Conflict Theory & Social Control Theory: A Comparison
Both conflict theory and social control theory have their similarities and differences. It is important to discuss and address those issues because both theories have been used as a way to talk about the occurrence of crime in contemporary American society. To that end, the effects of positive and negative reinforcement on crime must be considered in both theoretical frameworks. Examples of the issues faced also matter, in order to ensure that each one of the concerns faced by society are handled properly where criminality is concerned. Because criminality is a large part of any society, the ways in which criminals are handled - and the ways in which they develop their criminal behavior - are both very important to consider in an effort to reduce the number of criminals in that society.
Since there are several different theories about how criminality is created and how it grows and manifests in a person, looking at the two theories that will be considered here will help to provide a better perspective on how criminals are created. Some believe that there are just "bad" people and they are often born that way, but studies indicate that most criminals are taught the behaviors in which they engage (Stark, 2007; Hirschi & Gottfredson, 2005). They might see their families engage in criminal behavior, or they may grow up with peers who are focused on criminality (Hirschi, 2002). The neighborhoods in which some of these individuals are born and raised also do not help them to avoid criminal issues because they see it so often that it simply becomes a part of life for them (Thio, 2008). However, that does not mean that they cannot choose a different path or that they absolutely have to be criminals if they decide to set their sights on something better. Society does not always have the final say, even though many people who attempt to avoid criminal behavior can still get involved in criminality if they allow themselves to do so.
Conflict theory states that there are inequalities in a social group that are material, social, or political (Stark, 2007). This distracts from the function of the group and the people in it, and also draws attention to the differentials in power that are seen such as conflict with class and other social constructs (Stark, 2007). The theory analyzes society on a macro level and owes its beginning to the likes of Karl Marx (Thio, 2008). There are a few different theoretical ideas, actually, that all fall under the umbrella of conflict theory. Even though there are several different theories, anything that causes a deep level of conflict is very important to be aware of, because conflict relates to criminality in many ways (Stark, 2007). For example, those who feel as though they are being pushed out or marginalized by society, and/or those who do not seem to fit into the standard, expected social classes, often find that they move toward criminal behavior (Stark, 2007; Thio, 2008). The idea behind conflict theory is that capitalism (and other socioeconomic systems) produce tensions that are internal and that will lead the system to destroy itself eventually (Thio, 2008).
While capitalism has not reached that self-destruct point, there are certainly tensions within it. Many of those tensions are between the "haves" and the "have nots." Inequality defines most societies, and in doing so those societies produce a lot of conflict (Stark, 2007). People who are disadvantaged in society have a couple of options. They can become change agents and work toward benefitting themselves and others like them, or they can give up and turn to criminality in order to attempt to get the things that they are being denied by society (Thio, 2008; Hirschi, 2002). The choice they make will affect not only them but their families and friends, as well as the rest of society around them. The cost of incarcerating people and rehabilitating them also has an effect on society, because it takes money away from other programs where that money could potentially be more useful (Stark, 2007; Thio, 2008). That is not to say that conflict theory is the only theory addressed when it comes to criminality, however, because there are other options to consider.
Social Control Theory
In contrast to conflict theory, social control theory addresses the idea that socialization and learning build control in a person's mind (Hirschi, 2002; Hirschi & Gottfredson, 2005). That, in turn, reduces the chances that the person will get involved in behavior that is not seen as being social (Hirschi, 2002). In other words, people want to fit in with society and will avoid criminal behavior so they can fit in more easily. Naturally, this is not true for everyone or there would not be any criminals. However, it does appear to hold true for many people, because large numbers of people in society want to blend in and be accepted (Hirschi & Gottfredson, 2005). They do what they can and what they have to do so that they will be seen as "normal," and those who are deviant are often marginalized - whether they are criminal or simply different from others (Hirschi, 2002). There are four different types of control that are used in this particular theory. Controlling through the satisfaction of needs is one of the most significant, because it is believed that people who engage in criminal activity would not do so if all of their needs were being met by acceptable societal behavior (Hirschi, 2002).
Direct control is another of the four types. This is either negative (punishment for bad behavior) or positive (rewards for good behavior) (Hirschi, 2002). The punishment or rewards can come from many places, including authority figures, parents, and even friends. Internal control means that the criminality is avoided because the person has chosen not to engage in it (Hirschi, 2002). That could be because of conscience or the superego (Hirschi & Gottfredson, 2005). For some reason in this type of control, the person exercises self-control and determines that the cost of the criminality (if caught) may not be worth the gain (if not caught) (Hirschi & Gottfredson, 2005). In some cases, the person simply feels as though the criminal behavior is wrong or inappropriate, and that it is best avoided. The last of the four types is indirect control. This is the control exercised over the person by others, such as family or friends (Hirschi & Gottfredson, 2005). If a person is very concerned about hurting the feelings of others or disappointing his or her parents, that person may avoid criminal activity for those reasons (Hirschi, 2002).
Crime in Contemporary Society
For addressing the occurrence of crime in contemporary American society, social control theory seems to be much better and more logical than conflict theory. This theory is more tailored to the field of criminality than conflict theory, which is more like a group of theories that is actually directed at societal actions as a whole (Hirschi, 2002). While criminality could certainly be part of those actions, it is most definitely not the only action for which conflict theory can be discussed. Because that is the case, conflict theory is not as clearly focused on criminality as social control theory (Hirschi, 2002). This theory is designed to be all about criminality and address why people become criminals. It is believed that the societal values that people have, along with the norms they see and the beliefs and values they hold, will stop them from committing crimes (Hirschi & Gottfredson, 2005). Of course, this is not the case with every person on the planet. Some people simply do not care about the values and beliefs that are common to society.
There are sociopaths who really do not feel much of anything, for example, and there are also people whose societal norms include a high level of criminality. When criminal behavior is seen as normal and expected, that is what people are taught and what they engage in as they get older (Hirschi, 2002). Not everyone who sees crimes on a regular basis decides to become a criminal, though, just like not everyone who does not see crimes will avoid becoming a criminal. There are always outliers and deviant people who do not fit into the most common or compelling theories that are presented (Hirschi, 2002). Despite that fact, the vast majority of people fit into societal norms and expectations. It is those people that these theories address, since they have the opportunity to make changes based on what they see in society and what they believe in and value. The people around them, such as family and friends, can keep them on the right path and can stop them from getting involved in criminal activity as they get older and must make more and more difficult life choices.
Conclusion: Positive and Negative Reinforcement
Both positive and negative reinforcement can be used when it…