The Reconciliation of Control Theory and Career Criminals

Matt DeLisi, Iowa State University

In the 1980s, Michael Gottfredson and Travis Hirschi published a series of influential papers that were highly critical of the then-burgeoning criminal careeer paradigm. The heart of their critique was that a general theory equipped with a time-stable individual-level trait (e.g., low self-control) was the best, most parsimonious explanation of crime. By implication, they argued that cross-sectional research designs were perfectly suited to study crime and alrge-scale longitudinal designs were both costly and unnecessary. Consequently, control theory is often viewed as antithetical to criminal career research. However, control theory is not antihetical to the study of career criminals. The current essay suggests that control theory should be the preferred theoretical perspective for the study of career crimninals because its underlying assumptions about human nature and the early life causes of crime are reconcilable with the pathology of the worst offenders. The nefariousness of career crimninals is also consonant with the politically conservative nature of control theory. From a control theory perspective, a firm understanding of the intractable nature of career criminals would lead to more effective and less naive criminal justice policy.

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Updated 05/20/2006