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Social Control

Updated: 4 July 2020

Social control is necessary to maintain social order – the functioning of society without chaos or continual disruption. It ensures that only a limited number of values and norms are acceptable . By so doing, it provides predictability, a key element that all societies need. Without having a considerable degree of prediction as to how others will act, peaceful and productive interaction between people becomes all but impossible.

Social control, therefore, makes society possible by ‘policing the boundaries’ and dealing with deviant and criminal behaviours.

Émile Durkheim (1893) argues that the limited number values and norms considered acceptable – the values consensus – gives a culture or sub-culture – a collective conscience. This values consensus is spread memetically to infect the minds of the members of the social groups. Functionalists tend to make the assumption that it is only when social control becomes ineffective that people turn to deviance and crime.

There are 2 forms of social control, informal and formal, and most societies have a mixture of these 2 approaches. Smaller and more self-contained groups tend to use more informal mechanisms. The larger and more complex a society is, the more it will tend to use formal mechanisms.

Informal social control
This is manifested in daily social interaction. The comments and ‘looks’ people give others who are transgressing or seem about to transgress the norms of acceptability act as a drag back to conformity for the majority of citizens. The family, the peer group, the local community and schools are all key institutions in providing the basis for informal social control. The effectiveness of informal social control can largely be attributed to the PURPLE vMEME’s need to find safety in belonging; thus, it cannot afford to be rejected.

Individuals and social control
Travis Hirschi (1969) attempted to answer the question: Why don’t people commit crime? He concluded that people committed deviant and/or criminal activity when their attachment to society is weakened in some way. Hirschi identified 4 social bonds that bind people to their society:-

  1. Attachment – to what extent do people care about the wishes and opinions of others?
  2. Commitment – the personal investments that could be lost if we commit a crime?
  3. Involvement – do people have the time and space for lawbreaking and deviant behaviour?
  4. Belief – how strong is a person’s sense that they should obey the rules of society? This will be influenced by how strong BLUE is in the individual’s vMEME stack.

Hirschi argues that improving each of these factors would strengthen a person’s overall attachment to society and, thus, lower the levels of crime.

The family and social control
David Farrington & Donald West (1990) link the failure of informal social control to the most important socialising agency, the family.

In the famous longitudinal study of delinquents in Cambridge, they followed 411 working class males born in 1953 until their late 30s. Farrington & West found that less than 6% of the total sample accounted for more than 50% of all convictions. They found consistent correlations between family characteristics and offending. In particular, offenders were more likely to come from homes with poor parenting – especially when the father had a criminal conviction. Offenders were also more likely to come from poorer, single-parent families.

Farrington & West’s conclusion that the failure of the family to provide adequate socialisation and informal social control can lead to crime, can be seen to support Hirschi’s arguments, especially in his factors of Attachment and Belief.

Norman Dennis & George Erdos (1992) argue that the link between crime and certain family characteristics is a reflection of wider changes in society. In particular, they argue the 3 generational family structure of grandparents, parents and children had provided stability and a place in which moral values and a sense of community had been passed on. Since the 1960s, though, changes in the family, especially the decline in the role and presence of fathers, have weakened the external patterns of social control based on families and communities where community members felt able to restrain extreme behaviour or young offenders. They have also undermined the internalised forms of social control that had occurred traditionally through family socialisation.

Dennis & Erdos are effectively laying out the breakdown 0f the family social control mechanisms outlined by Ivan Nye in 1958. Nye stated that youths may be directly controlled (external patterns) through constraints imposed by parents, limiting the opportunity for deviation, as well as through parental rewards and punishments. However, they may be constrained, when free from direct control, by their anticipation of parental disapproval (indirect control) or through the development of a conscience, an internal constraint on behaviour (internalised patterns). The focus on the family as a source of control was in marked contrast to the emphasis on economic circumstances as a source of criminal motivation at the time. Although Nye acknowledged motivational forces by stating that “…some delinquent behaviour results from a combination of positive learning and weak and ineffective social control” (p4), he adopted a control-theory position when he proposed that “…most delinquent behaviour is the result of insufficient social control…”

However, Phil Scraton (2002) accuses Dennis & Erdos of mixing up a moral argument with a sociological one and challenges them to produce the evidence to support their assertions.

The community and social control
Farrington & West paid attention to the social networks in which the family is situated.

Of great concern to Charles Murray (1990) are the links between family, community and offending. Murray (1989) has pointed to the emergence of the Underclass in the UK in the late 1980s in the same way it had begun to emerge in the USA earlier in the 1970s. Murray (1990) portrays the young people of the Underclass as…

  • having no desire for formal paid employment, instead choosing to live off benefits and the ‘black market’
  • preferring a range of short-term sexual liaisons to monogamy and marriage
  • regularly having children outside of committed relationships, with the fathers taking little or no responsibility for their offspring

The children of such people are brought up with little or no concern for the values of society in general. Consequently, argues Murray, they are more likely to commit crime.

Poorer communities, he says, are being destroyed by the Underclass who drive out the law-abiding majority. Isolated in sink estates they dominate, the Underclass become ever more confirmed in their attitudes and behaviour. See: Underclass: the Excreta of Capitalism.

A critical approach to informal social control
Critical or Marxist perspectives on social control reject the narratives developed by Hirschi, Farrington & West and Murray, etc. Instead they focus on the values imposed through agencies such as the education system and the mass media on working class people which benefit Capitalism but harm the working class.

Critical criminologists like Scraton (1997) argue that deviance is an indication of class conflict, reflecting the attempts of the working class to resist the oppression of the ruling class. In Scraton’s view, this will eventually lead to the collapse of Capitalism. However, Left Realists such as Roger Matthews & Jock Young (1992) see the decline in community controls and the resulting increase in crime and anti-social behaviour as directly harmful to the working class.

Steven Box (1983) takes something of a mid-way. Being almost neo-Functionalist, he holds that it is the release from social control that leads people to commit crime. However, he does concur with the more Critical viewpoints that it is the manifest unfairness of the ‘system’ – ie: Capitalist society exploits the workers for its own benefit – which leads people to react against it by committing crime. Box thus looks at the concept of informal social control from a left-wing, rather than right-wing approach.

Jacques Donzelot (1977) notes that it is working class families which are more likely to be labelled ‘problem families’ and, thus, decreed to need professional intervention by agencies of the state – ie: formal social control.

Formal social control
This is practised by specific social agencies which have the role of maintaining order in society. Arguably the most powerful of these is the criminal justice system. In the UK this comprises the police forces, the judiciary and the probation and prison services. Mention also needs to be made of Parliament, a key function of which is to legislate to regulate the behaviour of the population.

The Functionalist perspective
Functionalists tend to see the criminal justice system operating in the interests of society as a whole. Thus, the aim is to propagate and protect the collective conscience. While the values the law enshrines will be influenced strongly by the dominant vMEMES and memes in the culture – in 4Q/8L terms, the Lower Left influencing the social construction of the Lower Right – the criminal justice system of almost all Western countries is driven primarily by the BLUE vMEME.

However, there are values enshrined in law which not everyone subscribes to and there are some which are openly disputed. Thus, as discussed in Crime and Deviance – the Difference, the law may put down lines beyond which people may not transgress without it being seen as illegal and, therefore, the business of the criminal justice system; but the lines may shift and warp as the public response to prosecution of certain crimes changes over time and context/culture (eg: the carrying out of homosexual acts between consenting adults). In a democracy, the rule of law usually requires the ongoing consent of the bulk of the population.

For Durkheim (1893; 1895), the type of punishment meted out through formal social control reflects the type of society. Mechanistic societies base their systems of punishment on retribution, with savage penalties (often of the eye-for-an-eye, tooth-for-a-tooth variety) being imposed on the wrongdoer to demonstrate society’s disgust at the serious deviation from the collective conscience. Such punishments are usually physical and often public (for the deterrent effect), with wrongdoers being executed, mutilated, branded, etc.

Organic societies, according to Durkheim, are more advanced. The emphasis shifts from public punishment to imprisonment, with the aim of punishment being for the wrongdoer to make amends for their wrongdoing (restitutive law).

Marxist approaches
Marxist commentries, such as those by Stuart Hall et al (1978) and William Chambliss & Milton Mankoff (1975), argue that the criminal justice system acts solely in the interests of the Capitalist ruling class. From their perspective, they make the point that opposition to the ruling class is criminalised and quashed. Jeffrey Reiman (2006) argues that the law is based on outlawing certain acts typical of the working class while ignoring possibly more harmful acts carried out by the ruling class.

This view is based on the notion that the ruling class impose their values upon the mass of the population through the law. The ruling class establish this hegemony through a number of agencies such as the education system, religion and the mass media. This dominant set of values forms the framework on which laws are based in a democracy. The Marxist perspective portrays the mass of the population as agreeing to, as a result of their own beliefs, a set of values which are, in reality, in the interests of the ruling class.

Georg Rusche & Otto Kircheimer (1939) take the Marxist stance further by arguing that the forms of punishment for lawbreaking also reflect the interests of the ruling class and that, as their interests mutate and change, so do the forms of punishment employed. Using slavery as an example, they cite it as an early form of punishment because of the need for manual labour. In feudal times, the state used physical punishment as there was slightly less need for labour but the peasants still needed to be repressed. With the advent of Capitalism, prisons serve the dual purposes of training workers in long hours of meaningless work (eg: the treadmill) in poor conditions and of mopping up the unemployed. Rusche & Kircheimer support this view with the facts that prison populations swell in times of high unemployment and reduce in times of high employment.

Late-Modern perspectives
Michel Foucault (1977) prefers the term ‘discipline’ to ‘social control’, seeing discipline as combining informal and formal social control.

Focault notes punishment in Pre-Modernity as being about disciplining of the body – executions, cutting limbs off, flogging, etc – which were usually carried out in public so that people could be frightened by the pain they saw and be in awe of the ‘majesty of the law’ in action. However, the discipline or nature of formal social control by the state was haphazard and erratic. By Late-Modernity discipline and punishment have become more intertwined and subtle. Discipline, according to Foucault has taken on 2 principal characteristics:-

  • It is no longer haphazard and erratic but has become diffused through society with more and more agents of formal social control – eg: police and police community support officers, traffic wardens, anti-social behaviour co-ordinators, community safety officers, youth offending workers
  • It has gone from physical punishment imposed up on individuals to something much more subtle which leads to people generally policing themselves. So, instead of the state disciplining people through violence and the threat of violence, the state increasingly seeks to control people through ideas. Examples of this include the Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy courses prisoners must do on ‘controlling offending behaviour’ and curbing violence.

To some extent Foucault is echoing, but also extending, Durkheim’s distinction between Mechanistic and Organic societies’ approaches to punishment.

Foucault postlates that people often feel the ‘Big Brother’ state is always watching them. He uses the ‘panopticon’ prison concept to epitomise these ideas. This was a prison conceived in the mid-19th Century (but never built) in which prisoners were isolated in their cells which were arranged in a circular manner around the office of a prison guard. This envisioned that the guard could watch all the prisoners but the prisoners were not sure when they were being watched and when they weren’t, with the consequence that they had to behave all the time as the prison wanted them to.

In a similar analysis to Foucault, Stanley Cohen (1985) sees key themes in the changing nature of formal social control:-

  • Penetration: Cohen sees formal social control being extended from haphazard enforcement historically to penetrate right through contemporary society. Conformity and control are part of the job that schools, the media and even private companies are meant to engage in – an example of this being the Prevent campaign to get educational institutions to identify potential extremists
  • Size and density: Cohen notes the significant increase in the control apparatuses of society, with literally hundreds of thousands of people involved in imposing control and, over time, millions having that control imposed upon them. He notes that the range of control agencies is increasing and processing ever larger numbers of people – roughly 1/3 of all males under the age of 30 have been arrested in connection with a criminal offence
    Moreover, the criminal justice system is identifying new ‘social problems’ which require yet more control. For example, the social construction of the concept ‘anti-social behaviour’ at the beginning of the 21st Century drew in a range of behaviours – eg: young people hanging around bus stops and street corners, noisy neighbours, dropping litter and prostitution. To control such behaviours, a new office of ‘anti-social behaviour co-ordinator’ was created, with each local authority required to have at least one of them
  • Identity and visibility: While punishment may no longer be so public and obvious, Cohen points out that there has been in recent times a significant growth in subtle forms of control and punishment such as:-
    – Closed circuit TV
    – Tagging of suspects and probationers
    – Enforceable drug routines for the mentally ill
    – Curfews

Cohen also notes that the state has handed over part of its monopoly of control to private organisations, resulting in a growth of private security companies, a veritable army of doorstaff (bouncers) at clubs and even private prisons. These people are not the police but they carry out police functions.

Individual differences
The mechanisms of social control – informal and formal – do not exert a uniform influence. Many people engage in ‘deviant’ activity and many break the law – though few become regular offenders, with the notable exceptions of speeding and using mobile phones (both crimes many do not see as truly deviant). The majority of people do not acquire a criminal record during their lifetime.

It can be argued that some people are deviant and/or break the law because they have been inadequately socialised – a situationalist explanation of a breakdown of function producing a dispositionalist effect. These ideas are developed further in SocioPsychological Factors in Crime.

Marxist explanations might be that working class individuals being deviant or committing crime are doing so from an expression of class consciousness – or, if arrested and convicted, it may be that their working class activities are being punished because they are unacceptable to the ruling class. These are largely situationalist explanations.

Biological Factors in Crime are almost completely dispositionalist – ie: it is something to do with the individual’s physiological make-up that leads them to be deviant and/or criminal.

Permitted crime and deviance
Kai Erikson (1966) argues that a part of social control is the permitting of deviant – even criminal – acts under certain circumstances. Eg: demonstrations, carnivals, festivals, sport and students all permit certain behaviours that would be punished in other contexts. These are what David Matza & Gresham Sykes (1961) call subterranean values – ie: things people enjoy doing but would not want it to be known that they do them in ‘normal circumstances’.

Kingsley Davis (1961) contends that prostitution is tolerated to a degree because it can act as a safety valve for the release of men’s sexual frustrations without threatening the monogamous nuclear family. Ned Polsky (1971) argues similarly for pornography.

Of course, how loose or tight prevailing moral codes are to permit such deviations will depend on which vMEMES are dominating in the culture or sub-culture. BLUE will enforce moral codes rigidly but a RED/GREEN vMEME harmonic will be more liberal in its application of such codes, provided there is no obvious harm to others.


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