In Is Social Bond Theory? If you’ve spent

In the sociological sub-field of criminology, social bond theory is often used to understand criminal behaviors. In this lesson, you will learn how to define social bond theory and gain insight into the individual elements that are used to comprise the framework of the theory.

What Is Social Bond Theory?

If you’ve spent much time watching the news or true crime television programs, you’ve probably stopped to consider what drives criminals to do the things that they do. Perhaps you’ve expanded that thought to consider why they are able to commit an act that you and many others consider incomprehensible. These questions are the foundation of a sub-field of sociology known as criminology, and they can often be addressed using what is known as social bond theory.Developed by American criminologist Travis Hirschi in the late 1960s, social bond theory is sometimes referred to as social control theory. It is the belief that socialization and the forming of personal relationships are among the most significant aspects of human development that keep us from committing crimes or other acts of social deviance.

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For example, because people have formed many relationships with family members and peers over the course of their lives and have unofficially accepted the social conditions and expectations that come with being part of a society, they are unlikely to commit crimes against another person. According to social bond theory, this is because people recognize that they are dependent on others for whom they have empathy and because they have accepted that such acts have negative consequences, like going to prison.Fundamentally, social bond theory is a framework that criminologists and sociologists use to explain why a person would decide to engage in criminal behavior. In order to address such a complicated and confusing issue, Hirschi has identified four major elements that can help social scientists arrive at a conclusion.

It’s important to keep in mind that rather than stand alone, these four elements tend to overlap and influence the others.


The first and most important element of social bond theory is attachment, which refers not only to interpersonal relationships but also to social and cultural standards. For example, the earliest and most influential attachment that a person can form is with their parent or parents, who presumably help us to form an understanding of the world around us.Through this attachment, we learn what to expect from others in our culture and what is expected of us in return. Overtime, we come to internalize these cultural norms as a part of our individual and collective identities, which establishes a kind of shared understanding of social boundaries that keep us from focusing entirely on ourselves or whatever it is that we want at any given moment. A person that does not form strong attachments to others, however, may come to feel like an outsider and, therefore, will be less likely to internalize or recognize the importance of these social boundaries.


Similar to attachment, the presence of commitment is another element that prevents us from violating social norms. While attachment tends to be related to how we internalize social expectations, the element of commitment refers to our acceptance and willingness to adhere to those social expectations.For instance, if you worked in an office with other people around you, you would make a concerted effort to limit the amount of noise that you make.

This is because you understand that in social environments like that, such behavior is unacceptable and has consequences, like making others upset with you. In this example, you’re committed to the social norms that keep the office environment pleasant and functional.As in the previous example, a person who has not formed strong attachments is unlikely to have strong commitments and adherence to social expectations or laws.

Since they already feel like an outsider, the consequences seem less significant.


The third element of social bond theory, involvement, is the extent to which a person engages with or feels a connection to peer groups. According to the theory, a person who experiences a high level of involvement with others will, as a result, form stronger attachments and commitments to social norms and, therefore, be less likely to engage in deviant or destructive behavior. For example, high levels of involvement in specific social groups, such as the Boy Scouts, will decrease the likelihood of a person engaging in deviant behavior.

Common Values

The final element of social bond theory is common values, which is a pretty straightforward category that refers to the things on which societies and communities have come to a consensus. For example, if a person belonged to a strong religious community that shares the belief that the spreading of rumors is wrong, he or she would not do this in order to show his or her commitment to the value of not spreading rumors. Although spreading rumors is not a criminal or illegal act, because of our shared common values, we would ultimately avoid doing it because of the social consequences.


It’s important to note that in more recent years, certain elements of social bond theory have been criticized for being ill-defined or too reductive in scope. For example, Hirschi’s perspective was that any social bond would mitigate the likelihood of engaging in negative behaviors. However, later theorists have pointed out that in negative structures, like gangs or organized crime, increased involvement has the potential to validate anti-social behavior and, therefore, would raise the level of negative social behaviors.Additionally, some social scientists have criticized social bond theory for having a limited definition of social norms or deviant behavior, which are not universal and will vary depending on the culture being looked at.

Moreover, these definitions tend to be based on interior social controls, while often overlooking the external variables that help to shape societies, like racism, or other forms of marginalization.

Lesson Summary

Travis Hirschi’s social bond theory is a framework used in criminology to understand what leads a person to commit criminal or anti-social acts. Hirschi has identified four main elements of social development that he believes are primarily responsible for such behavior, with each individual category often influencing the others.These elements are:

  • Attachment – which refers to how well a person attaches to other people and internalizes social expectations
  • Commitment – which refers to how willing a person is to accept and adhere to social norms or laws
  • Involvement – or the extent to which a person is actively engaged with peer groups
  • Common values – which are the beliefs and ideologies which groups have agreed are valuable

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