Social control theory posits that an individual's behavior is determined by the relationships that he makes with others and the social ties that bind him to a greater community. Theorists of this school see themselves as continuing a tradition started by the philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who understood society as existing through an implicit social contract made among all its members. This is a coherent approach to behavior that nevertheless has certain well known weak points.
Social control theorists seek to explain delinquency, when an individual breaks with social norms and commits a crime. They argue that a people under normal conditions are averse to crime because they have too much to lose in their social ties. People then commit crime when they are isolated and to join criminal groups that offer new ties. This approach has merit but also fails to account for factors such as economic status and intelligence.
Social control theory considers the family to be the basic building block of society, relating the individual to a greater whole. Individuals are well adjusted when they receive the proper socialization from their parents. This understanding has explanatory power but often fails to adequately account for the variety of family situations and their effects. For instance, social control theory has little to say about the effects of an extended family with aunts and uncles.
Many social control theorists posit that an individual forms a self-image of himself during childhood that he then carries forward and determines whether he thinks of himself as a good person or a bad person. People who have a positive self-image are less likely to commit crime. This theory is often hard to test as it involves much vagueness as to what it is exactly that a person believes when they build a self-image.
Most social control theory is concerned with explaining youth behavior and the ways that a lack of proper development when younger can lead to crime. This has value, in the sense that most petty crime is committed by the young. This leaves social control theory without much to say, however, when it comes to explaining most adult crime. As most violent crime is committed by adults, this leaves social control theory with a significant gap.