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Control Theory

Human beings may have always believed that outsiders to the community are less trustworthy than community members, but only in the twentieth century was this observation formalized — in Control Theory.  The pivotal statement of the theory was offered in the book Causes of Delinquency by Travis Hirschi (1969), who used questionnaire data augmented by police records to illustrate and test the proposition that high school boys are less likely to commit delinquent acts if they have strong social bonds.  But he went beyond that simple idea to identify four aspects of social connectedness:

  1. Attachment: Strong connections to other people, especially parents, that make a person sensitive to their wishes.
  2. Commitment: Investment of time and energy in a conventional line of activity that would be endangered by delinquency.
  3. Involvement: Being so busy in conventional activities, such as adult-organized recreation, that there is no time free to perform delinquent acts.
  4. Belief: The conviction that the norms of society are good and should be obeyed.

Religion could play a significant role in any of these, and of course involvement in church-based activities is especially obvious.  However, when Hirschi tested these four aspects of the theory, he found evidence for only the first three.  Legend has it that at this point, Rodney Stark asked Hirschi why he had not highlighted in his book manuscript the role religion played in preventing delinquency.  Hirschi replied that his data did not reveal any such normative power of religion for adolescents, and that led to their influential journal article “Hellfire and Delinquency” (Hirschi and Stark 1969).  Years later, Stark (et al. 1982) returned to this issue to explore possible geographic variations in the power of religion to deter delinquency.  The main finding may be called the Stark Effect: The power of religion to deter delinquency is significant when a substantial fraction of the population is religious, but absent when only a minority belong to religious organizations.  This reflects a very interesting general issue for social theory, in that the connections between variables within the minds of individuals may be conditioned by the organization of the surrounding society.  That is, in the part of California where Hirschi’s data were collected, churches are weak, so even boys who are believers may confine their faith within the walls of the church and ignore religious principles when they are in secular environments.

The Stark Effect also reminds us of the prior history of Control Theory.  It was a condensation of the dominant perspective on deviant behavior of the Chicago School of Sociology (Papachristos 2012), in the third of a century before Hirschi wrote, that identified its cause as social disorganization.  Over the early decades of the twentieth century, the sociology department at the University of Chicago dominated sociology, with an intense focus on urban studies, often doing research on differences across the neighborhoods of Chicago itself.  A famous ethnography by Nels Anderson (1923) described the chaos in an area of Chicago he called Hobohemia, a “Bohemian” district populated by migrant workers and unemployed hobos.  Rigorous statistical studies looked at variations in rates of crime and delinquency (Shaw and McKay 1927).  A study that did not focus on religion, but with findings that have theoretical implications for religion, was The Gang by Frederick Thrasher (1927).   When the community at large becomes disorganized, small-scale social organization will arise spontaneously.  While that principle was central to Thrasher’s theory of gangs, it could be applied as easily to the emergence of social groups that are not at all criminal, including religious sects and cults.  If traditionally dominant religious organizations lose their coherence, the result may be an eruption of reform and revival movements within these organizations, and novel religious movements entirely outside them.

The classic example of control theory applied to religion is Emile Durkheim’s (1897) study of suicide.  Beginning decades before Durkheim wrote, social scientists had begun using geographic rates of suicide to develop and test theories, and his own contribution consisted primarily of providing a theoretical framework.  One of his key concepts was egoism, not to be confused with egotism but similar, referring to an unhealthy individualism that left a person vulnerable.  He argued that the fragmentation of denominations and sects that marked Protestantism encouraged individualism, and thus increased the rate of egoistic suicides, compared with the more unified Catholicism.  Over the following century, sociological critics pointed out that Durkheim’s own data may not have supported his claim, for example because the high rates for Protestants seemed limited to German areas and thus may have reflected a different social cause.  But setting aside the debates over historical differences between Protestantism and Catholicism, more recent studies do seem to show that the coherence of religious communities is a factor deterring suicide (Pescosolido and Georgianna 1989).

Given how many variants of Control Theory exist, and Hirschi’s attempt to identify four subtheories within it, a survey of the social science of religion would identify many other models that could be given this label.  For example, Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s (1972) theory of commitment mechanisms is worth considering.  She developed it to explain the relative success of some nineteenth-century America utopian communities, which from her perspective only happened to be religious, although religious hope and faith may indeed have been required for these mechanisms to function.  Kanter identified six commitment mechanisms, which may be classified in three pairs.  The first one in each pair requires giving something up, while the second involves receiving something in return:


  1. Sacrifice
  2. Investment


  1. Renunciation
  2. Communion


  1. Mortification
  2. Transcendence

In many of the communes, members were required to give up ordinary material rewards, yet they were compensated by reasonably comfortable living conditions.  This could be considered in plain economic terms: they had sacrificed all their money to the commune, and would profit from this investment only if they remained loyal members.  They had renounced many social relationships with outsiders, but enjoyed an intense communion with fellow members.  They had accepted harsh criticism of the secular identities they had abandoned, but gained new and positive identities within the ideal community.  This last point did not necessary require mortification of the flesh, but of their former self-images, to achieve transcendence of the human condition, which only religion seems capable of offering.  This model of commitment to religious communities may be applied to ordinary churches, but with milder versions of each of the six mechanisms.  The first in each pair dissolves the control that non-religious society may have inflicted, while the second imposes control by the religious organization.  The vast literature on deviance, conformity and religion may include many plausible multi-component control theories, of which those by Hirschi and Kanter are prominent examples.


Anderson, Nels.  1923. The Hobo.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Durkheim, Emile.  1897.  Suicide.  New York: Free Press (1951).

Hirschi, Travis.  1969.  Causes of Delinquency.  Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Hirschi, Travis, and Rodney Stark. 1969.  “Hellfire and Delinquency.” Social Problems 17:202-213.

Kanter, Rosabeth Moss.  1972.  Commitment and Community: Communes and Utopias in Sociological Perspective.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Papachristos, Andrew V.  “The Chicago School of Sociology.”  Pp. 472-479 in Leadership in Science and Technology, edited by William Sims Bainbridge.  Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

Pescosolido, Bernice A., and Sharon Georgianna. 1989. “Durkheim, Suicide, and Religion: Toward a Network Theory of Suicide.” American Sociological Review 54:33-48

Shaw, Clifford, and Henry D. McKay. 1927. Delinquency Areas. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Thrasher, Frederic M. 1927.  The Gang.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Stark, Rodney, Lori Kent, and Daniel P. Doyle.  1982.  “Religion and Delinquency: The Ecology of a ‘Lost’ Relationship.” Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 18:4-24.



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