Theories of Crime and Justice; Theoretical Integration

Michael G Turner & Kristie R Blevins. 21st Century Criminology: A Reference Handbook. Editor: J Mitchell Miller. 2009. Sage Publications.

The scientific study of the causes of delinquency and crime has been historically guided by theory. A good theory is said to provide a foundational lens through which to interpret and understand the manifestation of a behavior. In the field of criminology, the theoretical lens has been primarily guided by concepts germane to the fields of sociology, psychology, and biology, and the behavior to be explained is typically behavior that violates the codified laws of our society (i.e., crime and delinquency). Although isolated theories have provided empirical insight into the important factors perceived and expected to explain delinquency and crime, no single theory can adequately explain all types of crime and delinquency or all of the variation in crime and delinquency. In response to the absence of a “magic bullet” theory, scholars have begun to integrate theories in hopes of explaining a greater proportion of delinquency and crime. Theoretical integration generally involves borrowing theoretical constructs from competing theories and combining them into a single theory. Integrating theories within criminology is particularly advantageous because it allows scholars to begin to understand the behavior under study in a more complex, and potentially more complete, manner.

The purpose of this chapter is to present information on the topic of theoretical integration and take the reader through the following logical road map of the knowledge base surrounding integrated theories. The chapter begins with a brief discussion of the history and rationale for integrating theories. Although brief, it is meant to provide some context within this section about how and why integrated theories have developed. Second, information on several different types of integrated theories that have emerged over the past few decades are provided: The theory and theoretical assumptions of the theory are presented, and it is shown how the theory is an integration of multiple theories or multiple concepts. It should be noted that the purpose of this section isn’t meant to be exhaustive; instead, the intent is to provide the reader with a level of specificity as to how criminological theories have been integrated. Third, using the discussion in the previous section, some of the many policy implications that have (or might have) emerged as a result of integrating theories are presented. Fourth, information relating to several of the critiques surrounding theoretical integration is provided, with a discussion about how these assessments have redefined the topic. The chapter closes with an excerpt on what the future might hold in terms of further elaboration of complex integrated theories.

History, Rationale, and Methods of Integrating Theories

The history of integrated theories can be traced back to the work of Cesare Lombroso, who in the late 1800s and early 1900s refined his earlier work on the criminal man and argued that a complete understanding of crime and delinquency requires that we account for biological, psychological, and sociological variables. Despite Lombroso’s assertions, most theorizing in criminology over the first half of the 20th century focused primarily on the influence that the environment (i.e., sociology) had on the explanation of delinquency and crime.

In the latter half of the 20th century, and in partial response to the growing literature documenting that some theories explained some delinquent and criminal behavior some of the time, scholars began integrating theories in hopes of providing a more complete picture of why individuals violate the law. To achieve this, they began by first isolating the variables that received support across theories and, second, formulating relationships among these variables. As such, theoretical integration is more than just borrowing concepts from a variety of theories; it is the elaboration of how these concepts influence (and are influenced) by the remaining concepts.

During the past three decades, we have arguably observed the most significant growth in the development of integrated theories. The more recent approaches continue to draw primarily on factors within the environment (i.e., family and peers); however, efforts have also been made to integrate theoretical constructs from other disciplines (i.e., biology and psychology). The result of these efforts has been a variety of integrated theories that have received an increasing level of empirical attention and that have provided a baseline of knowledge from which future integrated theories could expand.

After recognizing that theoretical integration is simply one form of theorizing, what becomes a logical question of concern is whether theoretical integration is a more useful method of theoretical growth. As new theories continue to emerge and offer a unique perspective on the explanation of crime and delinquency, opportunities to integrate these theories will follow. The most promising and recognized alternative to theoretical growth in this regard is often referred to theoretical competition; that is, including constructs of two or more competing theories and examining which one makes more logical sense and receives greater empirical support. It remains to be seen whether theoretical competition and theoretical integration will continue to coexist as methods of theoretical growth.

Because there is no perfect way to develop a theory of delinquency and crime, there is also no perfect way to develop an integrated theory. In fact, there exists a variety of strategies to develop an integrated theory. For example, one such strategy is referred to as the end-to-end approach, whereby scholars combine theories while taking into account the temporal ordering of the variables included within the theory. This method allows variables to act both as causes (independent variables) as well as effects (dependent variables). A second strategy, referred to as the side-by-side approach, partitions cases of delinquency and crime into theories that are best at offering an explanation. For instance, one might want to use characteristics of deviants (i.e., race, class, age, and gender) or characteristics of deviance (i.e., violent crime, property crime, and drug crime) as points where partitioning makes intuitive sense. The subsequent process would be to integrate a variety of theoretical constructs to best explain the cases in each of these empirical typologies. Finally, up-and-down integration (also known as deductive integration) is accomplished by identifying a unique level of abstraction that will allow the incorporation of other theories. For example, portions of Theory B can be subsumed into Theory A because the latter contains more abstract or general assumptions about why a particular behavior exists. Although these three methods do not account for all types of integrated theories, they are arguably the methods on which theoreticians typically rely when combining theories.

In short, it is apparent that multiple methods exist to integrate the constructs of various theories into a uniquely integrative theoretical approach. The purpose of the next section is to offer insight into the many different integrated theories that have emerged over the past two to three decades.

Types of Integrated Theories

Although integrated theories have a lengthy history, it is only within the last few decades that these theories have been recognized and accepted as purely integrated theories. This section focuses on the descriptions of some of the more commonly recognized integrated theories. Again, it is not the intention of this section to provide detail on all of the integrated theories; instead, the integrated theories identified in the following paragraphs should provide the reader with an understanding of the various types of these theories.

Elliott, Ageton, and Canter’s Integrated Theory

In 1979, Delbert Elliott and his colleagues proposed one of the more widely recognized integrated theories (Elliott, Ageton, & Canter, 1979). Borrowing concepts from strain, social learning, and social control theories, they proposed that individuals follow one of two pathways into delinquency. In the first pathway, individuals with lower levels of social control begin interacting with delinquent peers. In this pathway, the reduction in social control allows individuals to associate with other delinquents, experience peer pressure from these peers, and learn how to commit delinquent offenses. In the second pathway, individuals with higher levels of social control at some point experience the failure to achieve positively valued or conventional goals. As a result of this experience, individuals begin associating with delinquent peers, experience peer pressure from these peers, and learn how to commit delinquent offenses. In short, the theory argues that individuals who experience both low and high levels of social control are capable of becoming delinquent. The central variable that plays an important role in delinquent development in both pathways is one’s exposure and commitment to delinquent peers.

It is important to point out that Elliott et al.’s (1979) theory is an integrated theory because it borrows concepts from three reputable theories (strain, social control, and social learning) and articulates how these concepts relate to one another. More specifically, the social control and strain aspects of the theory are not proposed to have direct effects on delinquency; instead, each of these variables operates through the exposure and commitment to delinquent peers. It logically follows that the exclusion of delinquent peers from the theoretical models would limit the theory’s ability to explain delinquent and criminal behavior. Therefore, it is the integration of these three theories that provides the foundation to understand the etiology of crime and delinquency.

Thornberry’s Interactional Theory

In 1987, a similar integrated theory was proposed by Terence Thornberry. Much like Elliott and his colleagues (1979), Thornberry borrowed elements from social control and social learning theories; specifically, he proposed in interactional theory that delinquency is primarily a function of individuals associating with delinquent peers. The opportunities to associate with these peers is argued to be the direct result of the weakened social bonds (i.e., social control) experienced as individuals progress through the life course. Unlike Elliott et al., Thornberry excluded any conceptual involvement of strain theory in the advancement of interactional theory.

Two distinguishing features of Thornberry’s (1987) interactional theory set it apart from other integrated theories, in general, and Elliott et al.’s (1979) theory, specifically. First, interactional theory emphasizes the presence of reciprocal effects in the causal structure of the onset of delinquency. Unlike most theories that assume or identify causal pathways in one direction (typically from left to right), interactional theory assumes that important variables within the model possess reciprocal or feedback effects. For example, although weakening social bonds might lead an individual to associate with delinquent peers, it is also theorized that the association with delinquent peers further weakens social bonds. Second, interactional theory places an emphasis on the developmental nature of the etiology of delinquency and crime. In other words, Thornberry articulated a theory that explains the onset, persistence, and desistence of delinquency and alters the importance of the concepts at these various stages of the life course. It is notable that although parental attachments (i.e., social bonds) are important in the explanation of the onset of delinquency early in the life course, these same concepts become relatively weaker in the explanation of the persistence in delinquency as individuals navigate the adolescent period of development.

Agnew’s General Strain Theory

In 1992, Robert Agnew recognized that Merton’s traditional strain theory possessed a variety of limitations that restricted the empirical support it received. In so doing, Agnew reconceptualized traditional strain theory into a general strain theory by shifting the focus from social class or cultural variables, capturing the emotion of the situational context in which delinquency and crime develop.

Agnew (1992) began by recognizing three sources of strain an individual can experience over the life course. First, similar to traditional strain theorists, Agnew identified the actual or anticipated failure to achieve positively valued goals as a source of strain. For example, individuals might feel strain because they cannot achieve economic or financial success, or they may not be able to achieve a particular status within high school. Second, Agnew identified the actual or anticipated removal of positively valued stimuli as a potential source of strain. This strain might occur, for example, when individuals experience the death of someone close to them, when an intimate or dating relationship ends, or when someone is terminated from a job he or she enjoyed. The point is that something they coveted has been removed from their life. Finally, Agnew identified the actual or anticipated presentation of negative stimuli as the final source of strain that could be experienced by individuals. Examples of this last source of strain include residing within an abusive household, attending a dangerous school, or working under the supervision of a supervisor who manifests negative or harassing behaviors.

The primary assumption of general strain theory is that as the levels of strain increase, individuals are more likely to engage in delinquency and crime. However, even in the most adverse or stressful situations that may be caused by strain, some individuals are capable of not responding in delinquent or criminal ways. Recognizing this outcome, Agnew (1992) identified several constraints that might condition individual responses to strain. These conditioning variables fall into two categories: (1) conditioning factors that increase the probability of manifesting a delinquent or criminal response and (2) conditioning factors that decrease the probability of manifesting a delinquent or criminal response. In terms of conditioning responses identified to increase delinquent and criminal outcomes, Agnew highlighted important factors, such as self-control, the association with delinquent peers, and the internalization of antisocial beliefs. Alternatively, in terms of conditioning responses identified to reduce delinquent and criminal outcomes, Agnew directed us to factors such as individual coping strategies, the receipt of social supports from others, the presence of social bonds, and the fear of formal sanctions. In short, the conditioning responses are typically important variables from other prominent criminological theories that are integrated into the articulation of general strain theory.

General strain theory is considered an integrated theory for two reasons. First, Agnew effectively integrated social and psychological constructs; that is, socially (or within certain situations), individuals may experience events or circumstance with which they are unfamiliar (i.e., being fired from a job or losing a parent), but psychologically they must somehow respond to this adverse situation. Second, as highlighted in the preceding text, Agnew inclu- ded a variety of conditioning responses that are “borrowed” from other competing theories. It is at this juncture that theoretical integration is manifested within the general strain theory.

Moffitt’s Dual Taxonomy Theory of Offending

In 1993, Terrie Moffitt proposed a theory that not only integrates concepts derived from biology, psychology, and sociology but also approaches the explanation of delinquency and crime from a developmental perspective. Moffitt began by documenting that concealed under the aggregate age–crime curve are two types of offenders. One type of offender, which she called the life-course-persistent offenders, begins offending early in the life course, persists in offending at high levels during adolescence, and continues a life of crime well into adulthood. In other words, stability of behavior is the key to understanding life-course-persistent offending. A second type of offender, which she called the adolescence-limited offenders, begin their offending careers during the adolescent period of development, offend for a short period of time, and desist as they enter into adulthood. Whereas stability is the key to understanding life-course-persistent offending, discontinuity is the key to understanding adolescence-limited offending. With two distinct types of offenders, Moffitt made an argument that each type of offender is in need of its own theoretical explanation.

The theoretical causes of life-course-persistent offending are found very early in the life course. Specifically, Moffitt (1993) suggested that the co-occurrence of individuals being born with neuropsychological deficits and parents failing at their parenting responsibilities creates an increased likelihood that individuals will begin down a pathway of life-course-persistent offending. It should be noted that experiencing either one of these risk factors in isolation is unlikely to set an individual on a life-course- persistent trajectory of offending; instead, it is the interaction of these two factors that increases the odds of following such a pathway of development.

Compared with the life-course-persistent offenders, adolescence-limited offenders are a more prevalent, yet less serious type of offender. Because the onset of offending for adolescence-limited offenders begins in adolescence, Moffitt (1993) identified risk factors during this developmental stage as the precursors to delinquency. Specifically, adolescence-limited offenders are theorized to begin offending as the result of experiencing the maturity gap (i.e., the gap between reaching biological maturity [puberty] and being socially accepted into adult social roles) or modeling behaviors (at a less serious level) of their life-course-persistent counterparts. In short, adolescence-limited offenders begin offending mainly as a result of environmental causes of delinquency.

Each of these theoretical articulations involves integrating biological predispositions with social conditions that accentuate (or permit) the individuals to offend. In short, Moffitt’s (1993) theory (at least the explanation of lifecourse-persistent offending) is referred to as a biosocial approach, because it proposes that individuals will become serious offenders when those with a biological predisposition to offend are raised in a social environment that fails to correct bad behavior. It is important to note that the possession of either of these variables (i.e., neuropsychological deficits or poor parenting) in isolation is not determinate of life-course-persistent offending; instead, it is the co-occurrence or interaction of these variables that is particularly detrimental to the individual.

Cullen’s Social Support Theory

In 1994, Francis T. Cullen, in his presidential address to the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences, put forth a theory that focused on the impact of social support and its effects on individual and aggregate rates of criminality. Unlike the more traditional integrated theories that identify important factors from different theories and then integrate them into a single theory, Cullen advanced an integrated theory that identifies a common theme that is rooted within a variety of theories at different levels of explanation; that is, he highlighted the importance of social support and its impact in the implication of delinquency and crime. In so doing, he advanced 13 propositions that link social support either implicitly or explicitly to the explanation of crime and delinquency. Instead of articulating each proposition verbatim, the subsequent text presents the propositions in a thematic format.

First, at the macrolevel, Cullen (1994) predicted an inverse relationship between levels of social support and crime in that cities, states, and countries with more social support are identified as having lower rates of delinquency and crime. Second, individuals who receive and/or provide greater levels of social support are less likely to be involved in delinquency and crime. Third, higher levels of social support are theorized to reduce the impact of other criminogenic risk factors (i.e., strain and exposure to deviant peers). Fourth, and related, higher levels of social support correspond with a higher likelihood of desistance from criminal activity. Fifth, increased levels of social support are theorized to correspond with more effective police and correctional agencies. Finally, higher levels of social support result in reduction in the likelihood to be victimized.

Cullen’s (1994) theory of social support is a unique attempt at theoretical integration, because the theory does not subsume several theories under a general theory. Instead, Cullen highlighted how the construct of social support becomes the central causal process within a variety of competing theories. In short, social support has a direct causal effect on crime, it has a direct causal effect on variables theoretically and empirically related to crime (i.e., social control and strain), and it has a conditioning effect on variables related to crime.

Tittle’s Control Balance Theory

In 1995, Charles Tittle proposed an integrated theory known as control balance theory, which attempts to advance traditional control-based theories that proposed that the breakdown in controls (regardless of their source) would lead to delinquency and crime. In doing so, the focus turns to understanding how an individual’s control ratio can predict the likelihood and type of deviance.

In terms of the likelihood or probability of deviance, control balance theory recognizes that individuals are controlled (like most traditional control-based theories), but it also recognizes that individuals exercise control over other individuals. Therefore, the theory predicts that the probability and type of deviance depend on the amount of control to which an individual one is subject relative to the amount of control he or she can exercise over others. In situations where there is control balance (i.e., equal amounts of control within the control balance equation), the probability of deviance is close to or equal to zero. As the control ratio becomes imbalanced (moving in either direction away from being balanced), however, then the individual’s probability of involvement in deviance, delinquency, and crime increases.

Control imbalance can occur in one of two directions. First, as an individual’s control ratio becomes imbalanced in the direction of having more control over others (relative to the amount others have over him or her), and then the individual experiences a control surplus. On the other hand, as the control ratio moves in the opposite direction (being subject to greater levels of control than the individual has over others), the individual experiences a control deficit. In either case, the further one moves toward the extremes of control surplus or control deficit, the more likely he or she will be to participate in deviance, delinquency, and crime.

In an effort to theoretically explain the types of behavior in which an individual will engage, Tittle (1995) again relied on the control ratio. It is theorized that individuals experiencing a control deficit engage in behaviors that are likely to adjust their control ratio back to control balance. Tittle identified three broad categories of behavior that are likely to be manifested by individuals experiencing a control deficit: (1) predatory acts, (2) defiant acts, and (3) submissive acts. Alternatively, individuals experiencing a control surplus engage in behaviors that are likely to accentuate (or further advance) their surplus of control. Again, Tittle identified three broad categories of behavior that are likely to be manifested by individuals experiencing a control surplus: (1) acts of exploitation, (2) acts of decadence, and (3) acts of plunder.

Control balance theory is considered an integrated theory because it captures two important themes related to control and integrates them into a single theoretical explanation of delinquency and crime. Whereas other integrated theories rely on control-based theories as a source of integration, no other criminological theory relies on both mechanisms of the control process to predict delinquent or criminal involvement.

Colvin’s Differential Coercion Theory

In 2000, Mark Colvin advanced an integrated theory that shifted the focus from an explanation of the etiology of delinquency and crime to the explanation of chronic offending. Using the concept of coercion as the organizing theoretical construct, Colvin argued that chronic offenders suffer from a variety of social and psychological dynamics brought on by destructive coercive forces.

Colvin (2000) began with the premise that social control has multiple dimensions. The first dimension is the degree of coercion in how the social control is applied. Although there is sure to be a continuum, Colvin provided a typology with two outcomes: (1) noncoercive and (2) coercive. The second dimension is the degree of consistency with which the social control is applied. Again, Colvin provided two potential outcomes to this dimension: (1) consistent and (2) erratic. Combining the elements of coercion and consistency in the application of social control, Colvin created a 2 × 2 matrix with four possible outcomes. Type 1 is identified as noncoercive consistent control, Type 2 is identified as noncoercive erratic control, Type 3 is identified as coercive consistent control, and Type 4 is identified as coercive erratic control.

Colvin (2000) argued that each type of control has its own set of social-psychological outcomes that manifest themselves into behavioral differences. Social-psychological outcomes for Type 1 (noncoercive, consistent) include low anger, high self-efficacy, high self-control, and an internal locus of control. Individuals within Type 1 will also manifest a strong predisposition to behave prosocially and a low probability of criminal behavior. Turning to Type 2 (noncoercive, erratic) social-psychological outcomes, Colvin noted that these individuals will have low anger, high selfefficacy, low self-control, and an internal locus of control. In terms of how these outcomes are translated to behaviors, Colvin predicted that these individuals will have a predisposition for minor nonpredatory street and white-collar crime and a strong tendency to explore deviant pleasures. Individuals identified to correspond with Type 3 (coercive, consistent) social-psychological outcomes are expected to possess high self-directed anger, low self-efficacy, rigid self-control, and an external locus of control. The behavioral outcomes associated with this category include a low probability of prosocial behavior, a predisposition toward mental illness, and some potential for enraged assault or homicide. Finally, social-psychological outcomes for Type 4 (coercive, erratic) include high self-directed anger, low self-efficacy, low self-control, and an external locus of control. Colvin predicted that these individuals will have a predisposition for serious predatory street crime and a strong probability of chronic offending.

In short, Colvin’s (2000) differential coercion theory predicts that coercion leads to social-psychological deficits that translate to consistently disruptive behavioral outcomes. It is expected that these coercive relations can emerge within a variety of environments, including, but not limited to, the home, school, workplace, peer groups, and state bureaucracies. It is also expected that individuals may experience an accumulation of coercion that has been distributed from more than one environment. This accumulation of coercion is expected to further increase the probability of the individual engaging in criminal behavior over the life course.

In terms of the relevance of differential coercion theory as an integrated theory, it should be highlighted that Colvin (2000) relied on the concept of social control and how it is applied to predict several reputable social-psychological outcomes present within extant theory. In so doing, an integrated theory is created that draws on how well-defined social constructs and their influence on social-psychological processes lead to delinquent and criminal behavior.

Policy Implications of Integrated Theories

Much like traditional theories, each integrated theory has implications for the development of policies designed to reduce delinquency and crime. Because integrated theories are generally perceived to be more complex than traditional theories, it stands to reason that their implications generally tend to be more complex. Using the integrated theories discussed in the previous section, this section offers a variety of policy implications derived from the aforementioned theoretical developments.

Implications of Elliott, Ageton, and Canter’s Integrated Theory

The inclusion of theoretical concepts from three competing mainstream theories offers a unique, yet challenging, set of policy implications. According to the principles of the theory and the initial focus on the levels of social control, it follows that policies will be determinative on the basis of whether individuals are experiencing low or high levels of social control. For those experiencing lower levels of social control, policies should initially be geared toward increasing levels of social control. Most importantly, however, policies emanating from Elliott et al.’s (1979) integrated theory should focus on reducing access and exposure to delinquent peers, because it is this construct that rises in the level of importance in the explanation of delinquent and criminal involvement.

Implications of Thornberry’s Interactional Theory

Similar to the policies identified in the discussion of Elliott et al.’s (1979) integrated theory, the policies emerging from Thornberry’s (1987) interactional theory are relatively complex and involve focusing on mechanisms of building social controls and decreasing access to delinquent peers. What makes interactional theory unique is that the policy initiatives are developmental specific; that is, because the importance of the theoretical factors fostering crime and delinquency vary over the life course, the policy initiatives seeking to impact delinquency and crime should also be different depending on the age of the individual. In childhood, programs designed to build and strengthen familial relationships would provide a foundation to reduce the likelihood of the onset of delinquency. In terms of the persistence in delinquency and crime, effective policies or programs would emerge if they were geared toward the reduction of exposure to delinquent peers during the adolescent period. However, because Thornberry placed significant emphasis on the reciprocal effects of the social bonding and delinquent peer variables during childhood and adolescence, it stands to reason that a dual- pronged policy approach focusing on both sources of delinquency would provide the most complete program initiative to the reduction of these behaviors.

Implications of Agnew’s General Strain Theory

Given that all individuals will experience several of the strains articulated by Agnew (1992), it stands to reason that the policy implications relevant to general strain theory are not geared toward reducing the experience of strain. Instead, policies from a general strain tradition might be more effective if they are focused on enhancing the conditioning factors that result in prosocial responses to strain. For example, programs that educate individuals in how to manage their anger or channel the energy related to their anger into positive directions (i.e., positively cope with strain) would be particularly advantageous to reducing delinquency and crime. On a related note, policies geared toward initiating programs targeting the development of self-control early in the life course would provide an additional prosocial mechanism for responding to strain. In terms of familial and community alternatives, programs guided toward the development or enhancement of social support networks would provide an individual with access to external supports when faced with a crisis. In short, the policy implications for general strain theory have the highest probability of being successful if they focus on the concepts related to individuals’ responses to experiencing strain.

Implications of Moffitt’s Dual Taxonomy Theory of Offending

Because Moffitt’s (1993) theory partitions the theoretical explanation of delinquency and crime into two distinct theories, it logically follows that the policy implications of the theory are approached in a similar bifurcated process. Not surprisingly, most of the aggressive and impactful policy implications are geared toward life-course-persistent offenders; specifically, because this pathway of development is argued to be difficult to redirect, the policies need to be aimed at reducing the likelihood that individuals will begin offending early in the life course. Programs such as nurse home visitations to help disadvantaged parents provide appropriate parenting strategies to children experiencing deficits associated with neuropsychological disorders have been found to be particularly successful at redirecting the pathway of the troubled child. On the other hand, because the adolescence-limited population is likely to discontinue their offending as they enter into adult social roles, the policies geared toward this population are likely to be much more hands off. For example, this population might particularly benefit from after-school programs that focus on keeping youth actively involved in prosocial and/sports-related activities during the peak time of adolescent offending.

Implications of Cullen’s Social Support Theory

Arguably one of the more simplistic integrated theories, Cullen’s (1994) social support theory also receives the title of the theory with one of the most straightforward policy initiatives; that is, crime and delinquency at all levels (i.e., individual, family, neighborhood, rates within cities, states, and across the nation) would be reduced if increases in social support were observed. Moreover, offending over the life course would begin later in life and have a shorter duration, and desistance would be enhanced if only social supports were increased. Finally, the probability of experiencing a victimization and the victimization rate would both decrease if social supports across society were enhanced. In summary, the primary policy implications related to Cullen’s social support theory are focused toward developing and enhancing social supports within individuals or within the larger neighborhood environment.

Implications of Tittle’s Control Balance Theory

The policy implications of Tittle’s (1995) control balance theory are significantly more complex than those identified for the theories just discussed. If the goal of a policy is to implement a program (or set of programs) to reduce delinquency, then using control balance theory implies that policies should be aimed at developing programs to keep individuals’ control ratio at a balance and/or providing assistance to individuals to manage or restrict their behavior when they are experiencing a control imbalance. These policy initiatives appear to be more reasoned for individuals experiencing a control deficit; however, they appear to be more suspect for those experiencing a control surplus. Specifically, programs designed for individuals experiencing a control deficit could arguably resemble those designed for general strain theory discussed earlier. Designing programs to convince individuals who are experiencing a control surplus to refrain from extending their control, or relinquish their control, appears to be a more daunting task.

Implications of Colvin’s Differential Coercion Theory

Programs designed to reduce delinquency and crime using the differential coercion theoretical framework would primarily target efforts to reduce the likelihood that coercion is destructively applied to individuals and secondarily target the social-psychological outcomes related to coercion. Colvin (2000) highlighted four possible outcomes through which controls can be manifested. The most compelling nondelinquent outcome is related to Type 1 (noncoercive, consistent). As such, parents and other individuals delivering social control might be educated or informed on the benefits related to Type 1 and the detriments associated with each of the remaining possibilities of delivering control. Assuming that some individuals will experience coercive types of control, programs might also be effective if they seek to strengthen the social-psychological dynamics (i.e., self-control) related to experiencing coercion.

Critiques of Integrated Theories

Although integrated theories have been important in providing an arguably more complex, yet complete, understanding of the causes of delinquency and crime over the life course, they are not without their limitations. To place these limitations into context one needs only draw on the literature documenting the characteristics of a “good” or “effective” theory. This section identifies and elaborates on some of the criticisms waged against integrated theories.

First, some scholars have claimed that some of the components of theories used in theoretical integration are based on opposing or competing assumptions. For example, a foundational assumption of social-control- based theories is that involvement in delinquency and crime is natural and thus individuals do not need any simplistic or elaborate means through which to learn the behavior. On the other hand, a foundational assumption of social learning theories is that individuals can manifest the behavior only once they have participated in a process through which the behavior was learned. Integrated theories that have used components of each of those two theories (i.e., Elliott et al.’s [1979] integrated theory and Thornberry’s [1987] interactional theory) have endured extensive scrutiny as to which of those two assumptions prevails in the theory’s development. It is clear that both of those assumptions cannot be true, because assuming one denies the existence of the other.

Second, the rise in theoretical integration is based on somewhat questionable assumptions. For example, compared with the approach of theoretical competition to advance scientific knowledge, some scholars argue that integrating criminological theories will result in the advancement of knowledge about the causes of delinquency and crime at an exceedingly faster rate. This assumption, however, is relatively shaky at best. Scholars have argued that theoretical competition is superior because it forces theorists to search for innovative ways of developing theoretical models.

Third, and related, theoretical integration, if not carried out carefully and thoughtfully, could potentially lead to sloppy theorizing. The integration of concepts into a theoretical framework must make logical and intuitive sense. If concepts are integrated only because they have been found to be strong predictors in isolated theories, then scholars risk jeopardizing theoretical parsimony, at best, and confounding theoretical principles, at worst. To provide an analogy, if individuals chose food from a buffet only because it was tastefully delicious without giving thought to whether the food was healthy, then individuals sacrifice a well-rounded, nutritionally balanced meal. In short, although integrated theories have been helpful in providing an arguably more complete understanding of the causes of delinquency and crime, their complexity makes them susceptible to a variety of potential limitations.


This chapter has not explored all of the sources or types of theoretical integration. In fact, a school of integration that is more eclectically based and approaches theoretical integration from a constructivist and postmodern stance was not discussed. The purpose of this exclusion is not because of an absence of scholarly interest in these approaches within the criminological community; instead, the exclusion is primarily based on the necessity to offer readers a variety of the testable modernist approaches that have at their focus a vision of the application of deterministic approaches to understanding the development of delinquency and crime.

It is often recognized that the world in which we live is becoming increasingly complex, and future generations face challenges unlike those that were faced by our predecessors. It should logically follow that the increasing complexity potentially impacts the causes of delinquency and crime by further opening up new fields of inquiry and recognizing and reconsidering the impact of risk factors from a variety of sources. Coexisting with the changes in society is a growth in the complexity of the theoretical articulations attempting to explain delinquency and crime. Although traditional theories have approached the development of theories within an intradisciplinary fashion or from a single level of inquiry (i.e., macro vs. micro), more recent theoretical attempts have integrated concepts from a variety of disciplines, at multiple levels, and have recognized the reciprocal nature of relationships between concepts.

The development of integrated theories has primarily relied on concepts within sociological criminology to provide an integrative foundation; that is, many of the integrated theories listed in this chapter (and those not listed) have generally had a strong reliance on concepts germane to learning and control theories while having secondarily relied on strain theories. On one level, these efforts demonstrate the field of criminology’s strong 20th-century tradition of limiting the causes of delinquency and crime to factors existing within the environment. As the field of criminology has matured, however, a significant emphasis has more recently been placed on integrating theories across disciplines. Isolating components of biological and psychological determinism and theoretically explicating how these factors could potentially interact with or become accentuated within the environment in which we live has proved to have a profound effect on the explanation of delinquency and crime over the life course. Moffitt’s (1993) work is perhaps the most blatant example of this type of interdisciplinary theoretical integration.

In closing, it is expected that future efforts at theoretical integration will continue to cross disciplinary boundaries, include multiple levels of analysis, and rely on more advanced statistical and methodological tools to impact the testability of the theory. It is hoped that future integrated theories are capable of capitalizing on the complexities and nuances that are experienced within an individual’s daily life. The increased precision associated with the refinement of existing, and the development of future, integrated theories, are likely to result in theoretical and empirical validity associated with the explication of delinquency and crime.