By Danielle,

Blane David Nordahl and Social Control Theory

5/12/2012 DK 1 Comments

Blane David Nordahl and Social Control Theory

This essay will demonstrate how social control theory can provide explanations for criminal behaviours and motivations, with the example of an infamous burglar, Blane David Nordahl. It will argue that lack of positive relationships to family and lack of commitment to conventional institutions, activities and routines can often lead individuals to turn to crime. In particular, it will claim that Nordahl’s initiation into his life of property crime was first influenced by his unstable emotional and physical contact with his parents and lack of commitment to school. Further, this essay will suggest limitations and shortcomings of the social control theory in providing all possible and adequate explanations behind Nordahl’s or others’ property crimes, and what other theories may be relevant – namely, differential association, strain and anomie, and edgework theories.

Social Control Theory
Social control theory says that individuals turn to criminal and delinquent behaviours when their bonds to society are weak or broken (Hirschi 2002). Further, an individual learns not to commit crime by learning and internalising the norms and values of society through his bond to his intimate others, conventional institutions and society itself (Chriss 2007, 691). In explaining how an individual may “bond” with society, Hirschi (2002) distinguishes between four different ‘elements of the bond to conventional society’ (p. 16):

1. Attachment
Hirschi (1969) says that internalising norms of society means acting in accordance to the expectations of others in society. And to internalise the norms and values is learned by the individual’s attachment to others (Pratt, Gau & Franklin 2010, 58).

2. Commitment
‘Most people … acquire goods, reputations, [and] prospects that they do not want to risk losing,’ which consequently assures that individuals will abide by the rules in order to protect their commitments (Hirschi 1969, 21).

3. Involvement
An individual involved in conventional activities such as school and work, simply does not have the time and energy to engage in delinquent activities (Pratt, Gau & Franklin 2010, 59).

4. Belief
‘Delinquency is … made possible by the absence of (effective) beliefs that forbid delinquency,’ (Hirschi 1969, 26) and by those without a sense of strong values, mores and norms of society (Kmarquize 2010).

Blane David Nordahl
Blane David Nordahl is said to be a clever man, as a young boy at school and as a “professional” burglar (Masterminds 2010). While in jail for low-end burglaries in 1983 (Martin 1997), he is said to have learnt techniques from an inmate to become a better thief (Masterminds 2010): He quit drinking, smoking, taking drugs and started working out, building himself a fit and athletic body; he researched and studied the homes of the wealthy families of the East Coast and various alarm systems, and became an expert in sterling silver, his targeted goods (Dubner 2004). Nordahl would break into the homes silently by removing panes of glass from French doors, patiently test for motion sensors and sometimes even walk past the sleeping homeowners or guard dogs in order to approach the goods he was after. With his knowledge of genuine sterling silver, he would test the silver he stole and leave the plated or inauthentic ones behind. By the late 1990s, Nordahl was believed to have committed about 150 burglaries, netting three million dollars (Laurence 2004).

It is evident from the descriptions of his burglaries that Nordahl took his career as a burglar seriously: he studied and planned his crimes and target objects, and also seemingly had both psychological and physical abilities to successfully accomplish his plans. This, then, leads to a puzzling question:

1) Why did Nordahl initially turn to crime when he supposedly had the intelligence and fitness to achieve wealth or other socially accepted goals through legitimate means such as getting a good education and job?
This question, which assumes Nordahl’s desire to achieve his goals as prime motive of his property crimes, consequently leads to another question:

2) Were financial success, materialistic gain or any other goals Nordahl’s prime motives, and the reasons he stayed in a life of crime?

1. Why did Nordahl initially turn to crime?
To get a sense of what factors may have contributed to Nordahl’s criminal life, and in the hope of applying the social control theory mentioned above as a possible and central explanation for his initiation into burglary, it is essential to examine what is known of him from his early childhood – to find evidence of Nordahl’s (lack of) connections to his family and school.

Born in 1962 in Albert Lea, Minnesota, the United States, Nordahl was the first of the two children of David Nordahl, a famous artist, and Sharon (Stanley, Vigoda & Gambardello 1998). By the time he was eight, his parents had gotten divorced, leaving Nordahl to be “shuttled between the two of them” (Dubner 2004). According to the social control theory which emphasises the importance of one’s strong connections with his family in order to learn and internalise the positive mores and values of society, Nordahl’s future criminal behaviour along with his favourable attitudes towards it can be said to have its roots in his lack of stable contact with both of his parents together. This assertion is supported by Nordahl’s own account of his childhood when he said in an interview: “When I was really young, I was basically athletic … [b]ut then once my parents got divorced my mom kind of moved around a bunch. That kind of stopped everything.” He added that he was particularly interested in and good at working with his hands at school, saying “[i[f you learn at a young age, then you have an ability to visualise things, you have a natural ability-a natural balance … a coordination” (Dubner 2004). Perhaps this can be inversely linked to the claims of social control theory, that if you do not learn at a young age the values and mores, then you do not have an ability to visualise things – a “natural” ability to internalise and apply to yourself the values of society. Psychological, emotional and physical instability in terms of Nordahl’s relationship with his parents, therefore, can be one of the most significant and plausible reasons behind his initiation into his life of crime and his inability to relate to the values of the homeowners from whom he stole.

Although he is said to have done well at school, he had dropped out of high school and begun working in the construction industry. Soon after, at the age of sixteen, he was arrested for shoplifting. Since then, he moved to Santa Fe with his family, where Nordahl joined the Navy in 1980, dreaming of (or at least talking about) becoming a Navy SEAL (the United States Navy’s Sea, Air, and Land Teams) (Stanley, Vigoda & Gambardello 1998). Despite this goal, as mentioned above, Nordahl was arrested for burglary for the first time in 1983 (Martin 1997). In this aspect, in addition to his lack of stable and strong connection to his family, his lack of commitment to school and other conventional institutions can be another reason as to why Nordahl initially turned to crime.

It can be presumed that Nordahl did not see the significance of school education due to his separation from societal norms and values caused by unstable family relationships; he did not internalise and apply to himself the value of school education. By quitting school at an early age, he may not have learned or learned to internalise the commonly accepted societal values such as good education and well-paying and legitimate jobs, on which society puts a lot of emphasis. In other words, he had not yet formed important and positive prospects (as accepted by society) of his life he did not want to risk losing, and therefore, turning to crime was not necessarily detrimental to his life.

However, it should be noted here that Nordahl was said to have done exceptionally well in the Navy, being named sailor of the month and also receiving several commendations (Stanley, Vigoda & Gambardello 1998). If his aspiration to become a Navy SEAL was true, then he indeed had a positive prospect of his life and a socially accepted and respected goal which he (presumably) did not want to risk losing. Perhaps the conclusion that can be made here is that if he had maintained a strong bond to both his parents as a family, he may have been able to commit to his Navy career and refrain from a criminal life, able to recognise and internalise the value of his legitimate goals.

2. Were financial success, materialistic gain or any other goals Nordahl’s prime motives, and the reasons why he stayed in a life of crime?
This question imposes limitations on the explanations behind Nordahl’s criminal behaviour asserted by the social control theory. Social control theory may correctly provide reasons why Nordahl initially engaged in burglary, but does not solely explain why he continued to stay in a life of crime even after being arrested and sentenced several times (Stanley, Vigoda & Gambardello 1998).
Nordahl has been described as an ‘addict’ (Stanley, Vigoda & Gambardello 1998), incapable of changing or stopping his criminal ways, as he supposedly on many occasions, and during an interview, had talked about “putting all that behind [him]” just to go back to his criminal lifestyle after each release (Dubner 2004). He, however, as opposed to the claims of social control theory, has spoken of his dreams during an interview while in prison that he wants to “get into real estate, remodelling homes,” “be married … [and] have kids of [his] own someday”; he seemed to share the common values and mores of society. Moreover, he even recognised family values, claiming that he wants to “reconnect” with the family he has been distant from (Dubner 2004).
It is clear now that Nordahl’s attitudes towards his life of crime cannot be all reduced down to the assertions given by the social control theory that Nordahl committed crimes due to his inability to internalise the values of society. Then, what ultimately tied him down to his criminal lifestyle, making him unable to turn away?
There are several possible theories or combination of theories which may offer sufficient answers: differential association, strain and anomie, and edgework theories.

a. Differential Association
Consistent with the claim of the differential association theory that criminal behaviour, skills and techniques, its motives, attitudes and justifications are learned through interactions with one’s intimate others (Sutherland 1939), Nordahl is said to have acquired the skills and techniques of a successful thief from an inmate in prison (as mentioned above). Although Nordahl already had favourable attitudes towards criminal behaviour (since he had already committed a crime), his attitudes and rationales may presumably have been heightened while in prison, leading him to continually commit crime.

b. Strain and Anomie
Strain and anomie theory says that delinquent behaviours are likely to occur when an individual experiences strain (frustration) caused by an unequal distribution of the legitimate means of achieving the common goals of society such as financial and materialistic gain (Merton 1938, 672-4). Nordahl, who was ‘looking for easy money’ (Masterminds 2010), dropped out of school to work. Perhaps his income was not the sufficient amount Nordahl was after, and when he could not get a high-paying and legitimate job as a young high school dropout, he “innovated”, eliminating the ‘institutional means’ and employing illegitimate means – property crime – to achieve his financial goals (Merton 1938, 678). And as a consequence of his criminal history, he may not have been able to get a legitimate job if he ever tried to get one, therefore stayed in his life of crime in order to continue to gain financial success.

c. Edgework
The edgework theory says that some individuals engage in risk-taking activities to ‘experience the uncertainties of the edge’, and for the intense sensations of the risk-taking experience. Lyng (2005) claims that these risk taking behaviours are ‘a response to the over-determined character of modern social life’ (p.5). This theory is most consistent with Nordahl’s own account of his criminal behaviour when he mentioned in an interview that “when you’re young … if your life is mundane, a burglary can throw something in there” (Dubner 2004). It is arguable that he indeed was “addicted” to the sensation and excitement of burglary, unable to stay away from it.

As I have elaborated above, social control theory has its limits in providing adequate explanations for every aspect of Nordahl’s criminal behaviour. However, one possibility could be that a combination of all above theories can provide more sufficient explanations. For example, having inadequately learnt and internalised the values of society, Nordahl dropped out of school, which however, bored him due to a lack of commitment to and involvement in conventional activities (Social control theory). Moreover, he became frustrated as he was not earning the amount of money he was hoping to (Strain theory). As a result, Nordahl became engaged in burglary – a risk-taking activity (Edgework theory) which would, if successful, gain him “easy money” (Strain theory).
However, all four theories I have provided are structural and social process theories which do not take into account the rational agencies of individuals; they presume that individuals act according to their structural and social environment without free will. For example, many, if not most, individuals who experience the separation of their parents and the desire to quickly gain financial and materialistic success, turn to a life of property crime. This suggests that criminal behaviour is not inevitable within these certain environments; that individuals can make the decision not to engage in crime, independent of their environment. My final conclusion, then, may have to be that Nordahl’s and others’ crimes and motives cannot be reduced down to one aspect of crime causation (e.g., structural environment). Instead, there would need to be theories which account for both structural and social environments, and individual agencies.

Chirss, J., (2007), The functions of the social bond, The Sociological Quarterly, Vol. 48, Issue 4, doi: 10.1111/j.1533-8525.2007.00097.x
Dubner, S., (2004), The Silver Thief: The story of a burglar who was too good for his own good, Stephen J. Dubner, viewed 15 April 2012,
Franklin, T., Gau, J. and Pratt, T., (2010), Key Idea: Hirschi’s social bond/social control theory, Key Ideas in Criminology and Criminal Justice, Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE publications.
Hirschi, T., (1969), Causes of delinquency. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Hirschi, T., (2002), Causes of delinquency, New Brunswick, N.J., Transaction Publishers.
Kmarquize, (2010), ‘Control Theory and Deviant Behaviour’, Hubpages, weblog post, viewed 15 April 2012, <>.
Laurence, C., 18 January 2004. Rerun of perfect robberies leads to a gentleman thief, The Telegraph, viewed 13 April 2012, .
Lyng, S., (2005), Edgework: The Sociology of Risk-Taking, New York and London, Routledge.
Martin, A., 9 February 1997. Burglar Mined Silver from Rich of North Shore: Police believe Wisconsin man targeted wealthy and famous, Chicago Tribune, viewed 13 April 2012, <>
Merton, R., (1938), Social Structure and Anomie, American Sociological Review, Vol. 3, No. 5, American Sociological Association.
Papalia, P., 28 March 2012. Why you should care about public schools, The West Australian, viewed 16 April 2012, <>
Stanley, S., Vigoda, R. and Gambardello, J., 22 November 1998. Silver and Celebs: Twin draws for an area thief Blane David Nordahl combined an appraiser's eye with a burglar's stealth, authorities say., The Inquirer, viewed 12 April 2012,
Sutherland, E. (eds.), (1939), Principles of Criminology, Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott.
The Silver Bandit: Masterminds, (2010), television program, truTV, aired on 9 June 2010, Canada.

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1 comment:

  1. I was stationed with Blane Nordahl at the Weapons Station, Colt Neck, NJ. He was a Navy Mineman. I was there from 1981 to 1984. I was watching American Greed and saw the story of Blane, the name sounded familiar, then they said that he was in the Navy ,,,, then saw the picture of him. Ahh, yes I remember Blane. He was always squared away and motivated. Talked fast. Would have never suspected him as a thief. At least he was a pretty good one.