Self Control, Social Control and Evolutionary Psychology: Towards an Integrated Perspective on Crime

Article excerpt


Over the past 15 years, we have witnessed a renaissance in control theories with tremendous implications for criminological research, methods, and policy. Hirschi's social bond theory (1969) stressed external controls: processes that inculcated attachment, involvement, commitment, and belief. Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990) stressed self-control: internalized restraints on pleasure seeking. Attention to the life cycle (Sampson and Laub 1993) has re-opened the question of external constraints from a longer term perspective. And investigations of patriarchy (Hagan 1989) have re-conceptualized how control is distributed by gender. At the centre of the debate is a volume as important to our generation as Lombroso's Criminal Man was to his: Gottfredson and Hirschi's A General Theory of Crime (1990). Contributions like these are important not because they end debates, but because they set the agenda for much of the rest of the profession. A General Theory has attracted some superb reactions, including the monumental study by Sampson and Laub, Crime in the Making: Pathways and Turning Points Through Life (1993). A General Theory and Crime in the Making are among the most important contemporary contributions to the field because they make a principled call for linkages between the conceptions of crime, the important mechanisms which explain its occurrence, and the nature of the policies which have some reasonable expectation of success in responding to it. In addition, Canadian studies of gender and crime in Hagan's power-control theory have significantly advanced the role of gender socialization in our conceptualization of crime causation.

These sources make extremely lively reading since they build on one another. Crime in the Making is, at least in part, a critique and development of A General Theory of Crime, and one which is based empirically on one of the most important data sets ever collected by professional criminologists. And while Sampson and Laub were students of control theory, they do not follow Hirschi's position faithfully (Hirschi and Gottfredson 1995: Sampson and Laub 1995). Hagan's power-control perspective re-opens long standing observations in the context of feminism. All these sources are the culmination of a decade of publications in the leading journals, and have attracted such enormous attention in professional criminology that it would be foolhardy to ignore their conclusions in any theoretical synthesis.

In this essay, I offer an assessment of the importance of developments in control theories as well as a discussion of their anomalies. I propose that the key to the latter may be found in the burgeoning field of evolutionary psychology. For criminology, the key study here is Homicide (1988) by Daly and Wilson. In my view, recognition of the anomalies in the sociological perspective provides an opportunity to discover the possibilities associated with a decidedly Darwinian perspective and may suggest how an integrated perspective can build on distal evolutionary and proximal sociological factors.

The General Theory of Crime: Classical choice and low self control

Gottfredson and Hirschi suggest that the problem with most approaches to crime is that they tend to ignore its characteristics. While not denying the prevalence of serious victimization, "the vast majority of criminal acts are trivial and mundane affairs that result in little loss and less gain". These are events "whose temporal and spatial distributions are highly predictable", typically representing unprotected targets close at hand with little or no surveillance or resistance. They are also events that "require little preparation," virtually no specialized knowledge or skill and "often do not produce the result intended by the offender" (p. 16). Following a review of the evidence, they make the same case for so-called white collar offenders and organized crime. Quoting Stanton Wheeler and his associates, they report that "we emerged with a strong sense of the banal, mundane quality of the vast majority of white collar offenses" (p. …