Gottfredson and Hirschi: A General Theory of Crime

Gottfredson and Hirschi: A General Theory of Crime

In the late twentieth century, Michael Gottfredson and Travis Hirschi took on the criminal justice and criminological culture by questioning the concept of the career criminal. They challenged to a large extent the life course and developmental criminology theories of the time. In their important work, A General Theory of Crime, Gottfredson and Hirschi assert that the propensity to commit crime is tied directly to a person’s level of self-control. According to Gottfredson and Hirschi, individuals with low self-control are unable to restrain themselves from the temptations of immediate satisfaction (Cullen & Agnew, 2006). Giving notice to classical rational theories, Gottfredson and Hirschi explain that self-interest motivates human behavior and further reflects a universal desire to secure pleasures and avoid pain. They conclude that the amount of self-control someone exhibits is a product of early childhood rearing and that low self-esteem is the primary cause of crime (Cullen & Agnew, 2006). Parents who monitor the behavior of their children, supervise them closely, recognize unacceptable behavior, and administer punishment are, therefore, more likely to have children who have the self-control necessary to resist the desire to commit crime.

The empirical literature supports Gottfredson and Hirschi’s claim that low self-control has a link to crime or deviance. Harold Grasmick has further developed the theory of self-control. By identifying characteristics of people with low self-control (Grasmick, et al, 1993), Grasmick contends that such individuals are impulsive and seek immediate gratification. Accordingly, Grasmick maintains that individuals with higher self-control are more likely to pursue lasting rewards in lieu of instant pleasure. During the 1990s, dozens of studies explored the utility of self-control theory. Travis Pratt and Frances Cullen conducted a meta-analysis of self-control theory. They confirmed that low self-control was an important predictor of crime and criminal behavior (Pratt & Cullen, 2000). In addition, Carter Hay (2006) studied the role of parenting in the development of self-control and concluded that effective parenting can contribute to self-control in children. Hay revealed that Gottfredson and Hirschi failed to adequately consider the nature of parenting (Hay, et al, 2006). In terms of punishment, Hay found that fair and nonphysical forms of discipline were effective while harsh discipline was not effective (Hay, et al, 2006). An alternative study by Brenda Blackwell and Alex Piquero attempted to explain the relationship between gender and criminality (2005). According to their research, males are more likely to exemplify low self-control than females. The authors conclude that this is due differences in the treatment of boys and girls during early childhood development. Blackwell and Piquero (2005) assert that boys are typically shown less affection and comforted less than girls because of the cultural aspects of the masculine gender role.

In recent years, criminologists have provided several criticisms of self-control theory, including its tautological nature. The theory hypothesizes that low self-control is the cause of the propensity toward criminal behavior, yet Gottfredson and Hirschi do not define self-control separately from this propensity. They use the terms “low self-control" and “high self-control" as labels for this differential propensity to commit crime (Cullen & Agnew, 2006). They do not identify operational measures of low self-control as separate from the tendency to commit crime. Thus, the propensity toward crime and low self-control appear to be one and the same.

Another criticism of self-control theory is its lack of explanation for white-collar crime. Michael Benson and Elizabeth Moore (1992) studied offenders charged with white-collar crimes, such as embezzlement and tax evasion, and compared them to offenders charged with more common crimes, such as property and drug offenses. According to Gottfredson and Hirschi, all criminal offenders commit crimes because of low self-control and have the same propensity to engage in deviant behavior. Benson and Moore (1992) found that some white-collar offenders are similar to common crime offenders, but they do not necessarily engage in deviant behavior as frequently. Moreover, contrary to the theory, white-collar offenders clearly differ from other types of offenders both in versatility and proclivity to deviance.

In their research, Gottfredson and Hirschi attempt to account for the policy implications of self-control. According to their theory, official actions taken to deter or control crime in adulthood are no likely to have much affect (Cullen & Agnew, 2006). Self-control is the result of early socialization in the family and, therefore, only preventative policies that take effect early in life and have a positive impact retain a chance of reducing crime and delinquency. Gottfredson and Hirschi do not, however, present any new research with general or detailed tests of their theory. The policy implications suggested by Gottfredson and Hirsch warrant further research. According to their theory, an individual can only be prevented from the tendency to commit crime. The theory implies that once a person engages in deviant behavior, whether one time or habitually, he or she cannot be deterred from it. This concept suggests the irrational belief that anyone who commits a crime is destined to always commit crime. The self-control theory directly contradicts the rehabilitation aspect of correctional psychology. Compliant with the self-control theory, individuals who have committed a crime cannot be rehabilitated through treatments such as counseling or behavior modification (Cullen & Agnew, 2006).

Gottfredson and Hirschi’s self-control theory is reasonably consistent and has the capacity to aid in predicting criminal and deviant susceptibility. While some research reports challenge the theory, all in all the evidence provide some support for the theory. However, sufficient research has not been conducted to justify the empirical validity of self-control theory.