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Social Theory Connections: Drift, Social Control, and General

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Social Theory Connections: Drift, Social Control, and General


Social theories don’t emerge from a vacuum. They are neither apolitical nor ahistorical. Rather, they form from both the philosophical assumptions as well as the socio-historic contexts in which they are constructed and organized. Seemingly unrelated theories or theories related mainly through general category often extend from the same roots and build upon one another, though they may arrive at vastly different arguments. Criminological theories are no exception to this principle. To illustrate how theories relate to and build upon one another, I will outline the philosophical and historical context behind three major control theories: Matza’s (1964) Drift Theory, Hirschi’s (1969) Social Control Theory, and Gottfredson and Hirschi’s (1990) General Theory.

Drift Theory

To begin, David Matza’s (1964) Drift Theory posits that delinquency is a transitory and conditional behavior, determined not by structural factors, but rather by the situation at hand and the respective child’s mood. Drift Theory emerged as both a continuation of and as a response against existing theories of the time. To explain, Matza (1964) begins Delinquency and Drift by explicitly noting his goal: “to question and modify the positivist portrait” (p. 1). To explain, Matza characterizes most criminological theory as positivist in nature, arguing that said theories focus on explaining crime via criminals’ motivations and behavioral systems, emphasize scientific determinism, and assume some fundamental difference between the delinquent and the law-abider which constrains the former to commit delinquent behaviors. Matza, consequently, finds positivist theories to be focused too heavily on prediction and explanation, to the point that people were portrayed as automaton-like beings, devoid of any choice or potential for growth or maturation. Consequently, Matza (1964) argues that “[p]ositive criminology accounts for too much delinquency…[and seems] to predicate far more delinquency than actually occurs” (p. 21).

Instead, Matza submits “an alternate image for delinquents that emphasizes freedom and similarity, rather than constraint and differentiation” (Bernard et al. 2010:207). Thus, Matza theorizes that delinquents drift between criminal and conventional behavior. In other words, “delinquency is seen as the result of vacillation within a juvenile between the conforming expectations of adults and the peer-dominated, situational demands and opportunities that encourage delinquency” (Shoemaker 2018b:197).  

Matza (1964) also draws upon both Albert Reis’ personal control and F. Ivan Nye’s concept of social control to conceptualize drift in relation to need. To explain, Reiss argues that juveniles’ “personal controls”, or avoiding from meeting their needs in ways that violate norms and rules reflect a juveniles submission to the social control of mainstream institutions (Bernard et al. 2010). In similar fashion, Nye argues that most delinquency results from insufficient social control, be it typical operant conditioning, formalized punishments and restrictions, conscience, parental or other noncriminal attachments, or availability of conventional means to meet needs (Bernard et al. 2010). Drawing on these theories, Matza (1964) submits that drift into delinquency occurs in a situational or occasional context, oftentimes resulting from a feeling of desperation whereby a delinquent finds that social infractions (e.g. delinquency) may provide a quicker relief than conventional means.

Drift Theory also emphasizes neutralization as a critical element. While Matza touches upon neutralization in Delinquency and Drift, his earlier publication with Sykes delves in further detail upon the techniques that juveniles utilize to rationalize their drift in and out of delinquency. In short, Sykes and Matza (1957) identify five techniques of neutralization: Denial of responsibility whereby a juvenile denies personal accountability for their actions, denial of injury whereby a juvenile accepts accountability for their actions but denies that any serious harm occurred as a result, denial of a victim whereby the juvenile justifies their act by characterizing the victim as a deserving recipient of harm, condemnation of condemners which justifies the juvenile by characterizing their critics as hypocrites or fellow delinquents, and an appeal to higher loyalties whereby the juvenile justifies their actions as necessary to serve some greater party’s norms and needs, such as family, peer groups, or religious principles. In effect, neutralization acts as an expansion of extension of Reis’ “personal controls”.

In short, Matza draws upon existing literature to refute positivist theories. To clarify, Drift Theory asserts that will, albeit influenced by peers and circumstances, allows juveniles to decide whether to engage in delinquency or conformity rather than external determinants like biological traits (e.g. Cortés and Gatti 1972) or psychological elements such as personality types (e.g. Waldo and Dinitz 1967). Likewise, the theory assumes that “juvenile delinquents are basically good kids who want to conform to rules and laws. However, [among other factors including peer relations], they have experienced injustices, or perceived injustices…[which] triggers feelings of anger and resentment, which can then lead to acts of crime and delinquency” (Shoemaker 2018a:82).

Social Control Theory

Like Drift Theory, Hirschi’s (1969) Social Control Theory also emerged from a refutation of overemphasizing motivation as a predictor of delinquency. To clarify, Hirschi (1969) notes that “[i]t took no great study to reveal that children, chickens, and dogs occasionally assault and steal from their fellow creatures…[and] also behave for relatively long periods in a perfectly moral manner” (p. 31). Hirschi (1969) argues that, as neither the dog nor chicken’s behavior can be constituted as immoral or deviant and requires no motivating explanation, so too does the human animal’s behavior lack a required motivation. Behavior, in this context, merely results from the desire to meet a need or obtain a short-term gratification. Whether that behavior is considered delinquent or not doesn’t depend on what the motivation is.

Social Control Theory suggests that a weakened social bond results in an individual’s delinquent behavior (Hirschi 1969). To clarify, the social bond that connects an individual to society consists of four elements: attachment commitment, involvement, and belief. Attachment refers to the individual’s sensitivity to the opinion of or the degree to which someone has relations with a figure that promotes normative behavior. Commitment refers to the idea that if someone invests their time and energy into conventional practices, then they must factor that investment as a risk before they engage in some deviant act. Involvement or engrossment in conventional activities, be they extracurriculars in a school environment or child-rearing, serve to limit opportunities for delinquency by means of taking up an individual’s already limited time and energy. Finally, belief refers to the degree which an individual accepts conventional values, norms, and laws.

Hirschi (1969) agrees with and integrates Matza’s (1964) arguments that delinquency oftentimes results from feelings of desperation and the simple desire to fulfill a perceived need. Additionally, he finds support for Sykes and Matza’s neutralization effects in relation to the belief element. (Hirschi 1969). However, Hirschi (1969) modifies neutralization to function as an after-the-fact rationalization of delinquent acts rather than as a tool to enable those acts, or in other words, a “hardening” of neutralizing beliefs. Hirschi’s reasoning basically requires that those who commit delinquent acts probably hold little belief in conventional values in the first place, thus making pre-emptive neutralizations a moot point.

General Theory

While both Drift and Social Control Theory initially emerged as reactions to the dominant positivist theories’ inability to adequately explain the relationship between delinquency and conformity, General Theory emerged primarily in response to the failure of existing theory to inform public policy. As Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990) explain:

Policymakers ask in vain for ideas to justify pursuing one [theoretical] solution rather than another, and as a result they are at the mercy of whatever proposals come along, from more police to fewer drugs, from more career-criminal programs to fewer furloughs, from sting operations to neighborhood watch (p. xiii).

Like both Drift and Social Control Theory, General Theory eschews both motivating elements and external determinants as explanations of criminal behavior. Furthermore like Matza (1964), Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990) draw their explanations of the deviant behavior in question (i.e. crime) from the nature of crime itself. Consequently, Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990) explain “criminal acts provide immediate gratification of desires” (p. 89). Such acts provide quick or simple gratification, involve thrill, little skill or planning, and provide few long-term benefits but often provide pain or discomfort for a victim (Gottfredson and Hirschi 1990).  As such, Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990) hypothesize that criminal acts tend to be committed by those individuals with low self-control, or those that tend to be “impulsive, insensitive, physical (as opposed to mental), risk taking, short-sighted, and nonverbal” (p. 90).

Breaking with Matza’s (1964) disdain for individual traits as determinants of criminal offense, Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990) nevertheless draw upon Drift Theory’s critiques of positivistic theories’ inability to factor in maturation or growth as well as its principle that delinquents will often desire to conform even as they commit criminal acts. As a result, General Theory represents an extension of both Reiss and Nye’s control concepts as well as Hirschi’s social bond, merged and modified as one internal measure of self-control.

Moreover, General Theory also represents an extension of social bond and a refutation of drift. To explain, Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990) argue that ineffective child-rearing acts as the largest contributor to low self-control. They note that to teach a child self-control, someone (typically a parent) must be able to supervise the child’s behavior, recognize deviance, and then punish deviance when it occurs. The key to meeting these criteria, they argue is “affection for or investment in the child” (Gottfredson and Hirschi 1990:97). In other words, the attachment element of the social bond is a critical factor in developing self-control.

Conversely, while Matza (1964) hypothesized that delinquents drifted in and out of delinquency due to situational elements, Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990) assert that self-control stabilizes around age nine and, as such, remains stable through a person’s lifetime. However, they also recognize that while delinquency tends to remain stable, crime rates may vary greatly. “It follows that the frequency with which individuals participate in criminal events may vary over time and place without implying change in their self-control” (Gottfredson and Hirschi 1990:137). To rephrase this claim, Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990) stipulate that change in crime is not synonymous with a change in tendency to commit crime. While the latter remains constant throughout an individual’s life, the former’s variance might be explained by “variation in opportunities for different type of criminal and noncriminal behaviors” (Bernard et al. 2010:214).


To conclude, the control theories outlined above: Drift, Social Control, and General Theory, by virtue of their shared philosophical roots share a set of assumed principles. Namely, the theories agree that to control criminal or delinquent behaviors, some controlling element, be it circumstantial elements, social bonds, or self-control, need modification to direct individuals towards conventional means of meeting needs. When examining this philosophical principle through the historical context of refutation of dominant positivist theories for their failure to adequately inform criminologists and public practitioners alike, the development of Drift to Social Control to General Theory appears as a development of a singular question, namely, “What keeps people from engaging in delinquent or criminal behaviors?” Each theory draws upon some crucial element of its predecessor, while modifying others. Such development, rather than total difference, serves to distinguish these theories from one another.

The above essay was adapted from a response to my doctoral preliminary examination in Crime & Deviance.

Recommended Reading

Several of these works are available for free from the Internet Archive. I have included associate links. Please note that some links may lead to different versions than those listed below.

Gottfredson, Michael R., and Travis Hirschi. 1990. A General Theory of Crime. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

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

Matza, David. 1964. Delinquency and Drift. New York: Wiley.

Shoemaker, Donald J. 2018. Theories of Delinquency: An Examination of Explanations of Delinquent Behavior. 7th ed. New York: Oxford University Press.

Sykes, Gresham M., and David Matza. 1957. “Techniques of Neutralization: A Theory of Delinquency.” American Sociological Review 22(6):664–70. doi: 10.2307/2089195.

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