Social Control

views updated May 21 2018

Social Control

THE CONCEPTJesse R. Pivtts





Much of the impetus for the development and use of the concept of social control comes from the sociological adaptation of the Darwinian tradition. But there, however, the major dichotomy was between organism and nature; for the various theories of social control, it has been that between individual and society. It is assumed in these theories that society has to control the animal nature of man: if order is to be established and maintained, man’s tendency to pursue his self-interest to the point of a war of all against all must be limited through learning or selection, or both. Emergence of the concept of social control thus indicated a waning of the utilitarian concept of the natural harmony of self-interests.

Although social control is essentially an American term, it has its functional equivalents in European sociology. Durkheim saw the conscience collective as constraining men, with a power directly proportional to the intensity of the interaction around its specific representations, to behave in certain ways regardless of their own selfish interests. Thus a major function of social institutions such as the family, marriage, and religious cults was to increase the constraining power of the conscience collective; institutions were essentially agencies of social control. Implicit in Durkheim’s account of society was a concept of deviance as caused by“animal spirits”: without social constraint men were prone to violence and to selfish calculations, as typified by suicide egoiste and economic cmomie, or to the infinite pain of infinite desires inevitably frustrated, as typified by suicide anomique [seeSuicide, article onSocial aspects].

In consequence, Durkheim advocated, as a means of social control over the anomie endemic to economic life, the development of professional rganizations, in which intense interaction would result in the development of realistic codes of behavior and in their enforcement through constraint upon the conscience of each of the participants.

In The Rules of Sociological Method, first published in 1895, Durkheim pointed to another source of deviance:“premature”compliance, like that of Socrates, with currents of the conscience collective that have not yet reached the common man. This is essentially a structural approach to deviance; in Merton’s famous article (1938), this same approach issued in the concept of deviance as adjustment to the inner contradictions of a given social system rather than as an expression of untamed impulses. Here, however, the resulting concept of social control was not as well elaborated that is, unless we are satisfied with a more or less explicit concept of social control that limits it to purposive, rational social change aimed at removing these inner contradictions.

In fact, this has long been the approach of American sociology, especially in its early melioristic days. Ross, who is responsible for the popularity of the concept“social control”(it is the title of a book of his, published in 1901), described many of the themes that were to dominate American soci-ology until the late 1930s. First, there was the concept of the“natural order”derived from the spontaneous meshing of men’s personalities with their inherent capacities for sympathy and sociability, on the one hand, and from their sense of justice and capacity for resentment, on the other. Some of these capacities were seen as biological endowments, but the “sense of justice”was thought to be derived from the early development of self not only through interaction as such but also through the resultant internalization of the other, which results in a desire to behave toward others as one would want others to behave unto oneself. Baldwin (1895) was cited by Ross for an early version of a concept that has been attributed solely to Cooleythe“looking-glass self”.“Natural order”is thus similar to the state of the primary group as described by Cooley (1909), a state that the Chicago sociologists of the 1920s and 1930s believed was disrupted by urbanization, immigration, breakdown of the small community into competing groups, decline in the efficacy of natural selection (which used to eliminate“moral idiots“), and deviant behavior on the part of men with backgrounds different from those of the original settlers. As examples of natural order Ross cited primitive societies and even such modern settings as the California mining camp, where he thought social and economic equality had reigned before the coming of“adventurers and broken men from all parts of the world”(1901, p. 43).

As Martindale (1966) has noted, social control in Ross’s work has many features of social contract, since Ross defined it“as concerned with that domination which is intended and which fulfills a function in the life of the society”(1901, p. 16). Yet when he described social control in action, he fell back upon all the forms of the Durkheimian conscience collective that constrain the individual: public opinion, law, belief systems, education, custom, religion, personal ideas (among others, the basic definitions of manhood or womanhood), ceremony, art, personality (i.e., charisma), values, creative elites. The dilemma of the social behavior-ist (at least since the time of Lester Ward) is thus clear from Ross’s work: on the one hand, there is a Puritan assertion of the importance of the individual, especially of the individual with the proper instincts, as contrasted with the“moral idiots or moral lunatics who can no more put themselves in the place of another than the beast can enter into the anguish of its prey”(ibid., p. 50). These individuals can and should create a moral rational order to replace the natural order rendered unviable by greater population density and heterogeneity. On the other hand, Ross maintained that purposive social action, to be effective, must take into account the nonrational elements of social living, which may have Darwinian rationality, if not humanitarian rationality, on their side. But it is never made very clear how we move from the unintended but functional constraint of custom, religion, etc., to an“intended”and even more functional form of social control. Thus, in Ross’s discussions of social control we encounter either a description of the elements of social constraint a field that is equal to the whole of sociologyor pious wishes for rational action, which do not make particularly interesting reading.

W. I. Thomas, as would be expected from one who saw social structure as social definition of the situation, used the concept of social control extensively. He agreed with Ross that once society had moved away from primary group control, the problem was to develop rational controls. Thomas saw social control as emerging from the actions of a new type of man, schooled according to the theories of the philosopher John Dewey and therefore capable of creating new patterns as they were needed (see Thomas & Znaniecki 1918-1920; Thomas 1923). Park and his colleagues (1925) were also concerned over the shift from primary means of social control, such as the family, the neighborhood, and the community, to secondary means of social control, such as the police, the press, the political machine, and the courts. Park pointed out that intended control did not necessarily mean rational control, in terms of the utility of the total community. Drawing on another tradition, Mannheim (1935; 1950) again raised the question of social control through planning and contrasted it with classical liberalism, which could not secure controls over custom and the laws of the market. For him there was a sort of fixed quantum of social control: when some forms of control diminished, it meant that others were increasing, in accordance with what he called the“laws of transmutation.”Since controls were unavoidable, the attempt to deny rational, conscious control meant surrendering to nonrational, unconscious controls or to interest-group manipulations.

It is with Parsons (1951) and LaPiere (1954) that we see the concept of social control become systematically limited to the control of deviance. This approach to the concept eliminates from it the ordinary normative component consisting of social structure and, more specifically, the aspects of social structure that are concerned with socialization. A still more narrow definition is that of Sociological Abstracts, which reserves the rubric of social control to penology and the sociology of correction problems.

Parsons’ concept of social control is particularly fruitful because it is a systematic attempt to derive consequences from a specific theory of deviance. First, deviance is defined by“its tendency to result either in change in the state of the interactive system, or in re-equilibration by counteracting forces, the latter being the mechanisms of social control. It is presumed . . . that such an equilibrium always implies integration of action with a system of normative patterns which are more or less institutionalized”(1951, p. 250). Leaving aside the problem of error as deviance, Parsons addresses himself to the genesis of deviant motivation, which, in his opinion, is not to be found in“animal spirits”but results from (1) the learning derived from past interaction, (2) specific personality factors, and (3) the pressures and opportunities of immediate interactional situations. When role expectations are frustrated, the motivation of the actor is likely to develop ambivalence. Ambivalence means that the motivation of the actor contains both conforming and alienated components that may be directed at the normative pattern and/or at the relation with the social object (alter). The ambivalence can be oriented to an alter who, as a past satisfactory source of role reciprocity, had become the focus of positive feelings but who now, as a frustrator, becomes a source of negative feelings. Or it can be oriented to the norm that heretofore regulated the relationship between ego and alter and that has been internalized by ego, especially if the norm is seen as responsible for the frustrated role demand.

Ambivalence can result in three courses of action: first, the loss of any attachment to the object or the pattern (a movement from ambivalence to indifference); second, a compulsive expression of only one side of the ambivalence, compulsive because it must inhibit the unexpressed side; and third, the acting out of both the conforming and the alienated sides in contexts that are segregated in time and place. Although Parsons does not say so outright, one is led to the conclusion that the personality system will normally take the third course and try to discharge both components of its motivational states. If this is not possible, the result is more likely to be either compulsive conformity or compulsive alienation. And it is to these two last eventualities that Parsons addresses himself. Passivity-activity, compulsive conformity versus compulsive alienation, and orientation to patterns versus orientation to social objects are the three major dimensions explored in his analysis of deviant behavior.

This analysis results in the following insights. First, what may on the surface appear to be a conforming disposition may be so shot through with repressed alienation that as a result it is rigid, characterized by attempts to dominate the situation without due regard to the needs of alter. As a result, it is likely to be either deviant or deviance-prone. Second, since illness is a prototype of passive alienated behavior, it must be considered a pattern of deviance. Thus its incidence, form, duration, and so on, become susceptible to sociological analysis. [SeeIllness; Medical personnel, article onPhysicians.]

Turning to the situational aspects of deviance, Parsons mentions role conflict and value conflict. His insight here is that values, especially of the universalistic-achievement type, lend themselves to deviant orientation because they permit much leeway in interpretation. Thus we have deviant groups able to claim legitimacy as conforming to the“real”values of the society, and this in turn permits deviants to express both sides of their ambivalent motivation: conformity to their own group and its norms, together with alienation from the outside world and its norms. A good example of this is the radical Christian sect.

Although Parsons seems to believe that the grouping together of deviants increases their danger to society, he sees an ultimate source of social control in their ambivalence and in the bridges that these utopian or radical groups maintain to the main value pattern by claiming to be its real defenders. These bridges are the basis for the“selling out”that many members experience after a more or less protracted stay in the deviant organization.

Related to the deviant group’s search for legitimacy is the“secondary institution,”such as the youth culture or organized gambling, which allows some deviance from the dominant value pattern and yet keeps the participants integrated with this pattern. It is the prototype of institutions that both permit some expressions of alienated feelings and bring the actors back to conformity. [SeeGambling.] Such, too, is the function of bereavement rituals [seeDeath]. The secondary institution also insulates the deviant pattern and limits its impact on the rest of the social system. Insulation as a means of social control is to be contrasted with isolation, the latter aiming to forestall the grouping of deviants. An example of isolation is what occurs in the treatment of physical illness, for instance, although the treatment of illness as a whole is an example of insulation. And it is precisely in relation to the description of illness as passive deviance that Parsons makes his major contribution to the theory of social control. Taking the psychotherapeutic model as the prototype of the social control response to illness, he sees this process as including the following steps: support, permissiveness, restriction of reciprocation, and, finally, esteem for resuming conformity (Parsons 1951, chapter 7; Parsons & Bales 1955, pp. 38-41).

The relationship of this therapeutic model to the structure of social learning is clear. Social control, when it aims to alter the state of the actor’s motivation (rather than merely introduce the situational component of reliable and harsh negative sanctions) will follow the psychotherapeutic paradigm, most often quite unconsciously, and this will happen both at the level of dyadic encounters and at the level of institutional patterns, such as the bereavement rituals mentioned above.

The following analysis of social control stems from Parsons’ insights, but it focuses more on the institutional aspects and less on the motivational aspects of the problem. Thus, its main concerns are the institutional patterns that attempt to head off deviance by (1) preventing the buildup of tensions that result in a desire to deviate; (2) reinforcing the desire to conform; (3) making clear what is socially appropriate; (4) discouraging deviation by reliable negative sanctions and rewarding conforming behavior; (5) modifying social patterns to accommodate as much as possible the deviating behavior of actors.

Finally, a description is given of the“fringe organization”as one type of Parsons’ secondary institutions, and it is shown that fringe organizations have functional aspects for society even when they seem to give deviants the power of coalition.

Preventing the buildup of tensions

Prevention of the desire to deviate is, of course, one of the major functions of socialization. What is relevant here is the existence of structural arrangements for draining off tensions that otherwise might trigger deviant behavior. The buildup of tensions in an individual, caused by the inability of role behavior to reduce psychological need dispositions, makes him vulnerable to regression, i.e., to behavior which is not value-oriented and which is incompatible with his normal age, sex, and status roles but which would reduce these tensions. Hence, institutional arrangements have to allow regressive behavior either in isolated situations or in crowd situations where the behavior gains temporary legitimation through the collective aspects of the behavior, and yet the temporary character of the crowd clearly marks the irrelevance of the behavior for normal situations. This is preferable to the development of latent alienation in conforming behavior.

Primary groups, of course, offer this relative isolation. In fact, role behavior within them requires a capacity to regress and/or to tolerate this capacity to regress in others. Parenthood and conjugal relations are examples of primary group behavior where a capacity to regressidentification with the child, for instance is an important motivational facility. Family roles offer a most important sanctuary for much tension reduction and behavior that would not be tolerated in a public context. As a matter of fact, one of the most effective agencies of social control is the family, as indicated, for instance, by the finding that marriage is one of the action patterns that has the most positive rehabilitative significance for a young jail or penitentiary releasee (Glaser 1964).

Other modes of releasing tensions are the various forms of entertainment and play through which catharsis of antisocial desires can be secured. The “party”is a sort of institutionalized crowd situation where consumption of alcohol testifies that behavior“under the influence”does not imply a lasting commitment of the self to the pattern being indulged in at that moment. Saturnalia such as the German Fasching, carnivals, Halloween, and office parties perform similar functions. It is interesting to note that the wilder parties are typical of the lower-class males, the young of all classes, and the more cosmopolitan of the middle and upper classes. In the lower classes and among the young the problem of role frustration is acute. In the upper classes the opportunities for regression with immunity are at once a mark of class membership and a class asset.

The development of labor discipline in mass industry seems to have paralleled the development of mass entertainment, as if the tensions induced by the former could be endured only if the latter were available to provide release. Urbanism by itself creates many crowd situations where tension release can be secured. The development of the saloon offered an opportunity for adult peer grouping where a certain adolescent irresponsibility could be recaptured, and although it led a certain percentage of workers to alcoholism and family nonsupport, its over-all effects must have been to reduce working-class tensions.

Entertainment, through art, literature, films, ortelevision, has a social control impact that well illustrates the mechanisms described by Parsons in his psychotherapeutic paradigm. By showing the hero as subject to some foibles, the various art forms offer support and permissiveness. They allow the spectator to have a deviant fantasy without burdening him with isolative guilt. Art must follow canons of taste, and the audience has the duty to take a critical attitude toward the show. Accordingly, regression through entertainment is allowed only because entertainment finally sends the audience back to its cultural responsibility, and through this to its broader social responsibility (for one of the best accounts before Freud of art as social control, see Ross 1901).

Participation in the family, in peer group roles, and in entertainment roles acts as a powerful agency of social control, not only through the surveillance and sanction systems present in the primary group but also through the opportunity afforded the individual to give vent to motivations that cannot be accommodated in secondary group roles. Hence, it is possible to say that all work and no play can make Jack a deviant boy.

Religious services also act in this way, more obviously in the case of revivalist services. Such services not only reward conformity but also, through the function of the church as a“social placer,”stress rewards for proper motivation, regardless of actual success. Thus church going decreases the sting of failure by stressing the secondary importance of success in this world. If it did not, failure in this world might impel the individual to give up his conforming motivation. In this context it would be interesting to compare the rates of deviance of the western European working class with those of the American working class. The former has had the benefit of the secular religion represented by revolutionary socialism, while the American working class is largely bereft of this“Catholicism of the poor.”Socialism has removed the sting of failure from the urban proletarian condition. It has promised the workers special dignity in the socialist paradise if they keep on being deserving— which, in addition to joining political organizations, means rejecting a difficult, if not impossible, upward mobility and abstaining from the deviance seen as characteristic of that lower-class stratum which Marx called the Lumpenproletariat. Thus conformity for the socialist working man is not incompatible with dignity. The American working man, on the other hand, caught in a Puritan ethos of striving and with no sedative for the pains of failure, may well be prone to take the law into his own hands, i.e., strike out against the prevailing system through various forms of white-collar or blue-collar crime.

A functional and partial equivalent of the Catholicism of the poor is the gambling complex (Bloch 1962; Parsons 1951), which redefines life chances in terms of the “break”: thus, one’s status in life is not one’s own fault, since the same luck that puts you down may raise you up [seeGambling].

Reinforcing the desire to conform

The reinforcement of the motivation to conform was one of Durkheim’s major concerns. He saw social control (which he called social constraint) as derived from collective representations; its strength was directly related to the size of the group that shared those representations and to the intensity of the interaction between group members. All social institutions, according to Durkheim, had this function of heightening the strength of collective representations through increasing the rate of interaction. Ritual, on the other hand, increased the sameness of the shared representations at the same time that it grouped together masses of people (Durkheim 1912).

It is not necessary to accept Durkheim’s interpretation of the mechanisms whereby this heightening of the constraining power of collective representations takes place in order to accept the statement that ritual does act as a reinforcer of conforming motivation. It makes the actor feel part of an all-enveloping group that shares his attitudes and with which he can think of himself as standing in a primary-type relationship. The actor’s good standing in such a group depends upon his continued commitment to the symbolic system evoked by the ritual.

A rationally oriented society is certainly not free of ritual. One of the dimensions of mass entertainment is ritual. Rites of passage, such as commencement exercises, make clear to the individual that he has changed groups and that he must not regress to behavior which might have been proper for the group he has left but is not functional for the groups he has entered.

Ritual operates as an emblème of membership. In modern society the commitment to the over-all community, a necessary but not a sufficient condition for commitment to its inner role structure, is stimulated by collective movements that demand the expression of conventional sentiments. These collective movements are triggered by dramatic events such as Lindbergh’s flight to Paris, President Kennedy’s funeral, or any dramatic event where common feelings are aroused in many people. Press, radio, and television are crucial to this process. At such times the nation becomes palpable to the individual. How often these movements are necessary and what form they take deserve more research than has been forthcoming heretofore (see, however, Shils & Young 1953; Greenberg & Parker 1965).

Finally, the extension of education has greatly reinforced popular commitment to the nation’s values and norms. As modern society allows and demands ever-increasing initiative from the individual rather than binding him to traditional role expectations, the more imperative it becomes for society that individual commitment to values and norms should be thorough.

In situations where role behavior is largely invisible and/or where the alter of the dyadic relation is unable to evaluate whether ego is really upholding his end of the bargain, a long educative process is as necessary for building value controls as it is for imparting technical skills. This is true of most professions. Such occupations as watch and television repair, in which role behavior is also invisible, do not get this expensive value training, with the result that deviance is much more extensive in these trades than in the professions.

Clarifying the content of conformity

Reinforcement of motivation is of little avail in forestalling deviance if there is ambiguity as to what is conformity and what is deviance. While there are always some areas of anomie in any complex society, an additional hazard is the pressure that the individual generates against the norms through developing idiosyncratic definitions of the situationdefinitions that legitimate for him behavior that to others seems clearly deviant (Sykes & Matza 1957).

Primary groups have the capacity, through their close contact with their members and the high rate of communication which prevails among them, to make very clear what is desired or what is prescribed behavior. By confronting the individual’s incipient idiosyncratic definitions of the situation with its own definitions, the primary group brings the individual back into line. There are areas of behavior, however, where individuals can become quite isolated from all primary group influence without seeming to be. Marginal people are especially prone to this invisible isolation. Cressey (1953) has shown how the first-time embezzler is often a man who becomes socially isolated with respect to a financial problem because the very existence of the problem already involves deviance from status group norms. Around this“unshareable problem,”as Cressey calls it, the individual develops a series of rationalizations (“I’ll put it back Monday,"“It is only a loan,”etc.) that for him justify his dipping into the till. Without primary group confrontation, the individual is defenseless against definitions of the situation that eventually make him an embezzler. Cameron (1964) has shown that most of the shoplifting in stores seems to be done by“respectable”housewives who do not think of themselves as thieves until confronted by the procedure of arrest. The very low rate of recidivism among shoplifters seems to warrant the conclusion that here arrest and its trauma are able to break through the pattern of rationalization and force a shoplifter to cease and desist, on pain of accepting a redefinition of herself as a thief.

Arrest and the“ride downtown”force a deviant to face a potential reidentification of himself as a thief, an addict, a masher, a“drunk,”or, more generally, a“criminal.”The degradation of the deviant is, of course, a way to make clear to the onlookers and to the deviant himself the negative quality of the behavior they have witnessed. For the middle class or the“respectable”working class the administration of justice, with the process of arrest, trial, and punishment, is one of the most effective means of making very clear what is not appropriate behavior. This is largely because of the horror and ignorance that the average middle-class citizen has of anything connected with the police, courts, and jails. For the experienced lower-class delinquent the vagaries and failings of the system, such as“plea copping,”bargain justice, entrapment, etc., are all proofs that“square”norms are false and/or inconsistent. If anything, experience of the system provides support to underworld definitions of the situation. But for the middle-class person, horror of the apparatus of justice tends to lead, often enough, to such cautious behavior that the individual may even fail to exercise his rights to the fullest because of his desire to stay away, at all costs, from the machinery of justice.

The upper-class deviant, usually well protected by his class power from detection or prosecution when committing crimes of the assaultive or sexual variety, is frequently engaged in testing how far he can go in such areas as income tax evasion, restraint of trade, lobbying, and patent infringement. The high executive, unless restrained by ideological considerations, is likely to be searching for the exact definitions of deviance through pushing his advantages until restrained by legal statutes firmly applied. The performance, or societal, aspect of his role is the production of maximum economic wealth at least expense, and his sanction is profit. As a result, he will seek to maximize sale valueand minimize costs by innovation. Such innovation is a positive name for deviance. The entrepreneur operates in a situation where he promotes ambiguity and resolves this ambiguity through the rationale of profit. He relies on the state to uphold the broader societal interest by setting limits and defining the proscribed. [SeeCrime, article onWhite-collar crime.]

Thus Durkheim’s analysis of anomie in the economic field is not obsolete. In the Preface to the second edition of the Division of Labor he offers the corporationan organization including both employers and employees as a means of social control. What has actually occurred, in the United States at least, is the development of an executive community with certain general standards regarding the responsibility of the group toward the broader community. This has sometimes been referred to as the “professionalization”of business. Regardless of the merits of that concept (for which see Barber 1963), the increasing level of education of the entrepreneur is bound to make him more sensitive to societal considerations.

The role of ideology

In areas of norm conflict, and where there have been changes in the hierarchy of norms, ideology often emerges as a clar-ifier of what is desirable. Ideology heightens the goal tensions of actors in situations that are relatively fluid because of change or conflict, or both. It promotes the“bending”of institutional arrangements so as to permit the implementation of the goals prescribed by the ideology. It orients choice, when choice is possible, and encourages dominance of the ideological goal over the institutional goal, rewarding the actor through the feeling of duty done, regardless of the possible consequences of action. As a result, ideology can secure commitment to action when the latter results in little or no positive reciprocation from the objects of that action, at least for a certain time.

Besides its function as a norm setter in times of social change, ideology also operates as a Utopian norm setter that may actually stabilize institutional norms. Ideology may state the preferable rather than the expected. Since all norms are violated to a degree (quantitatively and qualitatively), setting the norms at a higher level than expected has a certain functionality in securing the necessary level of compliance, provided that the“deviant percentage”does not destroy the prestige of the ideal norm.

In organizations where stress situations are frequent but unpredictable in their scope and incidence, such as the armed forces, police forces, and fire departments, the problem of maintaining compliance is solved by treating the conformist to the ideal norm as a “hero”a positive deviant, but a deviant nevertheless. Thus the average member is relieved from the guilt of nonconformity, and there is little development of counteraggression against the ideal norm. Military peer groups may say“Never volunteer,”but nevertheless enough soldiers do.

The law as ideology

The law has been used, especially in the United States, as a promoter of various kinds of social changes. This is equivalent to treating the law essentially as a statement of ideology. At the present time the federal government of the United States is using law as an instrument for changing the social status of the Negro in the South and, to a lesser degree, in the North. Although Sumner’s classic critique (1894) of the“absurd effort to make the world over”still holds true in general, there are nonetheless situations where law judiciously enforced can act as an agent of social change. To take the Negro civil rights issue as an example, it requires, first, the growth of ambivalence in Southern commitment to the caste system and a growing number of supporters for the federal position among the white population. Through judicious enforcement of the law the federal government can create situations in which the Southerners committed to the caste system find enforcing its norms too costly and therefore begin to look on surrender as honorable, because it is into the hands of impersonal but respected powers such as“the court”and“the law of the land.”Every failure of the caste system to enforce its norms decreases the power of these norms; every success in enforcing the federal norms strengthens these norms. However, the federal norms, being supported only by a minority, require for their enforcement a reliance upon force that is expensive and partly self-defeating, because force clearly reveals how little support they enjoy from the local mores.

The role of the law as a specifier of the proscribed is fully discussed elsewhere [seeLaw]. One aspect of this role that deserves special mention here is the contradiction in which the legal process finds itself. In the trial the lawyer defends the law against such deviant tendencies of the state as its propensity to abuse its power in order to secure what it believes to be desirable community ends. The lawyer accomplishes this by forcing the state to follow the rules of evidence and the inherent logic of the legal codes. Through his success the majesty and sacred character of the law are reinforced, especially among the middle classes, who can comprehend the logic of these procedures (though more often through the way in which they are represented by television and the movies than through any actual witnessing of them). On the other hand, it is a natural consequence of the legal process that a certain number of criminal deviants fail to be convicted and punished. Knowledge that this is so weakens the authority of the trial in the eyes of spectator and culprit alike. It increases the pressure for“police justice,”or the informal disposition of cases by policemen on the spot. It also increases reliance upon the informal sanctions of the social class system. Acquittal in court comes to mean not innocence, but that the state was unable to prove guilt.

Reinforcement of the sanction system

Sanctions can be negative or positive, that is, they can punish deviance or reward conformity. Most of the rewarding of conformity takes place through the regular role meshing and role reciprocities of the social structure. It is in this sense that Durkheim is right: all aspects of social structure have a part to play in social control. Here, however, we are primarily concerned with sanctions as deterrents. The effectiveness of a sanction system in discouraging deviant behavior is, we may suppose, directly related to the strength of the sanctions and to their reliability. In fact, if we extrapolate the findings of Lazarsfeld and Thielens (1958) concerning college professors under the cross-pressure of left-wing peer groups and right-wing Congressional investigating committees, we can add that the reliability gradient of sanctions may be more important than their severity gradient. For instance, the difference between the rates of stealing in rural and urban districts, other factors being held constant, can be partly explained by the comparative ease of hiding stolen property in the city because of the lower surveillance capacity of the collectivities in which the urban deviant spends his life. In the city, neither physical proximity nor constant visibility implies a primary group concern for or interest in alter. Thus, detection and negative sanctions are easier to escape in the city even while the symbolic potential of the mere possession of goods increases. There is little knowledge of the owner’s roles outside of the property context, and specialized agencies such as the police cannot duplicate the ubiquitous surveillance of long-established neighbors with firsthand knowledge of each other’s financial capacities. Hence, the higher the turnover of neighborhood membership, the greater the penetrability of primary groups (and the greater the ease of departure from them), and the weaker the negative sanctions against all forms of misappropriation of property. For instance, the Chicago racketeer can become a respected real estate operator on the West Coast. To cope with the problem of the invisible past in a mobile society, state and private organizations have developed their own system of investigation, in which the secret personal file has replaced fallible public reputation.

Class discrimination is more effective the closer one comes to the upper-class status group because, at that level, numbers are comparatively small and contacts are maintained through a high rate of sociable interaction and entertainment. As a result, in such circles reputation is more effectively used as a mechanism of social control. For instance, arrest and imprisonment are not a serious disgrace to the lower-class deviant, since he shares in a contraculture, one of the functions of which is precisely to neutralize the impact of such public degradation or loss of self-esteem. But arrest and imprisonment are major catastrophes to a middle-class deviant or to anyone not defended by a delinquent contraculture or subculture.

Thus class sanctions are among the most effective sanctions available for social control. They often act as agents of social control even among those whose self image is one of inured criminality; for instance, it is rare that criminal fathers will not attempt to raise their children to be “straight.”Wives and children are the hostages of the class system, and many a criminal has retired from crime, many a conformist has remained a conformist, because of the fear that his family would suffer negative sanctions if his deviance should become known.

The upper class exercises powerful control over the successful entrepreneur of lower-class origins who attempts to continue the self-seeking and deviant orientation that has been so profitable to him in the past. By forcing the upstart’s family into a marginal position in which the children are led to judge their parents by standards that the parents cannot learn, the upper class fosters tensions that have literally destroyed many such families. Indeed, the effectiveness of this kind of class system as a sanctioner derives from the fact that it does not debate with the individual as to his guilt or innocence. Instead, it acts upon the basis of reputation and of its members’ response to the actions of the individual in question. Since the individual grants legitimacy to the class he aspires to join, his anxiety, generated by the invisibility of his judges and by the uncertain incidence and magnitude of their sanctions, causes him to undergo anticipatory socialization and to overconform well before he receives the rewards of membership. [SeeReference groups.]

Social class sanctions do not require the promise of social mobility to be effective. In fact, a high rate of social mobility may reduce the screening capacity of status groups. In low mobility systems the upper social classes confer esteem on selected lower-class families for their outstanding conformity and thereby raise the latter’s standing within their own status groups. A weaker class system, such as may exist in the Soviet Union, requires, for the functional equivalent of social class sanctions, the systematic surveillance of the citizen by the state through a large police force, much of it secret, assisted by the citizen militia, factory committees, wall newspapers, and the like. To be as effective as social class sanctions, this kind of surveillance, in its arrest and trial procedures as in all else, must be as one-sided as is the court of social class.

Although social classes share certain broad judgments as to the severity of crimes, they do not agree on the evaluation of certain points of behavior. Each social class has its private culture as well as its private language. For instance, some upper-class groups tolerate extramarital sexual patterns that would be considered deviant by the classes beneath. One of the reasons for this upper-class tolerance is precisely the intolerance that prevails among the classes beneath them. Lower-class deviants are sometimes protected by upper-class persons merely in order to degrade the middle-class standards that these deviants have transgressed. Thus, any exacerbation of the class struggle weakens the efficacy of the class system as an agency of social control.

Force as negative sanction

The main asset of primary groups and of the status system as agents of social control is that their sanctions are pervasive in their incidence and impact and that even the deviant is usually highly motivated to maintain group membership. Accordingly, the most drastic sanction at the disposal of these groups is ostracism, which can use force, although it does not usually do so. More often, legal use of force is the monopoly of the state. In any case, force always stands behind the penalties meted out by the apparatus of justice, even when these penalties are merely fines and damages. Force is, of course, the ultimate deterrent and a most powerful means of social control. It can prevent an individual—either directly, through incarceration or death, or indirectly, through threatsfrom doing something which the state forbids. In fact, force seems much more effective in prohibiting action than in promoting active conformity. As soon as role tasks take on any sort of complexity, they require a degree of cooperation on the part of the individual that force alone cannot secure. Force can only coerce the visible—the body and its movements—while cooperation, which involves the use of intelligence and good will, is invisible. It is difficult for force to secure cooperation in the sense just described unless the following two conditions are met: (1) members of the deviant’s primary groups can be used as hostages, or the deviant can be blackmailed, explicitly or implicitly, through the possibility that he may be expelled from cherished reference groups; (2) the use of force reasserts the legitimate authority of him who uses it by certifying that he takes his responsibilities and convictions seriously.

The deviant can also be compelled by force to participate in roles where force is not a major aspect of the interaction. Such roles may have, as will be seen from the discussion of prisons, a socializing influence. At one extreme is the“brainwashing,”the effectiveness of which seems to have been exaggerated, which took place in the Chinese prisoner of war camps in Korea. At the other extreme is the therapeutic relationship which commitment to a mental hospital may permit. But once childhood is over, punitive justice is the only expression of force that most citizens of modernized societies are ever likely to experience. Force certainly has a bad reputation in intellectual circles, and it is true that punitive justice acts at least as much through the stigma carried by its penalties as through its incarceration or rehabilitation programs. By stigmatizing the deviant, punitive justice passes on to him the pervasive sanctions imposed by the primary groups and by the status system. For those who no longer wish to belong to the community of the righteous, these secondary sanctions are meaningless; in fact, to have served a prison term can, in the“negative status group”composed of fellow deviants, be a claim for prestige. But secondary sanctions act as powerful threats for those who conform primarily because they are afraid of downward mobility. The latter not only fear the sanctions of punitive justice but even come to look on avoidance of these sanctions as a reward for conformity. The more gruesome the imagination of what the deviant endures, the stronger the conformist’s “relative appreciation”of his own fate. As a matter of fact, the imagination is often worsethan the reality, since those who feel but resist temptation usually stay as far as possible from the areas where they might develop a realistic knowledge of punitive justice.

Those who insist most vehemently that the brand on the deviant should be deep and lasting are likely to be those for whom the tangible rewards of conformity are relatively few and for whom virtue must too often be its own reward. Frequently they are the ones who live closest, in terms of social distance, to the lower class, from which most blue-collar criminals issue. They are middle-class-oriented working-class, the“poor but honest,”or lower-middle class freshly arrived from the working class. Thus stigmatizing the criminal reinforces and stabilizes their sometimes tenuous, imperfect, but often hard-earned superiority of status. Members of such lower-middle status groups, with the possible exception of primary and secondary school teachers, have not had enough education to permit them to handle ambiguity with any ease. For them the attempt to sympathize with the deviant does not imply the self-administered status reward implicit in the sophisticated forgiving attitudes that may prevail in status groups further removed from the lower class. More often they see in this attempt a degradation of their efforts to remain conforming and a denial of their social distance from the deviant. Thus, in these groups, punishment of the guilty is a reward for those who have remained innocent.

The medicalization of deviance

The diffusion of Freudian thought since the 1920s has had a significant impact upon the distribution of stigma and the incidence of penal sanctions.

First, it has been a force for redefining certain aspects of deviance as illness rather than crime. It is not that the act thus incriminated loses its deviant characteristics, but that the sanction considered suitable to it is no longer of the penal variety. Second, illness is no longer seen as a result of unfortunate or contingent factors, but as related to unconscious motivation. Deviants are no longer so guilty of their crimes, but neither are they so innocent of their illnesses, not only mental illnesses but physical illnesses and accidents as well. And since it is believed that there is an effective therapy for illnesses, whether mental or physical, the deviant who fails to place himself in the hands of the medical profession is guilty at least of enjoying “secondary gains” (Rieff 1959; 1966).

It has been thought by some that the medicalization of deviance has resulted in weakening sanctions to a point where individual responsibility and conformity are endangered. There is no hard evidence on these points. True, the upper classes meet with less tolerance for the vices traditional to their status. On the other hand, judges will often commit the rare middle- and upper-class culprits who come before their courts to a course in therapy rather than to a stay in jail (however, these deviants may well find therapy more painful than jail, even if the social repercussions are less drastic). Lower-class culprits, especially adolescents and young adults, are more likely to be committed to mental hospitals and to find that their sentence is indeterminate. As a result, they may stay in the hospital longer than they would have stayed in jail. Szasz (1963) and other writers have stressed the threat to civil liberties implicit in present commitment and sanity board decisions.

No doubt medicalization has resulted in extending immunity from punishment to certain culprits. However, it would seem that medicalization is one of the most effective means of social control and that it is destined increasingly to become the main mode of formal social control. Its advantages are many. For instance, the medical and paramedical professions, especially in the United States, are probably more immune to corruption than are the judicial and parajudicial professions and relatively more immune to political pressure. This is partly due to the fact that the social distance between patient and therapist is greater than that between lawyer and client. Although the doctor has more power in his clinic than the judge has in his courts, the possibility that a patient may be exploited is somewhat minimized by therapeutic ideology, which creates an optimistic bias concerning the patient’s fate. American psychiatrists are better trained for their role than American judges are for theirs. Hence, in the competition for administering formal sanctions it is possible that the medical professions will win out. Signs of such a victory would be the transfer of divorce cases to medical and paramedical boards, the end of juvenile courts, and the development of social psychiatry.

The medicalization of deviance denies the deviant the possibility of value legitimacy: If the culprit pleads illness, he thereby certifies his commitment to the dominant values and institutionalized norms and implies that, when restored to health, he will conform. Meanwhile, he must deliver himself into the hands of the medical authorities and follow their instructions in order to regain mental health. Thus the medicalization of deviance results in the political castration of the deviant.

However, medicalization does permit a less wasteful and more flexible handling of deviance.Except for“organized”crime, such as the provision of gambling opportunities, the drug traffic, and prostitution, it is probable that most“crimes”(that is, forms of deviance classically subjected to court action) are committed by ordinary citizens rather than by members of the underworld. The disadvantage of criminal prosecution is that it can secure reliability of expectations regarding the deviant only at the price of boxing him into a stereotype that he then finds almost impossible to escape. In a sense social order, for its own preservation, requires him to become a stereotyped criminal. But forms of deviance that cannot be continually subjected to court action—forms that might be called the criminality of everyday life—must be ignored by the institutions of formal social control and left to the sanction of informal interaction and social class. The medicalization of deviance offers yet another possibility: social pressures on deviance can be increased without boxing the deviant into as rigid a category as “criminal.”

The strength of informal sanctions is declining because of the increase in geographical mobility and the decrease in the strength of the traditional status groups. Medicalization offers a substitute method of controlling deviance—a method that is being used increasingly by universities, large corporations, professional organizations, social work agencies, and even by trade unions to control their own members and clients. The increasing commitment of the general population to absolute values—a commitment due partly to increasing education—makes a therapeutic approach more practicable. But the growing complexity of the division of labor and the increase in the zones of autonomy that are possible in the new bureaucracies (Crozier 1963) make it more imperative that the decisions which are taken by employees should be“reasonable.”It is the problem of the pilot with the atomic bomb. An even greater sector of the population works with similar responsibilities. Thus social control becomes more humane and forgiving, but perhaps also more relentless and pervasive.

Although mental illness carries a stigma that may create resistance in the deviant to the role in which medicalization has cast him, it may also compel the referring authority to give the“new”patient a second chance, if the medical profession certifies him improved or cured. This can decrease the deviant’s fear of being stereotyped and so reduce his resistance to treatment.

Because the medicalization of deviance is imperfectly institutionalized, there are still problems in the handling of medical files, and past treatment may become an unnecessary bar to certain positions. These problems are likely to be worked out as institutionalization proceeds and as scientific knowledge of personality potential and effective role requirements becomes more widespread.

The medicalization of deviance has so far provided greater flexibility of response to deviance, together with more effective detection. This is partly because those who support and implement the medicalization of deviance now oppose many of the existing institutionalized arrangements for social control. Indeed, problems of control have been created in institutions such as prisons, communities for juvenile delinquents, and mental hospitals by the frequent identification of the professional with the deviant and their joint hostility to the petty bourgeois-oriented custodial staff. The unconditional rewards the professional staff offers to the deviants in order to establish therapeutic dyads, and also in order to degrade implicitly the status of the custodians, demoralize the latter, who see deviants secure favors and commercium with upper status groups that are denied to them. Their response is to sabotage the therapeutic program and try to take back the favors.

Modification of social patterns

Social control is not exclusively concerned with trying to change deviant motives; it also operates by systematically isolating the deviant from the rest of society through the agency of such specialized organizations as hospitals, prisons, and police forces, or through that of certain relatively informal modes of organization capable of monopolizing much of the deviant’s behavior and of limiting, as well as patterning, his relations with the outside world. Examples of such organizations are the doctor-patient dyad, the underworld, the delinquent gang, bohemian coteries of various kinds, and political and religious sects of such an extremist tinge that they are outside the mainstream of political and religious thought.

Hospitals and prisons, whatever else they may be, are certainly not models of conformity. Rather, they resemble such classic forms of institutional deviance as gambling, prostitution, and drug addiction, which operate under the informal supervision of the police rather than in spite of them. A mental hospital, from this point of view, is a place where mental illness is allowed. Another major aspect of formal organizations specializing in social control is that they control the staff as well as the inmates. Frequently, as in mental hospitals and penitentiaries, the staff lives on or near the grounds and its contacts with the outside world are few. [SeeSocial control, article onOrganizational aspects.]

Most work with deviants implies a capacity to identify with them that is above the average level of human empathy, and certainly a capacity to overcome the average distaste aroused by the stereotype of the deviant. Often this capacity is based upon strong deviant tendencies within the staff member, as described by the folkloric statement concerning the police:“It takes one to find one.”Similar remarks could be made regarding mental hospital staff (especially professional, but also non-professional), but no solid evidence has yet been collected in this area. However, since all occupational roles that succeed in securing a high level of personality commitment must operate to reduce the deviant potential of their incumbents, the statement that any agency of social control also controls its staff implies that the staff brings to the agency a greater propensity to deviance than is met with in the average breadwinner. Impressionistic evidence of this seems strong in the cases of vice squad detectives, psychiatrists, and personnel of organizations devoted to the rehabilitation of alcoholics.

Research on this problem is urgently needed, but such research would create very serious problems of rapport and public relations for the sociologist. Nevertheless, it is useful, in order to understand the structure of these agencies, to think of them as organizations where dilemmas of administration and policy are resolved in terms of the staff’s needs rather than the inmates’, even though this is not intended. The reasons for this are threefold. First, roles specializing in social control deal by definition with people who are frequently recalcitrant to, and are not deemed competent to evaluate the worth and necessity of, the restraining and/or therapeutic efforts directed at them. Second, there is a tendency for the stigma that applies to the deviant to be extended to the organizations specializing in control of the deviant. As a result of both these circumstances, formal social control operates at a very low level of visibility. The receivers of control are deemed incompetent and inferior to their controllers. The rest of society is not very interested in what is done to them as long as physical isolation is successfully maintained, and the standards of middle-class pity are applied. Third, although physical isolation is comparatively easy to achieve because it depends upon the known capacities of the human body (and also because a good percentage of inmates have no real intention of leaving), both rehabilitation and therapy remain problematic because so little is known about either. In prisons, especially, the inmate peer group has closer contact and control over the individual inmates than the staff either can develop or wishes to develop, and these peer groups will resist the attempts of the staff to reform the inmates. Thus the relation between the staff and the inmates is reminiscent of the relations between the police and organized crime. The staff’s administrative and rehabilitative policies will follow a combination of ideological and self-gratificatory lines. Colleges and universities are not very different in this respect.

The prison as socializer

Under the conditions described above, it is surprising that the recidivism rate of released prisoners oscillates between 30 and 40 per cent (Glaser 1964). True, some of this is accounted for by the ex-convict’s better techniques for evading arrest, just as many of the patients who never return to the mental hospital have learned to be sick at home. And there is a certain percentage of prisoners (especially wife murderers and first-time embezzlers) who reject convict values and never intend to repeat their offenses (in American prison slang these prisoners are known as“square Johns"). Wheeler (1961) has shown that there seems to be a U-curve of conformity to social values on the part of the inmates who do not belong either to the class of“square Johns”or to that of“gorillas”(seasoned hoodlums). As the inmate nears release, he seems to make some attempt to reorient himself to the values of the outside world. As one would expect from Parsons’ analysis of the ambivalence of deviant attitudes, a homogeneous and definitive deviant motivational structure is as rare as a homogeneous and definitive conforming motivational structure. Hence the desire and capacity of the convict to rejoin those who conform are greater than had been foreseen by the critics of the prison system.

The major obstacle to rehabilitation seems to lie in the transition from prison to the outside world. The difficulties center in two areas: (1) the fantasies about civilian life that are elaborated in the prison concerning jobs, income, and women insure that the ex-convict will be disappointed with conforming roles, especially since he can rarely secure one of the more attractive jobs immediately upon release; (2) the loss of primary group support that is involved in quitting the underworld to join the conforming community leaves the ex-convict without support while he is trying to break through the public stereotypesalthough there is impressionistic evidence that the rejection he anticipates may be more of a problem than the rejection he experiences. The new trend in rehabilitation seeks to cope with these problems by creating“halfway houses”that facilitate and guide the ex-convict’s return to society and offer him the support of a peer group composed of people who are in the same situation and who are trying to succeed in it. This form of peer group support is lacking in traditional parole procedures. [SeePenology.]

The other way in which prison life may alter the motivation of the inmate, especially the young inmate, is to develop in him the personality attributes that are functional to the successful discharge of conforming roles. The ideals of the“right guy”(Sykes 1958) are those of self-control, self-reliance, avoidance of self-pity, not getting into trouble, and avoiding or minimizing involvement with homosexuality. For the young adults who make up the bulk of prison commitments, the capacity to internalize these attitudes would imply a capacity to resist delinquent peer group pressures and the impulses to aggressive acting out that often caused their incarceration in the first place. It is true that the result of modeling oneself after the“right guy”might be a deeper commitment to underworld values andperhaps more importantto the underworld as a collectivity and to its role structure. But some of this commitment to underworld values might be, if one accepts Wheeler’s U-curve theory, more conducive to adjustment than effective inter-nalization would be. This is because commitment to the ideology of the convict group in the prison is more a flag of membership and a boundary maintainer against the authority structure than a real commitment to action on lines supported by this ideology. Accordingly,“prisonization”(that is, getting adjusted to the conditions of prison life) is not the equivalent of criminalization (Glaser 1964). For those who internalize both the underworld value system and the behavioral skills symbolized by the concept of the“right guy,”the changes in personality structure may well result in a better adjustment to the outside world through a greater conformity to its basic rules of behavior.

The fringe organization

An organization that promotes policies sharply at variance with the political, religious, or moral principles of the society, or that imply at least a drastic change in the hierarchy of social values, may properly be called a fringe organization. The concept is a development of Parsons’“secondary institution.”

The fringe organization claims a special relation to the dominant values even though, in fact, it deviates from the established norms and role expectations. It tends to attract deviants whose field of deviance may be quite remote from the overt goals of the organization. What the deviant finds in his membership is a re-evaluation of his personality. He can now reject the outside rejecters. His superego pains are lifted and transformed into anxiety to do well in his new group. [SeeSocialmovements.]

As the member achieves good standing in the fringe organization, he is granted esteem, and this consolidates his learning. However, the support and esteem that legitimate the member’s ego in his own eyes also increase the legitimacy for him of those needs of his which are not integrated with the fringe organization’s role structure. Soon the member learns dissent. He discovers the discrepancy between the group’s Utopian values and its organizational limits. He comes to realize that the out-groupers are neither better nor worse than the in-groupers. His growing participation in activities involving out-group members (for the adolescent and young adult these activities are often love affairs) increases his resistance to the fringe organization’s attempt to monopolize the whole of his life. Soon he is ready to leave the organization and rejoin the wider community. His experience in the fringe organization has served as a therapeutic experience that permitted him to work out pre-Oedipal, Oedipal, or post-Oedipal problems that formerly made it difficult for him to assume his regular age, sex, and status roles.

The fringe organization thus serves society as a resocialization agency. But its services must be publicly unrecognized if it is to remain effective. Harassment by the conforming world is an asset to the fringe organization, which therefore engages in activities capable of triggering sufficient harassment to warrant feelings of martyrdom and hostility but not sufficient to end in the destruction of the group. Hence, the group must plan its deviance as a combined effort. This makes its protest more effective but at the same time compels it to follow the norms of intergroup conflict that are proper to the society at large. Thus the fringe organization becomes in some ways more dangerous to society and in other ways more reasonable and more predictable than would be the many unpredictable role failures of its members if the latter were let loose upon the world as random individuals.

Behind the screen that the police and public interpose between the fringe organization and the rest of society lies a deviant social system that might even represent an institutionalization of a higher level of value commitment, and so prove itself superior to the existing social system. For a society can be wrong in terms of its objective possibilities; the deviant may be right, and the better often begins as the enemy of the good. More often than not, however, the fringe organization will be merely a group that enrolls the emotionally handicapped under the flag of Utopia. Yet it may also be a group that, like the first Christian sect, may teach the world a way to live in society with less bloodshed, less violence, less contempt. By tolerating theexistence of the fringe organization, society leavesthe way open for its own renewal.

Social control, as a specific topic for sociology, seems to be less popular now than in the past, when it was closely related to a concept of the source of deviance as being essentially located in the individual. But as the source of deviance has come to be located in the contradictions of the social system, the idea of controlling deviant individuals has become somewhat repugnant, and social reform itself has begun to look more than a little naive to a sociology penetrated with the knowledge that deliberate change always has unanticipated consequences.

Social control was once a concept which covered many areas that later became independent specialtiesareas like penology, medical sociology, and the sociology of law. Even such large, amorphous areas as social change can be said to overlap with the area of social control. Hence there is now less interest in a topic which, if it is to be treated as something other than a summary of the various specialties, requires a level of theoretical generality that may seem beyond our present reach. However, it is possible that the concept has been neglected for two reasons which are rooted in the structural conditions of sociology as an intellectual enterprise. First, there is the fact that the study of social control would seem to require a combination of professional skills both in the sphere of individual psychology and in social system analysis. At any rate, such a combination will be necessary if we are to secure (1) a better understanding of the meaning of role participation for the economy of the personality (for instance, in the tension-inducing and tension-reducing role functions that may have a direct effect in promoting or decreasing deviant propensities); and (2) a better understanding of adult socialization patterns, so that we can ascertain the impact of social control agencies in fostering motivational changes that go beyond mere increased awareness of expediency [seeSocialization, article onAdult socialization]. This would require, among other things, research into the life patterns not only of members of total and of fringe organizations but also of those who have left them, regardless of the costs of tracing them and of getting reliable indications of their conforming and nonconforming behavior.

The second structural handicap to the development of a theory of social control is the fact that it is an area which is rent with ideological debate. In particular, there is a struggle for the leadership of social control agencies between therapy-oriented professionals and supporters of the classical judicial apparatus. Sociologists have sentimental and economic ties with the first group, and this makes it harder for them to maintain scientific detachment. Some, who feel more acutely the possibilities of conflict between their status group allegiance and their allegiance to objectivity, try to resolve the problem by flight from the field. Others will no doubt struggle on and let the facts speak for themselves.

Jesse R. Pitts

[Directly related are the entries Crime; Criminal law; Deviant behavior; Internment and custody; Law; Norms; Penology; Punishment; Sanctions; Society; Values. Other relevant material may be found in Capital punishment; Delinquency; Drugs, article on DRUG ADDICTION: SOCIAL ASPECTS; Gambling; Incest; Legal systems; Police; Prostitution; Psychiatry, article on THE religio-psychiatric movement; Rltual; Sects and cults; Social movements; Utilitarianism; and in the biographies of Baldwin; Bentham; Cooley; Durk-heim; Freud; Malinowski; Mannheim; Park; Ross; Sumner; Sutherland; Thomas.]


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All social units control their members, but the problem of control in organizations is especially acute. Organizations are social units which serve specific purposes. They review their own performances and restructure themselves. In this way they differ from natural social units such as the family, ethnic groups, or the community. The artificial structure of organizations and their concern with performance, as well as their tendency to be larger than natural units, make informal control insufficient and primary identification inadequate. Hence, organizations tend to require formally institutionalized allocation of rewards and penalties to enhance compliance with their norms, regulations, and orders. As a rule, organizations cannot rely on most of their participants to carry out assignments voluntarily. The participants need to be controlled.

For organizational means to fulfill their control function they have to be allocated differentially, so that performances desired by organizational norms will be rewarded while undesired performances will be punished. The allocation of means by the organization independently of performances, such as rewarding people for being white rather than Negro or male rather than female, does not directly enhance organizational control. Allocation according to such irrelevant criteria is more common in the less developed countries and is one of the reasons for the low effectiveness of organizational control in these countries.

The means of control used by an organization can be exhaustively classified into three analytic categories: physical, material, and symbolic. The use of a whip or a lock is physical in the sense that it affects the body; the threat to use physical means is viewed as physical because the effect on the subject is similar to that of the actual use. The application of physical means for control purposes is here referred to as coercive power. Material rewards consist of goods and services; the granting of symbols (for instance, money) that allow one to acquire goods and services is classified as material because the effect on the recipient is similar to that of material means. The use of material means for control purposes is here referred to as utilitarian power. Symbols the use of which does not constitute a physical threat or a claim on material rewards should be viewed as pure symbols. These include normative symbols such as those of prestige and esteem and normative social symbols such as those of love and acceptance. (When physical contact is used to symbolize love or material objects to symbolize prestige, such symbols are viewed as normative because their effect on the recipient is similar to that of pure symbols.) The use of symbols for control purposes is here referred to as normative or normativesocial power. Normative power is exercised by those in higher ranks to control the lower ranks directly; normative-social power is more commonly used indirectlyfor instance, when the higher in rank use an individual’s peer group to control him, as a teacher might do in a classroom.

The use of various classes of means for control purposespower, in shorthas different consequences in terms of the nature of the discipline elicited. All other things being equal, the use of coercive power, in most cultures at least, is more alienating to those subject to it than is the use of utilitarian power, and the use of utilitarian power is more alienating than the use of normative power. Or, to put it the other way around, normative power tends to generate more commitment than utilitarian power, and utilitarian power more commitment than coercive power. The application of symbolic means of control tends to persuade people, that of material means tends to build up their self-oriented interest in conforming, and that of physical means forces them to comply.

Most organizations most of the time use more than one kind of power. The kinds of power used vary according to the ranks of the participants to be controlled. Organizations tend to apply the less alienating means of control to their higher participants. Coercive power is as a rule applied only to lower participants: inmates are locked up if they try to escape. Higher participants are more often rewarded materially in order to increase their performances. It is therefore essential, for sociological purposes, to compare participants of the same rank in different kinds of organizations or of different ranks within the same organization. Otherwise one may not be able to tell if the findings differ because of differences in rank or in the nature of the organizations or both.

Three types of organizational control

Comparison of the controls applied to the lower ranks of different organizations yields a fruitful way of classifying organizations because differences in type of control on this level are associated with many other kinds of differences. Control may be predominantly coercive, utilitarian, or normative. Among organizations in which the same level of power predominates there are still differences in the degree to which this power is applied. Ordering organizations from high to low according to the degree to which coercion is predominant, we find that the most coercive are concentration camps, prisons, traditional correctional institutions, custodial mental hospitals, and prisoner-of-war camps. Ordering organizations from high to low according to the degree to which utilitarian power is predominant, we find that the list is headed by blue-collar organizations such as factories, white-collar organizations such as insurance companies, banks, and the civil service, and military organizations, at any rate in peacetime. Normative power is predominant in the following kinds of organizations: religious and ideological-political organizations, colleges and universities, voluntary associations, schools, and therapeutic mental hospitals. Not all organizations are dominated by a single type of control. Labor unions, for instance, fall into each of the three analytic categories: there are labor unions (those bordering on “underworld”organizations) that rely heavily on coercive power to control the lower participants; there are business unions, in which control is largely built on the ability of the representatives to“deliver the goods”(that is, to secure wage increases and other material improvements); there are normative unions, in which control is based upon manipulation of ideological symbols, such as the slogans of socialist ideology; and there are normative-social unions, in which the community of workers is recruited to exercise informal pressures on members to follow the norms and orders of the organization. More complicated combinations need not be discussed here (for further discussion, see Etzioni 1961, chapter 3).

Among the many factors that affect the kinds of power an organization uses to control its participants, the organizational environment looms large. To use coercion, an organization needs social license. The state is usually jealous of its own coercive power and reluctant to delegate it. Moreover,such license, when granted, usually sets a ceiling on the amount of coercion to be used (mental hospitals can lock patients up, but not whip them) and specifies the conditions under which coercion can be exercised (the prison cannot hang trouble makers). Utilitarian controls are affected by the market position of an organization and by the general state of the market. Thus, a factory in a weak economic position may find it more difficult to raise wages than one that is strong. Periods of economic depression and inflation also affect the ability of such an organization to use utilitarian power. The environmental conditions affecting an organization’s normative power are less clear. The presence or absence of competitive organizations seems to be important here; thus, the normative power of a church is higher in countries in which it represents the sole authorized religion than in countries where it must compete with other religious organizations and with secular ideologies.

The response of the participants to a particular use of power or combination of powers is only partially determined by the kind or kinds of powers used. Other factors affecting the participants’ response include their social and cultural backgrounds and their personalities. For instance, a foreman slapping a workeran exercise of coercive powerwould elicit a more alienated response among lower middle-class persons than among persons of the very lowest class, in contemporary America rather than in the America of two generations ago, in Britain rather than in Ghana, and in an aggressive rather than a submissive person. However, when all these factors are held constant, the more normative the means of control used the less alienating is the exercise of power, and the more coercive the means of control the more alienating the use of power. Utilitarian power rarely elicits as alienating a response as coercive power, but it rarely generates as much commitment as normative power. To state it more concretely, people in a factory rarely feel as alienated as those in a prison or as committed as those in a church.

A central finding of the comparative analysis of organizations is that organizations which differ in the kinds of power they apply and in the amount of alienation or commitment they generate differ also, in many significant respects, in their organizational structure. We turn now to illustrate these structural differences.

Leadership and organizational control

The means used by an organization to control performances derive either from allocation to specific positions (such as a department head) or from particular individuals (such as one with persuasive skills) or from a combination of both (such as a persuasive department head). An individual whose power is chiefly derived from his position is an official; if it is personal he is referred to as an informal leader. One who commands both positional and personal power is a formal leader [seeLeadership].

A person who is a leader in one field is not necessarily a leader in another; the football captain is not necessarily the best student. Two main spheres of activity that an organization might wish to control are distinguished here: the instrumental and the expressive. Instrumental activities deal with the input of means into the organization and their distribution within it. Expressive activities affect social relations within the organization and the establishment of norms by organizational participants.

Coercive organizations

In organizations that tend to use coercion extensively and whose lower participants tend therefore to be alienated (traditional prisons are an example), control over performances for and within the organization tends to be shared between the officials and the informal leaders. That is, the powers of the guards and the warden derive mainly from their positions and are largely independent of their ability to influence the inmates. On the other hand, much of the power to control the inmates is in the hands of influential inmate leaders who hold no organizational positions and are hence informal leaders. While wardens, and to some degree guards, have some personal influence over inmates, such influence as a rule is minor; in this sense there is no formal leadership in prisons. The ability of the organization to control the inmates depends largely on the amount of power the prison commands (for example, on how many guards there are) and on the relations between prison officials and informal inmate leaders.

Expressive activities in a typical prison are controlled almost exclusively by inmate leaders, who set and reinforce the norms. These leaders determine, for instance, if and when it is proper to speak to a guard, and they rank crimes in order of relative prestige. Similarly, social relations are almost solely determined by the inmates and their leaders;“stool pigeons”and guards who do not accept the inmate norms tend to be isolated. Prison officials have little control over these norms and relations. This is one of the reasons why rehabilitation efforts and psychiatric work are so unsuccessful in typical prisons as long as the coercive structure is not changed.

Instrumental activities in the prison, especially the allocation of food and work, are more subject to control by the organization and its officials, but even in this realm inmate leaders have a great deal of power. Certain types of food and other scarce items (such as cigarettes) that are allocated by the prison, tend to be reallocated by the inmates so as to reward those high on the inmate normative scale and status structure and to penalize those who are low on these dimensions. The allocation of work in the prison is similarly affected by pressures exerted on the officials by the inmates, who want to be rewarded for their cooperation. Further, the inmates’ control of instrumental activities extends to the production of illicit goods and to the planning and execution of escape attempts. The officials’ main weapon of instrumental control, on the other hand, is primarily ecological: it involves keeping the inmates in the prison and assigning them to various sections and cells.

Other organizations that rely heavily on coercive control have leadership structures similar to the prison’s. However, the less coercion such an organization uses, the more control of the inmates it achieves and the greater the probability that some formal leadership will develop, at least in instrumental matters.

Normative organizations. In organizations that rely predominantly on normative controls there tend to be few officials and few informal leaders; as a rule, formal leaders control organizational participants. To the degree that informal leaders arise (within a parish, for instance) the tendency is either to recruit them outright or to co-opt them by giving them part-time organizational positions. Or the informal leaders may break away to form their own organization. In any case, the tendency is for the informal leaders to lose their leadership positions within the given organization and for the balance of power to remain in the hands of the formal leaders.

Control is dependent upon personal qualities much more in normative than in coercive organizations. Hence, through various selection and socialization processes (discussed below), efforts are made in normative organizations to staff the main organizational positions, from which control is directed, with individuals who combine positional normative power (for example, the status of priest) with the personal power to become formal leaders. Individuals lacking in personal power are often transferred to organizational positions, such as clerical or intellectual work, from which no control is exercised. Such an effort by normative organizations to provide formal leadership makes the evolution of informal leaders less likely.

Formal leaders in normative organizations are much more successful in exercising both instrumental and expressive control than they are in coercive organizations, although they are more concerned with controlling expressive activities. Some religious organizations provide offices for both kinds of leadership. Thus, expressive matters tend to be the main functions of the major line of priests and bishops and instrumental activities the main functions of secondary positions such as deacons or local church boards. In other religious organizations, control of instrumental activities is left largely to the laity while the formal leadership endeavors to maintain a monopoly of control over expressive matters, such as which prayers are to be recited at what time, how strict the priest is to be in. demanding adherence to the norms advocated by his church, and so on. Complete separation of the control of both types of activities is impossible, since instrumental matters, such as financing, affect expressive ones, such as the quality of Sunday or parochial schools. Therefore, in those religious organizations in which instrumental activities are not controlled by officials or formal leaders, the tendency is for the organization to insist on the superiority of expressive matters and hence of expressive (organizational) leadership over instrumental (informal) leadership.

Utilitarian organizations

The control structures of organizations that are less normative than those discussed above tend to approximate the utilitarian type. Control in utilitarian organizations is more evenly divided among organizational officials, formal leaders, and the informal leaders of lower participants. Moreover, the main concern of these organizations is with instrumental control over such matters as production and efficiency and not with the control of relations and norms established by the workersat least so long as these relations and norms do not affect the instrumental activities. The particular leadership pattern that evolves depends largely on how relatively alienated or committed the workers are. In industries where the workers are more alienated, their informal leaders, whether“old hands”or union stewards, tend to control most of the expressive activities and a number of instrumental ones as well. In such factories the foreman and other higher-ranking officials are excluded, regardless of their own wishes, from social relations with the workers, and the workers set the norms that determine what is considered a proper day’s work, if and when it is proper to speak to a foreman, and so on. However, the factory usually determines at least what work is to be done and some of the specifications as to how it is to be carried out. Thus, the workers informally provide the expressive leaders and someof the instrumental ones, but the factory exertssome formal leadership in instrumental matters.

In factories where the workers are less alienated and in white-collar organizations the formal leadership exerts considerably more control, especially over instrumental activities. The type and amount of work carried out is largely determined by organizational representatives. Moreover, some of the expressive control (though rarely much of it) is acquired by those in organizational power positions, The norms followed by lower participants are much closer to those of the higher ranks. Social relations are not as sharply segregated. It is in factories like these and in other utilitarian organizations that organizational efforts to control expressive activities through such mechanisms as personnel departments, social workers, and the participation of lower ranks in decision making are effective. The same techniques are often less effective, from an organizational viewpoint, in organizations where the participants are more alienated.

Control, selection, and socialization

If organizations could recruit individuals who would automatically perform as required, or could educate their participants so that they would perform adequately without supervision, then there would be no need for organizational control. While this is never the case, there are large differences in the amount of control needed in organizations because of differences in the provisions they make for selection and socialization.

The role of selection should be especially emphasized because the liberal-humanist tradition, which prevails in the social sciences, tends to underplay its importance and to stress that of socialization. Actually, various studies indicate that a small increase in the selectivity of an organization often results in a disproportionately large decrease in the investments required for control (Scudder 1954, pp. 80-82; Clark 1959, p. 1). One reason is that in most organizations a high percentage of the deviant acts are committed by a small percentage of the participants; hence, if these are screened out, control needs decline sharply. It is even more obvious that if those least able to perform were not admitted, the average performance score would increase markedly.

The degree to which an organization selects its participants affects its control needs in terms of the amount of resources and effort that it must invest to maintain the level of control that it considers adequate. This relationship between selectivity and amount of control varies in the three types of organizations that have been distinguished here. Coercive organizations are the least selective, accepting practically everyone sent by such external agencies as the courts and the police. (Note, however, that when efforts are made to reduce coercion and to increase the use of other means of control, as when a rehabilitation program is tried in a prison or a therapy program is launched in a custodial mental hospital, one of the first steps taken is to reselect the lower participants and to increase the selectivity applied to prospective ones.) By contrast, utilitarian organizations are highly selective. They tend to employ formal mechanisms to make recruitment of participants as effective as possible. These include examinations, psychological tests, probation periods, and the like. All other things being equal, the higher the rank of the participant, the more carefully he is recruited and the less he is controlled once selected. Finally, normative organizations vary considerably in their degree of selectivity. Some are extremely selectivemost religious sects, for instance. Other religious organizations are highly unselective those that almost automatically accept the offspring of their members. The Communist party of the Soviet Union is highly selective; most democratic political parties in the West are highly unselective. Private schools are much more selective than public schools. Comparison of these normative organizations shows that the more selective ones are more effective in the area of control (Etzioni 1961, pp. 156-160).

Selection helps to insure that those entering the organization possess some qualities and lack others; organizational socialization adapts these qualities in order to bring them closer to those required for effective performance of organizational roles. As Simon (1947) points out, the more effective the socialization, the less the need for control. On the other hand, socialization is itself affected by the means of control used, since some means create a type of relationship between higher and lower ranks that is more conducive to effective socialization than other types. The efforts of coercive organizations at socialization are usually frustrated, as can be seen from the limited success of therapeutic or rehabilitation programs for lower participants. Organizations that rely heavily on normative power are among the more successful in terms of socialization achievements. Modern schools are a prime example. Utilitarian organizations tend to delegate socialization to other organizations such as vocational schools and universities and to replace socialization by selection of carefully socialized persons. This brings up the important point that socialization and selection can partially substitute for each other: the same level ofcontrol can be maintained by means of high selectivity and a low level of organizational socialization or by means of low selectivity and a high level of organizational socialization. The amount of control needed is, of course, lower when selectivity and socialization are both high.

Control, pervasiveness, and scope

Means of control are used in all organizations to enforce the norms that set the standards of performance. But organizations differ markedly in the pervasiveness of the norms they attempt to set and to enforce. Some organizationsprisons, for instancehave a limited pervasiveness: they attempt to control only some of the activities carried out in the organization. Actually, the prison is more pervaded than pervasive, since many of the norms affecting prison behavior have been set and are enforced by other social units, such as the communities from which the inmates come. Other organizations attempt to control most of the activities that take place within them but few of those carried on outside. Graduate schools are a case in point. Other organizations, particularly churches, attempt to set and enforce norms mainly for activities that are carried on when the participants are not on the premises of the organization and that are not directly visible to the organizations’ enforcing agents.

In general, the more pervasive an organization is, the greater the investment it needs to maintain a given level of control. Moreover, highly pervasive organizations almost inevitably have to rely mainly on normative control, since unless the participants internalize the norms that the organization wants enforced, they cannot be controlled by the organization. From the organization’s point of view, such internalization is best achieved by normative means. However, norms with low pervasiveness can be enforced by any of the three kinds of means or by any combination thereof.

A variable that is substantively related to but analytically distinct from pervasiveness is organizational scope, which is determined by the number of activities carried out jointly by the same set of organizational participants. In organizations with narrow scope, participants share only one or a few activities, for example, social activities. Organizations with broad scope are those in which participants share several activities, as labor unions, for example, carry out social and cultural activities in addition to collective bargaining.“Total organizations”are those in which maximum scope is attained, as it is in convents or hibbutzim (Goffman 1958). There is no one-to-one relationship between scope and pervasiveness: an organization might set norms for more activities than are carried out jointly by participants, as a church does, or it might set norms for fewer activities than the joint ones, as a prison does.

High scope enhances normative control, is a necessary condition of coercive control, and seems to affect utilitarian control negatively. High scope enhances normative control because it separates the participants from social groups other than the organization and thus tends to increase the participants’ commitment to the organization. Comparison of commuter with residential colleges illustrates this point. In commuter colleges, some of the educational effects are not attained and others are countered, because the students’ involvement in the college as a social unit is limited and because they have significant and active social ties with groups that support different norms. All other things being equal, residential colleges can achieve considerably greater educational effects than commuter colleges with the same investment in normative control. (Education is here considered in its broadest sense and therefore includes character development as well as communication of skills and information.)

In the past, utilitarian organizations often attempted to maintain a broad scope, as in the classic type of company town. More recently, some organizations have made efforts to provide workers with educational, recreational, and residential facilities. Since the early 1950s, however, the tendency has been for corporations to reduce their scope in these areas without loss (and probably with some gain) in the effectiveness of their control structures (Scott & Lynton 1952, pp. 60, 77-78). This trend has reflected the situation of citizens in modern societies, who are socialized to shift constantly between various social units, such as the family, the community, and the work unit. The relatively high separation and low scope of all these units allow for the operation of the typically modern mode of tension management whereby tensions generated in one unit are released in another. This is achieved by changing one’s role partners, thus“localizing”rather than“totalizing”interpersonal conflicts, and by continually exchanging one mode of interaction for another for instance, a social unit in which rational, efficient behavior is demanded may be alternated with one in which nonrational behavior is the norm. High scope utilitarian organizations, which fuse work and nonwork units, prevent both the localization of conflict and the shift to units relatively free of rational considerations. Hence, from a utilitarian point of view, they are likely tobe less effective [seeOrganizations, article onEFFECTIVENESS AND PLANNING OF CHANGE].

Coercive organizations, however, must maintain total scope because unless the participants carried out all their activities within the organization they would not voluntarily carry out those activities the organization wishes to control. Moreover, the depriving character of total scope, of separating the inmates from all nonorganizational units, is used as a major means of control, as when a prisoner who has violated the prison’s rules loses the chance of being paroled. Attempts to reduce the use of coercion and to rely more on normative power, as when rehabilitation programs are introduced, are frequently associated with efforts to reduce scope by allowing more visits from outsiders, initiating programs of work outside the prison, and so on.

Control and vertical communication

Authorities in the field of organizational studies differ largely in the significance they attach to upward and downward communication in the rank structure of an organization and to participation by its lower ranks in decision making. The human relations school, represented by Elton Mayo, Kurt Lewin, William F. Whyte, E. W. Bakke, and Chris Argyris, has tended to stress the importance of communication and participation. For instance, a study of efforts to convince mothers to drink orange juice showed that group discussion and group decision were even more effective than public lecturing or individual consultation (Lewin 1947). Another study showed that permitting workers to participate in factory reorganization proved much more effective than ordering them to make adjustments without consulting them or explaining the reasons for the changes (Coch & French 1948). On the basis of these and similar findings, a whole philosophy of control supported by general humanist, liberal-democratic values has developed. However, several sociologists have questioned the moral and analytical validity of this approach (Bendix 1956; Kornhauser 1953). The human relations approach has been characterized as manipulative insofar as it teaches management how to be more effective in getting workers to accede to its desires. Further, democracy in private governments has been viewed as misplaced or unnecessary. Differences in the economic interests of workers and management, the role of the labor union, ideological factors, power considerationsall, it has been alleged, have been neglected by the human relations school.

The tendency in the past few years has been to view the two approaches as complementary, not so much on the moral as on the sociological level. Clearly, communication and participation affect the process of interaction among and within ranks. Still, many factors, especially structural and cultural ones, must also be taken into account (Etzioni 1961). One can study the structural and cultural conditions under which communication and participation are effective, as well as the effects of communication and participation on structural factors. For instance, vertical communication seems to be more controlling in its effects in normative rather than in utilitarian organizations and in utilitarian rather than in coercive ones, although it enhances control in all three.

There are many other variables that affect organizational control; those discussed have been the ones most frequently studied. Much additional research is required to explore the relationships among the kinds of control employed, the distribution of power between persons and positions and between formal and informal leaders, and the conditions under which the organization controls both instrumental and expressive activities or only one set or only part of one set. However, there seems to be little doubt that these variables are closely and systematically related. There are also two sets of factors which surely affect organizational control and about which there is little systematic information. One factor is differences in cultural and societal contexts. Most of the information available centers on organizations in Western societies. The need to study organizations in other cultures, especially in less developed and nondemocratic societies, remains one of the major tasks of social scientists. The second factor is that we know much more about control of lower-ranking participants than of higher-ranking ones, and clearly the control of the higher ranks is at least as important.

Amitai Etzioni

[Directly related are the entriesIndustrial Relations; Leadership; Organizations. Other relevant material may be found inCharisma; Deviant behavior; Labor unions; Medical personnel, article onPHYSICIANS; Mental disorders, treatment of, article onTHE THERAPEUTIC COMMUNITY; Military; Penology; Religious organization; Workers.]


Bendix, Reinhakd 1956 Work and Authority in Industry: Ideologies of Management in the Course of Industrialization. New York: Wiley.A paperback edition was published in 1963 by Harper.

Clark, Burton R. 1959 The Influence of Organization Image on Student Selection. Paper presented to the Conference on Selection and Educational Differentiation, Berkeley, California. Unpublished manuscript.

Coch, Lester; and French, John R. P. Jr. 1948 Overcoming Resistance to Change. Human Relations 1: 512-532.

Etzioni, Amitai 1961 A Comparative Analysis of Complex Organizations: On Power, Involvement, and Their Correlates. New York: Free Press.

Goffman, Erving 1958 The Characteristics of Total Institutions. Pages 43-84 in Symposium on Preventive and Social Psychiatry. Washington: Government Printing Office. -> Symposium held at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in 1957.

Kornhauser, Ruth 1953 The Warner Approach to Social Stratification. Pages 224-255 in Reinhard Bendix and Seymour M. Lipset (editors), Class, Status and Power: A Reader in Social Stratification. Glencoe, 111.: Free Press.

Lewin, Kurt (1947) 1958 Group Decision and Social Change. Pages 197-211 in Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues, Readings in Social Psychology. 3d ed. New York: Holt.

Scott, J. F.; and Lynton, R. P. 1952 The Community Factor in Modern Technology. Paris: UNESCO.

Scudder, Kenyon J. 1954 The Open Institution. American Academy of Political and Social Science, Annals 293:80-87.

Simon, Herbert A. (1947) 1961 Administrative Behavior: A Study of Decision-making Processes in Administrative Organization. 2d ed. New York: Mac-millan. -> A paperback edition was published in 1965 by the Free Press.

Social Control

views updated May 23 2018


note:Although the following article has not been revised for this edition of the Encyclopedia, the substantive coverage is currently appropriate. The editors have provided a list of recent works at the end of the article to facilitate research and exploration of the topic.

The study of social control has been an integral part of sociology since its inception. Originally, the concept was defined as any structure, process, relationship, or act that contributes to the social order. Indeed, to some extent, the study of social order and social control were indistinguishable. This conceptual problem was particularly evident in the early Chicago perspective in which the concepts social disorganization, social control, and deviance were not distinguished. Deviance was thought to be the consequence of lack of social control and was often used to measure the presence of social control. Within the structural functionalism of the late 1940s and 1960s, the study of social control was allocated to the sidelines. It dealt with residual problems of deviance in a social system assumed to be generally integrated and well functioning. By the early 1960s society was, again, assumed to be considerably less orderly and integrated and, again, the concept of social control rose to the forefront. Studies examined both the causes and the consequences of social control. Thus, by the mid-1960s the intellectual ground had been laid for renewed scholarly interest in the study of social control. This chapter reviews the study of social control from that time through the 1970s and 1980s.

A consensus is now emerging that distinguishes social control from the social order it is meant to explain and that distinguishes among social-control processes. One basic distinction is among processes of internal control and external control. The former refers to a process whereby people adhere to social norms because they believe in them, feeling good, self-righteous, and proud when they do and feeling bad, self-critical, and guilty when they do not. This process has recently been termed socialization. External control refers to a social process whereby people conform to norms or rules because they are rewarded with status, prestige, money, and freedom when they do and are punished with the loss of them when they do not. This process has sometimes been termed coercive, external, or just social control.

Reflecting contemporary usage, this chapter emphasizes social control as external or coercive control. Research is organized, first, and foremost by whether social control is studied as an independent or dependent variable and, second, by whether it is studied at the micro level (the study of individuals) or the macro level (the study of cities, states, regions, and countries).


Social-control theories assume that norm violations can frequently be so pleasurable and profitable that many, if not most, people are motivated to violate them. Thus, it is not necessary to study deviant motives; rather it is necessary to study what constrains or controls most people from acting on their deviance motives most of the time. Studies of social control as an independent variable focus on the relative effectiveness of social relationships and arrangements in constraining behavior to social norms and laws. Three general areas have developed. One examines the effectiveness of social ties (bonds, relationships, attachments) to conventional institutions in constraining people from acting on deviant motives. The second examines the effectiveness of macro structures and processes in providing the foundation for these ties. The third examines the effectiveness of the criminal justice system in constraining people from violating the law.

Drawing on a long tradition of work, Hirschi (1969) published an influential formulation of micro social-control theory. He states that the relationship between people and conventional society consists of four bonds: belief, attachment, commitment, and involvement. Belief refers to the extent to which conventional norms are internalized (another term for internal control). Commitment refers to the extent to which people's social rewards are tied to conformity; the more people have to lose upon being socially identified as norm violators, the lower their likelihood of violating the social norms. Attachment refers to people's sensitivity to the opinions of others; the more people are concerned with the respect and status afforded them by others, the more they are subject to social control. Involvement refers to the amount of time people spend on conventional activities; the more people are involved in conventional activities, the less time they have left for deviant activities.

This theory has inspired considerable research on juvenile delinquency. Studies from the 1960s to the 1980s (e.g., Kornhauser 1978; and Matsueda 1982) show that, as attachment to parents and school increase, delinquency decreases. These studies, however, do not show the casual order underlying the relationship between social attachment and delinquency. The theory assumes that low attachment leads to high delinquency; yet high delinquency could very well lead to low attachment. Trying to unravel these causal processes, Liska and Reed (1985) show that low parent attachment leads to high delinquency and that high delinquency leads to low school attachment.

From the 1920s onward, sociologists at the University of Chicago have been interested in the ecological distribution of deviance. Their studies of delinquency, mental illness, and suicide, for example, show that deviance tends to center in cities, particularly in the area where residential and business activity intermesh. They argued that the ecological conditions that disrupt traditional social-control processes are accentuated in these areas, and, when social-control processes weaken, deviance occurs. Industrialization creates a need for the concentration of labor, thereby increasing population size and density through migration and immigration. Both industrialization and urbanization lead to value and norm conflicts, social mobility, cultural change, and weak primary ties. These social conditions, in turn, disrupt internal and external processes of social control. The internal process is weakened because people are unlikely to accept normative standards as right and proper when they experience value and norm conflicts and social change. The external process is weakened because people are unlikely to constrain their behavior to conventional norms when social support for unconventional behavior is readily visible and primary ties to family and conventional friends are weak. In small towns, for example, people may conform even though they may not accept the moral standard because their deviance is easily visible to family and conventional friends.

Perhaps the major problem with this line of research was the failure to measure the disruptive processes directly and the tendency to infer them from either remote causes such as industrialization and urbanization or more immediate causes such as the social, racial, and class composition of areas. Unable to solve this problem, the theory withered from the 1950s through the 1970s.

During the 1980s a group of young sociologists reexamined the theory to understand the renewed disorder of cities. Directly addressing the problem of measuring the processes that disrupt social control, Sampson and Groves (1989) show how community structural characteristics (such as racial, class, and ethnic composition; residential mobility; and divorce rate) affect crime by weakening ties to conventional institutions. Contrary to the early Chicagoans, Bursik (1986) shows that the ecological distribution of crime is no longer stable over time, that crime rates actually influence community characteristics, and that changes in these structures influence social deviance.

A third body of research examines the effectiveness of the criminal justice system in controlling crime. The underlying theory (deterrence) ignores inner controls and emphasizes punishment as the means of social control, particularly state-administered punishment. It assumes that people are rational and that crime is the result of calculating the costs and benefits of law violations; therefore, it assumes that, the higher the costs of crime, the lower the level of crime. As state-administered punishment is a significant cost of crime, it follows that the higher the level of such punishment, the lower the level of crime.

Two types of deterrence processes have been studied: general and specific. General refers to a process by which the punishment of some law violators provides information about the costs of crime to those unpunished (the general public), thereby reducing their law violations. Specific refers to a process by which punishment reduces the future law violations of those punished. Research focuses on three dimensions of punishment: severity, certainty, and celerity. Severity refers to the harshness of punishment, such as the length of incarceration; certainty refers to the probability of punishment, such as the likelihood of being arrested; and celerity refers to the swiftness of punishment. In sum, deterrence theory predicts that crime is lowest when punishment is severe, certain, and swift.

The political climate of the 1980s stimulated considerable interest in this theory, leading to hundreds of studies (Cook 1980). Yet, after all this research, it is still difficult to find any firm evidence for either specific or general deterrence. Regarding general deterrence, which has generated the bulk of the research, there is little consistent evidence of a severity effect. There is somewhat more evidence for a certainty effect, although its strength and duration remain unclear. For example, some studies suggest that, as certainty of punishment increases, crime rates decrease but that the decrease does not occur until certainty reaches about 30 percent, which is infrequently reached (Tittle and Rowe 1974). Some studies suggest that the certainty effect only occurs for crimes about which people have the opportunity to think and calculate, like property crimes, but not for violent crimes. And some studies of drunken driving suggest that the certainty effect occurs only if high certainty is well publicized, and even this effect is short lived (Ross 1984).

In sum, assuming that people are generally motivated to deviate, researchers have tried to understand how people are constrained from acting on their motives. Contemporary studies of social control focus on three areas: the interpersonal relationships that constrain people from acting on their motives, the macro structures and processes that provide the social foundation for these relationships, and the criminal justice system as a source of legal constraints.


During the 1960s sociologists began to question the assumption of normative consensus and stability and, thus, by implication the viability of the theories built on them. Without clear and stable references points from which to judge behavior, deviance is difficult to define. Many sociologists came to define it in terms of visible social efforts to control it. Deviance is thus defined as that behavior that society controls, and deviants are defined as those people whom society controls. Research shifts from studying social control as a cause of deviance to studying the causes of social control.

Micro-level studies examine the social processes by which acts and people are defined, labeled, and treated as deviants by family, friends, the public, and formal agencies of social control such as the criminal justice and mental health systems. Drawing on labeling and conflict theories, many sociologists argue that social control is directed against those who are least able to resist (the disadvantaged and the unfortunate) and that social-control agencies are used by the powerful to control the behavior of others.

During the 1960s, research reported that resources and power (as indicated by class, ethnicity, and race) significantly affect defining, treating, and controlling people as criminals (Black and Reiss 1970), such as arresting, prosecuting, and sentencing them. Unfortunately, these studies do not adjust for the effects of legal considerations, such as seriousness and frequency of offense, which are related to social resources. Without examining the effects of both legal and social resource variables in the same analysis it is difficult to isolate the effects of one from those of the other.

During the 1970s studies addressed this issue. The results are inconsistent, some studies showing race and class effects and some showing no such effects (Cohen and Kleugel 1978).

During the 1980s research tried to resolve these inconsistencies. One group of researchers tried to show that the effect of resources depends on the stage of the criminal justice process (e.g., arrest, prosecution) and the characteristics of the local community. Some stages may be more sensitive to social status and social power than are others, and some communities may be more sensitive to status and power than are others. Dannefer and Schutt (1982) report more racial discrimination at the arrest stage than at other stages, arguing that police have more discretion than do other decision makers, and they report more racial discrimination when the percentage of nonwhites is high, arguing that a high percentage of nonwhites is threatening to authorities.

Macro studies of social control examine the level and the form of social control across such units as cities, states, regions, and countries. They study why one form of control (physical pain) occurs at one time and place and another form (incarceration) occurs at another time and place.

Since the 1970s, conflict theory has provided the major stimulus for this research. It assumes that social control is more likely when the ruling class or the authorities perceive their interests to be threatened. Threat is thought to be associated with the presence of disruptive acts (crime, civil disorders, social movements) and problematic people (the unemployed, minorities, the urban lower class). The theory assumes that, as disruptive acts and problematic people increase, authorities expand the capacity for social-control bureaucracies and pressure existing bureaucracies to expand the level of control.

Research has focused on the expansion and contraction of three such bureaucracies: the criminal justice system, the mental health system, and the welfare system. It generally suggests that the expansion of the criminal justice system is not necessarily a response to crime, that the expansion of the mental health system is not necessarily a response to mental health, and that the expansion of the welfare system is not necessarily a response to economic need. Rather the expansion and contraction of all three are responses by authorities to the acts and people deemed threatening to their interests.

Studies of the criminal justice system have examined the expansion of the police force in the late 1960s and 1970s, as an indicator of the potential for social control, and the expansion of the prison population in the 1980s, as an indicator of the actual level of control. Liska, Lawrence, and Benson (1981) report that, while the size of the police force is sensitive to the crime rate, it may be even more sensitive to the level of civil disorders, the relative size and segregation of the minority population, and the level of economic inequality. Studies of the prison population and admission rates show that, while these rates, too, are sensitive to the crime rate, they are equally sensitive to the size of problematic or threatening populations such as the unemployed. Studies in England, Canada, and the United States show a substantial relationship between the prison admission rate and the unemployment rate, adjusting for the crime rate (Berk et al. 1981; Inverarity and McCarthy 1988).

Some historical studies (Foucault 1965) assert that mental asylums emerged in the seventeenth century as another social mechanism for controlling the poor urban masses. During the twentieth century the population of mental asylums in the United States continually increased, reaching about 550,000 by the mid-1950s, while the prison population, in comparison, was less than 200,000 at the time. The mental health system seemed to be taking over the role of the criminal justice system in controlling problematic populations. However, since that time the trends for both bureaucracies have reversed. The mental asylum population has decreased from 500,000 to 150,000 and the prison population has increased from 200,000 to 300,000. These trend reversals have stimulated research to examine the extent to which the two bureaucracies are functional alternatives for controlling threatening or problematic populations and acts. Some research (Steadman 1979) studies how various threatening populations that in the past might have been admitted directly into asylums are now first processed in the criminal justice system. Then some of them remain in local jails and others, through various mechanisms such as pleas of Incompetent to Stand Trial and Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity are channeled into asylums.

Welfare is frequently conceptualized as a form of social control. Piven and Cloward (1971) have stimulated considerable controversy by arguing that the welfare expansion in the United States during the mid- and late 1960s was a response to the urban riots of that period, an attempt to control an economically deprived and threatening population. Various studies provide some support for this thesis. Schram and Turbett (1983) report that the riots affected welfare in two stages. Riots during the mid-1960s prodded the federal government to liberalize welfare policies generally; these policies were then more likely to be implemented in the late 1960s by those states experiencing the most rioting.

In sum, the 1970s and 1980s evidenced a research effort to explain the expansion and contraction of bureaucracies of social control, not so much as responses to crime, mental illness, or economic need, but as responses by authorities to control acts and populations deemed threatening to their interests.

The study of social control has come a long way since its inception at the birth of sociology, at which time it was vaguely defined and not distinguishable from the concept social order. Contemporary usage distinguishes the sources of social order from the order itself. The concept socialization has come to refer to internal sources of control, and the concept social control has come to refer to external sources of control, the processes whereby people conform to social norms because they are rewarded when they do and punished when they do not. Studying social control as an independent variable, a body of research examines the relative effects of interpersonal relations, social institutions, and formal agencies in constraining social behavior. Studying social control as a dependent variable, another body of research examines how social resources influence social control and how the aggregate amount and form of control varies over time and place.

(see also: Crime Theories of; Criminal Sanctions; Criminology; Deviance Theories; Juvenile Delinquency, Theories of: Law and Society; Sociology of Law)


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Allen E. Liska

social control

views updated May 29 2018

social control A term widely used in sociology to refer to the social processes by which the behaviour of individuals or groups is regulated. Since all societies have norms and rules governing conduct (a society without some such norms is inconceivable) all equally have some mechanisms for ensuring conformity to those norms and for dealing with deviance. Social control is consequently a pervasive feature of society, of interest to a broad range of sociologists having differing theoretical persuasions and substantive interests, and not just to sociologists of deviance. The sociological issue is not the existence of social control, but determining its precise nature, and identifying the mechanisms at work in particular social contexts. By whom is control exercised? What techniques of control are employed? How far can and do individuals or groups resist processes of social control? In whose interests does control operate? The answers to such questions vary greatly. Normative functionalists tend to suggest that social control is of value to society as a whole, since it is essential to the maintenance of social order; others point to the sectional interests that are served in the process of social control, emphasizing the lack of normative consensus, the differences in power that are involved, and the close linkage between power and control.

Analyses of the main forms of social control differ. A common distinction is between repressive or coercive forms of control–so-called hard techniques, including direct physical constraint–and the softer ideological forms of control that operate through the shaping of ideas, values, and attitudes. The former techniques are particularly characteristics of institutions such as the police and the military, the latter of institutions such as the mass media. The best recent discussions of the topic are Stanley Cohen's Visions of Social Control (1988) and Jack P. Gibb's Control: Sociology's Central Notion (1989). See also CRIMINOLOGY; CRIMINOLOGY, FEMINIST; FOUCAULT, MICHEL; SANCTION; TRUST AND DISTRUST.

control, social

views updated May 29 2018

control, social See SOCIAL CONTROL.

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