Hirschi's Social Control Theory: A Sociological Perspective on Drug Abuse Among Persons with Disabilities.

From: The Journal of Rehabilitation  |  Date: 10/1/1995  |  Author: Alston, Reginald J.; Harley, Debra; Lenhoff, Karen

It is important to consider the social conditions of persons with disabilities who choose to abuse drugs. Hirschi's social control theory may illuminate the sociology of addiction for persons with disabilities. The purpose of this article is to examine the meaning of Hirschi's theoretical thesis for persons with disabilities, with particular attention given to the concepts of attachment, commitment, involvement, and beliefs. Specific Implications for rehabilitation counseling practice and research will be provided.

The rehabilitation literature is replete with studies which suggest a high incidence of substance abuse among persons with disabilities. For example, Stude (1990) estimated that the rate of drug abuse among rehabilitation clients may be as high as 40%. Further evidence exist which suggests that persons with disabilities are twice as likely as the general population to abuse substances (News in Mental Health Nursing, 1993). In response to the reports of prevalence, several authors have emphasized the need to develop services to treat persons with disabilities who abuse drugs (Frieden, 1990; Perez & Pilsecker, 1989). Despite the importance of estimating prevalence and establishing treatment modalities, greater understanding of the psychological and sociological factors which motivate persons with disabilities to abuse substances is needed.

Few studies have offered explanations for the conditions which lead to the abuse of substances among persons with disabilities. Alston (1992) explained how Beatrice Wright's (1983) suppositions on psychosocial adjustment to physical disability can be used to illuminate the issues involved in adaptation to drugs for persons with disabilities. Johnson, Gray, and Ososkie (1991) explored sexual dysfunction as a correlate of drug abuse among rehabilitation clients. Moore and Polsgrove (1989) explored how disenfranchisement, inadequate self-control, and sensation-seeking can serve as risk factors of substance abuse for persons with disabilities.

The aforementioned studies were primarily psychological in nature. There is a dearth of information concerning the sociological factors which may influence substance abuse among persons with disabilities. It is important that we consider the social conditions of persons with disabilities who choose to abuse drugs. Hirschi (1969) developed a theoretical approach called "social control" which can be used to illuminate the sociology of addiction for persons with disabilities. Social control theory focuses on the sociological forces that can prevent people from participating in deviant behavior. Deviance can be defined as beliefs, values, and/or behaviors which are inconsistent with acceptable social norms and presents harmful consequences for the individual and/or the public (Hirschi, 1969, 1977). Given the legal decrees against illicit substances, societal contempt and legal penalties for abuse of approved substances, and the inclusion of substance-related disorders in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association (American Psychiatric Association, 1994), it is safe to state that society regards drug abuse as a form of deviance.

Several authors have explored the significance of Hirschi's (1969, 1977) theory for interpreting deviance among nondisabled persons (Agnew, 1991; Empey and Stafford, 1991; Jensen and Rojek, 1992; Junger-Tas, 1992). However, there is an absence of literature which explains how the theory can be applied to understanding addiction among persons with disabilities. Therefore, the purpose of this article is to examine the meaning of Hirschi's theoretical concepts for persons with disabilities who are abusing substances. First, the elements of social control identified by Hirschi will be described. Second, a discussion of how the weakening of these elements can lead to alcohol and drug deviance among persons with disabilities will be offered. Lastly, specific implications for rehabilitation counseling practice and research will be provided.

Social Control Theory

Intrinsic to Hirschi's (1969, 1977) theory of social control is the assumption that persons will engage in delinquent behavior when their "social bond" to society is weakened. Hirschi's concept of "social bond" is comprised of the following four elements: (1) attachment, (2) commitment, (3) involvement, and (4) beliefs. Attachment refers to the symbiotic linkage between a person and society. According to Hirschi, individuals with strong and stable attachments to others within society are presumed to be less likely to violate societal norms. Conversely, an individual with weak attachments is assumed to be unconcerned about the wishes of others, and thereby inclined to deviate from social expectations. Thus, if one is attached to one's family, friends, and community institutions (e.g., church), one is less likely to deliberately engage in behaviors which would harm or distress the attachments. Although persons with strong family and community attachments can potentially abuse drugs, Hirschi hypothesized that they are more likely to contemplate their decision and avoid deviant behavior because of probable consternation from valued attachments.

Commitment refers to the investment an individual has in social activities and institutions (Hirschi, 1969). Hirschi's commitment construct is based on the premise that there is an association between level of commitment and propensity for deviance. Thus, an individual who has invested time, energy, and resources into conforming to social norms and expectations (e.g., pursuing educational goals) are less likely to deviate than someone who has not made such an investment. Hirschi asserted that individuals heavily invested in commitments have more to lose (e.g., interruption of career path) than those who are moderately invested or uninvested. Consequently, deviant behavior such as alcohol and drug abuse are less appealing to individuals with strong commitments.

Involvement is the third element of Hirschi's (1969) concept of social bonding. Hirschi postulated that large amounts of structured time spent in socially approved activities reduces the time available for deviance. Thus, an individual who is actively engaged in conventional endeavors (e.g., employment) simply has less time and opportunity to engage in deviant activities such as drug abuse. However, an unemployed or underemployed per, son has several hours more a day of free time in which to become enticed and involved in deviance. Hirschi contended that involvement such as being a parent or maintaining a job fosters discipline and regiment, and the discipline and regiment encourages a resolve to resist deviance such as substance abuse.

Hirschi's (1969) last element of social bonding relates to an individual's level of belief in the moral validity of shared social values and norms. In American society, certain values (e.g., monogamous sexual conduct) are espoused as norms. Hirschi suggested that persons who strongly believe in the these norms are less likely to deviate from them. However, those who question or challenge the norms have a greater propensity to behave in a deviant manner. The belief system concerning alcohol and drug use in American society can be complicated and confusing, Though social drinking is accepted, driving while under-the-influence is considered deviant behavior. Likewise, the use of prescription medication tends to be socially sanctioned. Reasonable medication for illness and pain is a belief that is encouraged and accepted in our society. Moreover, the legal and medical professions have established guidelines for what is considered a reasonable amount of medication. According Hirschi's logic, adherence to the belief and guidelines decreases the probability of deviance. However, substance abuse occurs when individuals exaggerate the belief and ignore the medical and legal rules.

Disability and Social Control Theory

Application of Hirschi's (1969) social control theory to rehabilitation requires an understanding of how the social conditions of disability results in greater vulnerability to substance abuse. Several authors have described a variety of factors (e.g., negative public attitudes, structural barriers, inadequate transportation) which may contribute to a weakening of social bonds for persons with disabilities (Deloach & Greer, 1986; Marinelli & Dell Orto, 1984; Wright, 1983). Many factors of social isolation for persons with disabilities can be explored in the context of Hirschi's four elements of social bonding. More specifically, Hirschi's elements can be used to hypothesize how social isolation and weak bonds can place persons with disabilities at higher risk for deviant behavior such as drug abuse.

Attachment -- Faulty perceptions of disability can lead to weak social attachments for rehabilitation clients. Wright (1983) asserted that persons with disabilities may be socially devalued. Consequently, they may find their prospective status as an accepted member of a social network (e.g., bridge club, bowling league) threatened due to the negative attitudes (e.g., view of persons with disabilities as pitiful and helpless) of nondisabled persons. Moreover, persons with disabilities may be shunned by others in their community because they are perceived as different or strange (Wright, 1983). Rather than confront frequent negative social interactions, the person with the disability may choose social isolation to cope (Deloach & Greer, 1986).

A potential outcome of continual social isolation is depression and loneliness, and a behavioral correlate of depression and loneliness can be alcohol and drug abuse (Clayton, 1992). Consequently, the perceived absence of interest and empathy from family, friends, and community may encourage drug deviance in rehabilitation clients. Social attachments with society may be regarded by the person with the disability as already distressed. Thus, concern for the reaction of significant others to alcohol and drug deviance becomes less of a constraint.

Commitment -- The employment and college enrollment rates of persons with disabilities is low in comparison to nondisabled persons (Bowe, 1992). Thus, there is greater likelihood that persons with disabilities will be less invested personally and financially in educational and career goals. It is important to note that lower output in socially expected activities by persons with disability is not solely the result of individual apathy and initiative. Rather, factors such as discriminant hiring practices, inadequate job and academic accommodations, and poor economic conditions contribute to the low representation of persons with disabilities on worksites and in classrooms.

However, less investment and commitment could potentially translate into a negative attitude (e.g., "I don't have much to lose anyway.") about life matters. Consequently, deviant choices such as alcohol and drug abuse may be viewed by persons with disabilities as less risky (Hirschi, 1969). Heinemann (1990) reported that employed persons with disabilities are less likely to use valium, cocaine, alcohol, or marijuana. Heinemann's findings give credence to Hirschi's notion that concern for loss of investment can deter deviant behaviors.

Involvement -- There are strong similarities in meaning between Hirschi's (1969) elements of involvement and commitment. Whereas commitment emphasizes time, energy, and self-investment in conventional behaviors, involvement focuses on the idle time available when one is not committed. Due to detachment from social institutions, many persons with disabilities are not engrossed in conventional activities (e.g., going to school or maintaining a marriage and raising a family). They more frequently engage in unstructured and unplanned activities such as "hanging out around the house" rather than structured activities such as participating in a school function (sports, music, a club) or working a part-time job (Greer, 1986).

According to social control theory (Hirschi, 1969, 1977), individuals possess unfulfilled needs or desires for excitement (e.g., sex). Furthermore, Hirschi asserted that everyone would pursue these desires constantly if time permitted. Periods of recreation are generally the moments that we pursue desires of excitement. However, preoccupation with conventional activities such as employment or parenthood limit our time for recreation as well as define parameters of acceptable levels of excitement. Since persons with disabilities are also desirous of excitement and have more opportunity for leisure, they may be particularly susceptible to deviance such as alcohol and drug abuse. Inordinate free time may allow for persons with disabilities to more easily and readily satisfy natural motivations for sensation seeking. Absence of involvement in common daily activities eliminates a primary source of restraint from deviant behavior for persons with disabilities.

Belief -- Hirschi's (1969, 1977) element of belief has significant relevance for persons with adventitious disabilities. Prior to the onset of disability, the moral belief system of the person, family, and friends are oftentimes consistent with social norms. In other words, there is respect for and obedience to rules and regulations of society such as appropriate usage of legal substances and non-usage of illegal substances. However, a modification and softening of the belief system may accompany the onset of disability. Family and friends may believe that a person with a disability is more entitled to use drugs because of the perceived loss of personage and independence surrounding the disability (Corthell & Brown, 1991). Thus, family members and friends of the person with the disability may encourage rather than discourage the consumption of substances. Feelings of guilt and pity can lead family members and friends to compromise their beliefs and values when it concerns the person with the disability (Wright, 1983). As suggested by Hirschi (1969, 1977), the compromising of societal values and norms can produce deviance. Ford and Moore (1992) described a case of moral compromise involving parents with previously strict values allowing the child with the disability to smoke marijuana in the home. According to Ford and Moore, the parents considered the compromise an allowable privilege since their son was under tremendous stress concerning the disability. When the person with the disability is given special treatment by family and friends because of the disability, enabling of alcohol and drug abuse occurs.

Implications for Rehabilitation Counseling Practice

Hirschi's (1969, 1977) constructs of social control are applicable to the prevention and treatment of substance abuse in persons with disabilities. It should be emphasized that the application of Hirschi's theory does not discount or contradict customary rehabilitation approaches. Instead, the suggested applications supplement standard service provision by providing a broader framework in which to view the abuse of alcohol and drugs by persons with disabilities. Since Hirschi's constructs are reciprocal, the following suggested applications have overlapping features.

Alston and Turner (1994) asserted that individuals exist in a systemic context, and the most immediate context is that of the family system. Consequently, a successful adjustment to any changes (e.g., substance abuse) that stem from a disabling event will certainly involve the family (Alston & Turner, 1994). The assertions of Alston and Turner are particularly pertinent to the notions of attachment postulated by Hirschi (1969, 1977). Rehabilitation professionals should utilize scales such as the Family Environment Scale (Moos & Moos, 1986) to assess the client's perceived level of family attachment and cohesiveness. If weak attachments are identified, rehabilitation professionals can gain permission from the client to interview family members in order to pinpoint areas of disunity and disjointedness. During the interview, the rehabilitation professional can emphasize the importance of input and social feedback from the family as a means of restraining deviance such as alcohol and drug abuse in the client. Lastly, a bridge to reattach the client with the family can be established through therapeutic strategies such as planned family outings and scheduled family conferences.

Beyond family attachments, healthy relationships with drug free friends are crucial as restraints to deviance. The rehabilitation professional can assist the client establish friendships by introducing them to social networks such as disability support groups and clubs (e.g., wheelchair basketball). Stable attachments with friends can buffer feelings of isolation and reinforce social feedback from the family.

The social bonding elements of commitment and involvement compliment the goals of rehabilitation services. For example, Hirschi's (1969, 1977) notions concerning commitment to and investment in conventional activities by the individual are exemplified in the Individual Written Rehabilitation Plan (IWRP). Because the IWRP requires considerable personal investment toward accomplishing the objectives of adjustment and the goal of gainful employment, it can serve to counter urges of deviance such as alcohol and drug abuse. Thus, the rehabilitation professional must continually stress commitment, concentration, and goal attainment to the client.

To neutralize deviance that may occur as a result of the client being disengaged and uninvolved outside of the rehabilitation office, the rehabilitation professional can coordinate participation in structured activities. Programs such as job clubs will consume time that might otherwise be spent contemplating and succumbing to thoughts of deviant behavior. Other activities such as working with disability advocacy groups and editing a newsletter should help to restrain substance abuse because of the concern that obligations will be neglected if time is spent sensation seeking.

To address deviant client behaviors emanating from noncompliance with socially accepted beliefs, the rehabilitation professional can utilize individual and group counseling techniques (Egan, 1990; Corey, 1981). The values of the client concerning alcohol and drug abuse can be explored for societal comparison and clarification. Although exercises on value clarification can be conducted during individual counseling, group counseling with others who share similar challenges may be particularly valuable. Within a group counseling context, clients could receive feedback on how their alcohol and drug usage is inconsistent with the values of larger society.

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA) programs are designed to address all four elements of Hirschi's notions on social bond. Persons with disabilities who attend AA and NA are provided with an instant attachment to a social network comprised of members who share the common goal of stopping their substance abuse. Daily participation in AA and NA can serve to reconnect substance abusers to their community, while giving them regular meetings and 12 steps of spiritual growth in which to become committed and involved. Moreover, a belief system which is compatible with many societal norms (e.g., belief in a higher power) is espoused in the 12 steps of AA and NA.


Much of the existing literature concerning the drug usage behavior of persons with disabilities is atheoretical. It is contended in this article that Hirschi's (1969, 1977) social control theory has usefulness in helping to explain some of the potential sociological sources of alcohol and drug abuse among persons with disabilities. As suggested by Greer (1986), substance abuse among persons with disabilities is a complex and multifaceted phenomenon that must be considered in a larger social context. Given Wright's (1983) assertion that disability status can lead to social isolation, Hirschi's hypothesis that weaker social ties (bonds) with society encourages deviant behavior is particularly pertinent to the prevention and intervention of substance abuse among rehabilitation clients.

Although sufficient anecdotal experiences exist to support Hirschi's (1969,1977) theory, empirical data is needed to definitively demonstrate its significance for persons with disabilities. For example, investigations which measure the level of association between the constructs of social control theory and the incidence of drug abuse for persons with disabilities is warranted. In a study of marijuana use among adolescents, Murray (1986) operationalized and established measures for Hirschi's (1969, 1977) elements of social bonding. Alston (in press) operationally defined and designed scales to assess frequency and pattern of drug usage relevant to persons with disabilities. Researchers are encouraged to review these two studies for guidance in designing investigations to explore the relevance of Hirschi's theory for persons with disabilities.


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Received: October 1994

Acceptance: December 1994

Reginald J. Alston University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Debra Harley

Karen Lenhoff University of Kentucky - Lexington

Reginald J. Alston, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Division of Rehabilitation Education Services, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 1207 South Oak Street, Champaign, Illinois 61820.

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