Social control theories attempt to understand crime by looking at the formal or informal social controls which lead most people to forego criminal behavior but simultaneously fail to hinder others. Of the various individual theories which fall under the umbrella of social control, perhaps one of the most disruptive and innovative for the sociological study of crime is Robert Sampson and John Laub's life-course theory, which posits that not only does childhood and adolescent behavior predict later criminal behavior, as suggested by numerous other theories, but that certain events throughout one's life may also serve to alter a person's trajectory towards or away from criminal behavior, such that one attempting to understand the social factors precipitating crime must necessarily examine an individual's life-course, rather than just his or her childhood behavior and development. To understand just how much Sampson and Laub's theory differs from other theories of social control, it is necessary to explicate the core concepts of the life course theory as well as compare it to the other dominant theory of crime, namely Michael Gottfredson and Travis Hirschi's general theory of crime. By comparing the two theories of social control, it becomes clear that the life-course theory is able to account for far more of the data regarding criminal behavior than the general theory of crime, which fails to take into account various factors later in life which might mitigate criminal tendencies.
Before comparing the two theories of social control under discussion here, it will be useful to understand the critical gap in theoretical research that the life-course perspective fills, as well as explicate the key features of Sampson and Laub's theory. In short, "the unique advantage of a sociological perspective on the life course is that it brings the formative period of childhood back into the picture yet recognizes that individuals can change through interactions with key social institutions as they age" (Sampson & Laub, 1992, p. 81). This theory directly challenges that of Gottfredson and Hirschi, who argue that "ordinary life events (e.g. jobs, getting married, becoming a parent) have little effects on criminal behavior because crime rates decline with age 'whether or not these events occur'" (p. 70). However, according to Sampson and Laub, even the fact that crime rates decline with age "may be explained by sociological influences over the life course," especially considering that there are still "important discontinuities in crime that need to be explained" and can only be explained if one takes the life course perspective (p. 70). Thus, while critics of Sampson and Laub's theory would suggest that because early childhood behavior is often a good predictor of adult behavior this means that the sociological influences on adult life are irrelevant, in reality the stability seen over the course of an individual's life from early childhood to adulthood is actually the result of sociological influences, rather than separate from it.
Having understood the necessity of the life-course theory of social control for explaining both the stability and discontinuity of criminal behavior observed in previous research, one may now address the key components of the theory itself, namely, the related concepts of "trajectories" and "transitions," which work together to produce "turning points." According to Sampson and Laub (1992, p. 66), "a trajectory is a pathway or line of development over the life span such as worklife, marriage, parenthood, self-esteem, and criminal behavior," while "transitions are marked by specific life events (e.g. first job or marriage) that are embedded in trajectories and evolve over shorter time spans." Transitions may be linked to certain ages, such that the duration between important transitions as well as the timing of transitions in one's life may "produce conflicting obligations that enhance later difficulties" (p. 66). For example, one may view a teenager becoming pregnant as an "off-time" transition which produces conflicting obligations, namely, between the pregnancy and eventual child and the usual educational obligations.
An individual's reaction and adaptation in the face of a transition may ultimately lead to a turning point, "because the same event or transition followed by different adaptations can lead to different trajectories" (Sampson & Laub, 1992, p. 66). This is crucial to understand, because the life course perspective has a simultaneous long and short-term view of development; "the long-term view embodied by the life-course focus on trajectories implies a strong connection between childhood events and experiences in adulthood," while "the simultaneous shorter-term view also implies that transitions or turning points can modify life trajectories -- they can 'redirect paths'" (p. 66). These turning points explain the fact that while childhood behavior is a good indicator of adult trajectories, "most antisocial children do not become antisocial adults" and "many juvenile offenders do not become career offenders" (p. 71). Transitions and turning points are able to change the trajectory of an individual's criminal life because "individuals accumulate 'social capital' as they invest their time and energy into their families and their employment," and as such "are hesitant to risk the capital they have accumulated by engaging in criminal activity" (Unit 5 Study Guide, p. 75). Thus, the life-course perspective of social control offers an elegant and intuitive framework from which to consider criminal behavior, because it is able to account for not only consistency in criminal trajectories, but also changes in criminal behavior between childhood and adulthood.
Though Sampson and Laub's life-course perspective challenges many assumptions of other social control theories, the dominant theory the life-course perspective challenges is Gottfredson and Hirschi's general theory of crime, of which "the underlying theme […] is that crime is caused by low self-control, which […] is in turn caused by 'ineffective or incomplete socialization' and 'ineffective child-rearing'" (Unit 5 Study Guide, p. 71). Thus, they believe that "people will choose to commit crimes whenever they perceive that the prospects for pleasure outweigh the prospects for pain of punishment," and that criminals themselves "will tend to be individuals who are easily irritated or frustrated, short-sighted, impulsive, inclined to take risks, and insensitive to others" (p. 70-71). Gottfredson and Hirschi argue that this remains the case for nearly all crime, and "that there is no need to offer distinct explanations for distinct types of criminal conduct," because most crimes can be classified as either acts of force or fraud (Sacco & Kennedy, 2008, p. 155). Thus, Gottfredson and Hirschi's theory is called the "general theory of crime" because they assume that it sufficiently explains all crime, regardless of severity or motivation.
If it is not clear already, Gottfredson and Hirschi's assumptions regarding the causes of crime and the character of criminals is unnecessarily reductive, because it disregards the majority of a person's life in favor of their early childhood and because self-control is not a particularly precise or useful critical term, due to the fact that "self-control is a concept which is not easily conceptualized for research purposes" and "there is considerable debate in the research literature with respect to the degree to which self-control can be measured separately from the behaviours which it is supposed to explain" (Sacco & Kennedy, 2008, p. 157). Furthermore, Gottfredson and Hirschi's theory fails to take into account the variability of an individual's self-control in different contexts, because "in a society which demands high levels of self-control, people will try to find situations and contexts in which they can free themselves from that control" (p. 157). For example, "Mardi Gras, like Halloween and other carnival occasions, provides these opportunities in the context of repressive societies," giving people who otherwise regularly practice the kind of self-control that Gottfredson and Hirschi propose would preclude them from criminal activity the opportunity to momentarily shed that self-control, and phenomena which cannot be explained by the general theory of crime (p. 157).