General Theory Of Crime Essays


The "General Theory" of self-control posited in Gottfredson and Hirschi 1990 (see General Overviews) has spawned a broad array of research and debate. This General Theory provides scholars with a set of testable propositions. The first proposition outlines the dimensions of self-control. Most crimes, they argue, are simple to commit, require no long-term planning, and provide few long-term benefits. Given the nature of criminal behavior, individuals lacking in self-control should be risk-taking, adventurous, short-sighted, nonverbal, impulsive, and insensitive to others. Gottfredson and Hirschi 1990 argues that lack of self-control is not only “the” cause of crime but that lack of self-control also causes other “analogous” behaviors. Because individuals lacking in self-control are insensitive to others and are risk-taking, they are also more likely to experience problems in social relationships, such as marriage, they are more likely to use drugs and to abuse alcohol, and they are more likely not to wear a seat belt and to get into automobile accidents. This is referred to as the “generality” postulate of the General Theory. The cause of low self-control is found in parenting. Gottfredson and Hirschi 1990 maintains that parents must monitor their children, recognize bad behavior, and correct this bad behavior. This is referred to as the “origins” postulate. If self-control has not developed by ages eight to ten, they argue, it is not likely to develop. Self-control should thus be relatively stable across the life course. This is referred to as the “stability” postulate.

General Overviews

The original statement of the theory can be found in Gottfredson and Hirschi 1990, which details the authors’ theory and provides a critique of criminology. Goode 2009 is the first edited volume dedicated to empirical coverage and critique of the General Theory. It includes a series of essays covering the major propositions of the theory, as well as a broad array of research studies thus far conducted on the General Theory. Pratt and Cullen 2000 is a widely cited meta-analytic review of the empirical tests of the General Theory. According to this work, the association between low self-control and criminal behavior has gained substantial empirical support.

  • Goode, Erich, ed. 2009. Out of control: Assessing the general theory. Stanford, CA: Stanford Univ. Press.

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    An edited volume that includes chapters on all of the major theoretical postulates. Also includes critiques of the General Theory.

  • Gottfredson, Michael, and Travis Hirschi. 1990. A general theory of crime. Stanford, CA: Stanford Univ. Press.

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    The original statement of the theory. Proposes a series of testable hypotheses on the nature of self-control, the generality of the effects associated with low self-control, the stability over time of low self-control, and the origins of self-control. Also provides a critique of positivistic criminology.

  • Pratt, Travis, and Francis T. Cullen. 2000. The empirical status of Gottfredson and Hirschi’s general theory of crime: A meta-analysis. Criminology 38:931–964.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1745-9125.2000.tb00911.xE-mail Citation »

    A meta-analytic review of studies into the association between low self-control and criminal behavior. Findings reveal substantial empirical evidence in favor of the association.

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Gottffredson and Hirsch contribution to the understanding of crime and the contribution of their ‘General Theory of Crime’ on the strength of the story. Gottfredson and Hirsch made their colossal contribution to the understanding of delinquency crimes  explaining it by lack of social self control in terms of religion, family and political organizations, introduction of drugs, and family break ups -- all of which result in social instability. According to Gottfredson and Hirsch, people are likely to deviate from social norms and get into criminal activity by means of variables such as attachment, commitment, involvement and beliefs. According to them, labeling is the most confusing cause of criminal activities.

Direct Connection Between Age and Crime in ‘General Theory of Crime’

In reaction to life-related arguments, Gottfredson and Hirchi explain that there is a direct connection between age and crime while there is no relation of age to other variables that affect crime. They refer to it as “non-interaction hypothesis” meaning there is no interaction between age and any other factor, affecting a crime.

Although the social control theory is associated with the version that is proposed by Hirschi in his work, titled, Causes of Delinquency, there are many theorists who have introduced the idea reflecting the same logic behind control theory. According to Gottfredson, delinquency is seen as the behavior consequent to the failure of social or personal control. Where personal control is the ability of an individual human being to restrict himself from meeting his needs in a way that tends conflict with the norms and the rules of the society. On the other hand, social control is the ability of a social group or institution to make rules or norms that affect the society. However, according to Gottfredson and Hirschi, such abilities were not outlined nor the control mechanisms that leads to the conformity. Nevertheless, he identified the failures of those groups.

According to Hirschi and Gottfrdson, the more persistent or serious the offender, the earlier in his life his criminality is evident. They assumed that individual level phenomenon related to criminal propensity can explain why the serious offenders begins their criminal lives earlier and commits more crimes.

Difference Between Life Course and Latent Trait Theories

Life course theory is the belief that criminal behavior is caused by experiences that a person undergoes in the society as well as his own characteristics. On the other hand, the theory of latent trait is based on the idea that person’s emotional characteristics influence his or her criminal behavior. This manipulated emotional characteristic is the factor that makes some people risky criminals in comparison to others.

Latent traits that result in a crime and the factors that influence the life course into a crime. Latent traits hypothesis is the idea that any character that a person has was inherited by him from his parents. These are the traits that may influence a person’s possibility of becoming delinquent in adolescent stage. According to this hypothesis, people may decide about getting into crimes as a result of their genetic or mental characteristics and the setting of their neighborhood. In case these characteristics exist, or they are less effective, a person is most likely to get engaged in the criminal activities or find himself in the threat of becoming a criminal. Such characteristics appear as soon as a person is born and continue as they grows, remaining stable in his body and even strengthening  as he grows up.

Life course theories hold that as individual mature, the factors influencing their behavior tends to change significantly. At first, the family relations may be the most influential factor, later this school and peer pressure become predominant. During adulthood, the vocational achievement may become influential factor. In case of anti-social children, who tends to get themselves in trouble most of the times during their adolescence may have a stable adulthood. The early life experience may help them to desist from deviance. On the other hand, the unfortunate adolescents who get involved with the wrong company may find themselves restricted to unskilled jobs and end up in crime.

Life course theories tends to be essentially multidimensional, implying that criminality is diverse, and include maladaptive personality characteristics, dysfunctional family relations, and educational failure. According to this view criminality, cannot be attributed to a single source neither can it be attributed to a single causal tendency.  Individuals are influenced by varying factors as they develop from one stage in life to another. Accordingly, a factor that may have influence during one stage of life may lack the same influence at later stage.

The meaning of  ‘Turning points’ in a crime and the differences between ‘adolescent limited’ and ‘life course’ persistent offenders. Turning point is the hypothesis that crime rates are high when a person is in his early years and reach the highest rate when he is in his teens, experiencing the decline in the subsequent years. According to the theorists who approve this hypothesis, crimes are the factors of age and are bound to vary as a person becomes older. It is explained that the move towards employment results in the reduced levels of crime which is followed by the development of non-criminal characteristics. Thus, it explains that work is directly related to the reduced levels of crimes.

According to Terrie Moffitt, though, the frequency and prevalence of antisocial behavior tends to increase significantly during the adolescence the decline for most offenders (adolescent-limiteds), there tends to be a group of life course persisters that continues with an offence into adulthood. The life course persisters tend to combine neurological problems and family dysfunction that predispose them into antisocial behaviors.

The adolescent-limited delinquents imitate the behavior of troubled adolescents while reducing the frequency of their offending as they get to adulthood. This group of young offenders tends to be influenced by the misbehavior of peers and friends up to the age of 16, at this stage the peer deviance tends to reduce, and their criminal activities also decline.

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