values of their community voluntarily.

He further emphasizes that social control is achieved through the creation of groups and associations in society. These groups include the family, churches, and the workplace.

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Conformity and Obedience Concerning Social Control


The term conformity refers to an individual’s acceptance of social norms and values. The theorist believes that individuals can voluntarily control their actions to follow these set rules. Human beings can conform to social norms and values even without the use of threats or punishment.

These social norms and values are taught to individuals as they grow up, shaping their behavior in the process. Conformity is achieved by using socialization—the process where society teaches its members how to behave in a particular environment.


In social control, obedience refers to the willingness of an individual to comply with a command or order by someone in authority. The theory differs from conformity because it emphasizes the role of coercion in controlling an individual’s behavior.

People are expected to follow what is considered right or wrong in their community. Failure to comply with the rules in a particular situation may result in punishment or sanctions imposed by an official or authority figure.

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Criticism on the Social Control Theories

Social Control Theories aren’t Applicable in Modern Society

Critics argue that these theories presuppose a model of society where people live in cohesive communities.

In modern societies, there is less external control, which arises from a strong community. As people are more mobile, they have less time to engage in community activities. They work outside the home, and they can choose which groups to join.

The social control theories also assume that the bonds within communities are strong. In modern societies, there is a tendency for weaker bonds between groups and individuals.

In modern society, there are many competing groups and individuals. The social control theory cannot explain the complex nature of these relationships.

Weak communities also characterize modern societies. People are more likely to move from one place to another, and groups tend to be short-lived. The social control theories also cannot explain the growing diversity in modern societies.

Social Control Theories Over-emphasize Social Forces

The Social Control Theory is based on the idea that changes in the social environment will cause individuals to change their behavior. However, this theory does not consider that a person’s behavior is not always based on social forces. A person’s behavior is often shaped by internal factors such as personality traits.

These theories also assume that an individual’s behavior in a social group can be generalized to all members of the same group. It is hard to explain why strongly-bonded individuals will sometimes engage in deviant acts. The theories also don’t elaborate on why some people in a group stay away from deviant acts.

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The Social Control Theories do not Explain the Different Levels of Conformity.

These theories assume that people in certain groups will conform to the norms and rules of the group.

However, there are instances when certain people will not conform to the behavior of the majority even when they are members of the same societal group.

The theories use examples of Nazi rule and Soviet control to illustrate the social control in a society. They do not include theories of international relationships outside of those two countries at that time.

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Bottom Line

Social control theories are rooted in the idea that people will do what they believe is best for themselves and their family, friends, or society. This explanation may sound obvious to some, but it’s an important distinction when considering how we lead our lives. Understanding these theories can help you better understand your motivations as well as those around you.

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