Attachment, masculinity, and self-control

AuthorThomas J. Bernard,Karen L. Hayslett-Mccall
Published date01 February 2002
Date01 February 2002
Subject MatterArticles
Attachment, masculinity, and
A theory of male crime rates
The Pennsylvania State University, USA
Attachment theory and research from developmental psychology
suggest that disruptions in attachments to primary caregivers in
early childhood have long-term negative consequences. Scholars in
the emerging field of men’s studies argue that boys
disproportionately experience these disruptions of early attachment
and that these disruptions are causally related to elements of what
is often described as the masculine gender role. These two bodies
of theory and research are combined with Gottfredson and Hirschi’s
(1990) theory of low self-control in a new theory of
disproportionate male offending.
Key Words
attachment • male crime rates • masculinity • self-control
Gender is the strongest and most consistent correlate of crime and delin-
quency (Bartusch and Matsueda, 1996). The explanation of gendered
differences in the likelihood of offending (the ‘gender ratio’ problem) has
received increasing attention from criminologists in the last several decades,
especially from feminist criminologists (Daly and Chesney-Lind, 1988).
Heidensohn (1997: 791) remarks that one of the lessons from all of this
material, ‘stunning in its implications,’ is that ‘we have to ask a different
Theoretical Criminology
© 2002 SAGE Publications
London, Thousand Oaks
and New Delhi.
Vol. 6(1): 5–33; 021193
question—not what makes women’s crime rates so low, but why are men’s
so high?’
In this article, we propose an answer to Heidensohn’s question. Our new
theory draws on three separate bodies of theory and research: attachment
theory and research from developmental psychology, theories of masculin-
ity from the field of men’s studies, and self-control theory from criminol-
ogy. Beginning in the 1940s, developmental psychologists have documented
that disruptions in early secure attachments to primary caregivers cause a
variety of problems in later adolescent and adult life (Roberston and
Bowlby, 1952; Bowlby, 1969, 1973; Loeber and Le Blanc, 1990). Since the
1970s or so, psychological studies of men (Levant and Pollack, 1995) have
led a fairly large number of theorists in the emerging field of men’s studies
to argue that boys are more likely than girls to experience such disruptions
in early childhood attachments, and that these disruptions may be the
origin of the masculine gender role. In 1990, Gottfredson and Hirschi
proposed ‘self-control’ as a stable construct causally related to the pro-
pensity to commit crimes, where low self-control people ‘tend to be
impulsive, insensitive, physical (as opposed to mental), risk-taking, short-
sighted, and nonverbal’ (1990: 94). They argue that low self-control arises
from ineffective parenting techniques in early childhood and stabilizes in
the individual by age 8 or so, after which it is relatively constant.
In our theory, we propose that ‘low self-control’ is a long-term effect of
disrupted early childhood attachments, as described by developmental
psychologists. In addition, we propose that the ineffective child-rearing
techniques said by Gottfredson and Hirschi to cause low self-control are
equivalent to the culturally normative parental child-rearing practices for
raising boys that are said by scholars in the field of men’s studies to be
associated with many of the later problems associated with the masculine
gender role. Thus, the gendered distribution of disruptions in early secure
attachments to primary caregivers ultimately explains the gendered dis-
tribution of the propensity to commit crime and delinquency.
Our theory is consistent with the empirical finding that crime and
delinquency are associated with a lack of attachment, but because we rely
on developmental psychology, our concept of attachment is quite different
from Hirschi’s (1969).1Hirschi describes the absence of attachment as
natural (i.e. the ‘Hobbesian’ state) and asserts that people enter into the
bonds of attachment only as a result of socialization. In contrast, devel-
opmental psychologists describe attachment as a natural inborn need and
assert that the unattached state (detachment) arises only when there is a
traumatic failure of the environment to meet that natural need.2For the
purposes of clarity, we therefore use the term ‘control theory’ in this article
to refer to theories in criminology (e.g. Hirschi, 1969) that describe the
natural state as one in which the person is unattached to others. We use the
term ‘attachment theory’ to refer to theories in developmental psychology
(e.g. Bowlby, 1969) that describe the natural state as one in which the
person is attached to others.
Theoretical Criminology 6(1)

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