General strain theory (GST) provides a unique explanation of crime and delinquency. In contrast to control and learning theories, GST focuses explicitly on negative treatment by others and is the only major theory of crime and delinquency to highlight the role of negative emotions in the etiology of offending. According to GST, the experience of strain or stress tends to generate negative emotions such as anger, frustration, depression, and despair. These negative emotions, in turn, are said to create pressures for corrective action, with crime or delinquency being one possible response.
GST was designed, in part, to address criticisms leveled against previous versions of strain theory. Earlier versions of strain theory have been criticized for focusing on a narrow range of possible strains, for their inability to explain why only some strained individuals resort to crime or delinquency, and for limited empirical support. GST has been partly successful in overcoming these limitations. Since its inception, the theory has received a considerable amount of attention from researchers, has enjoyed a fair amount of empirical support, and has been credited with helping to revitalize the strain theory tradition. The full potential of GST has yet to be realized, however, as the theory continues to evolve and further testing is required.
Gottfredson and Hirschi advanced self-control theory in 1990 as part of their general theory of crime. Self-control is defined as the ability to forego acts that provide immediate or near-term pleasures, but that also have negative consequences for the actor, and as the ability to act in favor of longer-term interests. An individual’s level of self-control is influenced by family or other caregiver behavior early in life. Once established, differences in self-control affect the likelihood of delinquency in childhood and adolescence and crime in later life. Persons with relatively high levels of self-control do better in school, have stronger job prospects, establish more stable interpersonal relationships, and attain higher income and better health outcomes. Self-control theory was initially constructed to reconcile the age, generality, and stability findings of criminological research with the standard assumptions of control theory. As such, it acknowledges the general decline in crime with age, versatility in types of problem behaviors engaged in by delinquents and offenders, and the generally stable individual differences in the tendency to engage in delinquency and crime over one’s life-course. Self-control theory applies to a wide variety of illegal behaviors (most crimes) and to many noncrime problem behaviors, including school problems, accidents, and substance abuse.
A considerable amount of research has been undertaken on self-control theory and on Gottfredson and Hirschi’s general theory of crime. As a result, self-control theory is likely the most heavily researched perspective in criminology during the past 30 years. Most reviews find substantial empirical support for the principal positions of the theory, including the relationship between levels of self-control and delinquency, crime, and other problem behaviors. These relationships appear to be strong throughout life, among most groups of people, types of crime, in the United States and other countries, and over time. The posited important role of the family in the genesis of self-control is consistent with substantial bodies of research, although some researchers argue in favor of important genetic components for self-control. The theory’s expectations about the age distribution of crime, versatility of offending, and stability of individual differences over long periods of time also receive substantial support. Researchers have long studied variations in age effects, particularly seeking continuously high levels of offending for the most serious offenders, but reviewers have found that the evidence for meaningful variability is not convincing.
For public policy, self-control theory argues that the most promising approach for crime reduction focuses primarily on prevention, especially in early childhood, and secondarily on situational prevention for specific types of crimes. Gottfredson and Hirschi argue that self-control theory is inconsistent with reliance on the criminal justice system to affect crime levels. On the one hand, general reviews of the empirical literature on deterrence and incapacitation support the expectations of self-control theory by finding little support for severity of sanctions, sanctions long removed from the act, and selective incapacitation for “serious offenders.” On the other hand, experimental studies from education, psychology, and criminology generally support the idea that early-childhood family and educational environments can be altered to enhance self-control and lower expected delinquency, crime, and other problem behaviors later in life.
Contemporary sociologists typically trace social disorganization models to Emile Durkheim’s classic work. There is continuity between Durkheim’s concern for organic solidarity in societies that are changing rapidly and the social disorganization approach of Shaw and McKay (1969). However, Shaw and McKay view social disorganization as a situationally rooted variable and not as an inevitable property of all urban neighborhoods. They argued that socioeconomic status (SES), racial and ethnic heterogeneity, and residential stability account for variations in social disorganization and hence informal social control, which in turn account for the distribution of community crime. Empirical testing of Shaw and McKay’s research in other cities during the mid-20th century, with few exceptions, focused on the relationship between SES and delinquency or crime as a crucial test of the theory. As a whole, that research supports social disorganization theory. A handful of studies in the 1940s through early 1960s documented a relationship between social disorganization and crime. After a period of stagnation, social disorganization increased through the 1980s and since then has accelerated rapidly. Much of that research includes direct measurement of social disorganization, informal control, and collective efficacy. Clearly, many scholars perceive that social disorganization plays a central role in the distribution of neighborhood crime.