Social Control Essay

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Social control refers to all the practices that contribute to social order. More specifically, it refers to all the ways in which a society establishes and enforces its cultural standards or group expectations.

The norms of a culture—that is, the “shoulds” and “should nots” that govern our behaviors—are the central ingredients of social control. Ideally, appropriate norms are instilled in us via socialization. Norms vary in type. Folkways govern our most routine interactions—expectations concerning the foods we eat, the clothes we wear, and so on. Mores instruct us in the areas of morality—the expectations regarding proper sexual conduct or regarding the sanctity of life. Many norms (folkways and mores) become formally stated as laws and are backed by the power of the state—laws prohibiting public nudity or laws prohibiting acts of violence. Society regards and responds to violations of the normative order as deviance, and its major social institutions—education, religion, business, the military, and others—work conjointly to encourage conformity and discourage deviance.

The enforcement of norms occurs via the use of positive and negative sanctions as well as formal and informal sanctions. Positive sanctions reward our conformity to norms (e.g., praising a child for saying “Please” or “Thank you” or giving an employee a raise for good job performance). Negative sanctions punish deviation from norms (e.g., scolding a child for using profanities or issuing a ticket to a speeder). A formal sanction is one carried out by officially designated agents of social control—the police, courts, prisons, and so on. Anyone in society can exercise an informal sanction, since no special training or credentials are required. Historically, social control has largely displayed a punitive face. In recent decades, however, an increase in therapeutic social control— reliance on medical experts to “treat” rather than punish deviant behavior—has evolved. Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, use of electronic surveillance as a tool for social control increased significantly.

While a tendency exists for people to equate social control with its “formal” manifestation—such as with the work of police, courts, prisons, or hospitals— formal social control is not the primary tool for maintaining order in society; informal sanctioning is far more prevalent in our lives. Indeed, effective socialization guarantees the power of informal social control. Properly socialized individuals come to care about what others think of them and thus are good candidates for the influence of informal social control. The smiles, compliments, gestures, sighs, frowns, and harsh words we exchange throughout the course of a day all are part of the informal social control we exercise.

Despite its ubiquitous nature, social control varies across social space. Access to and use of the law, for instance, is often the luxury of the powerful and wealthy. Social subordinates have at times been legally prohibited from invoking the law against superiors. The poor lack the resources needed for economic awards and sanctions—that is, giving raises to deserving workers or withholding wages from the nondeserving. Yet the socially disadvantaged do not suspend their normative expectations of others; they too seek ways to bring offenders back into line. For example, they can engage in a variety of sanctioning tactics such as rebellion (open violence against social superiors), covert retaliation (secret payback by subordinates), noncooperation (refusal to perform for superiors), appeals for support (asking third parties to intervene as allies), flight (avoiding further contact with superiors), and distress (employing illness or injury as a way to sanction an offending superior). Some of these tactics, particularly rebellion and non-cooperation, may well provoke legal or violent responses from social superiors. Other tactics like covert retaliation, flight, and distress are more veiled (and thus safer) efforts to get others to fall into the normative line.

Ideally, the intent of social control is to create and maintain social order. Ironically, however, social control can often produce the opposite results. Escalation may result when the very process of exercising social control triggers further normative violation: for example, police efforts at crowd control might trigger further unruly crowd behavior. Non-enforcement produces further deviance when offenders see the lack of sanctions as a license to continue their deviant behavior. Covert facilitation occurs when efforts by legal authorities structure interactions or social opportunities in ways that favor the commission of a crime—for example, setting up sting operations. In each case, social control efforts contribute to the violations of norms, not to social order.

The irony of social control is also apparent with regard to the issue of terrorism. While the post-9/11 world seeks increasing control of terrorism, this seemingly straightforward policy is not without its problems. Arguably terrorism is itself a type of social control; it is “self-help” behavior that responds to and sanctions the perceived offenses of others. Taped statements by Osama bin Laden, for instance, assert that the 9/11 attacks were part of a holy war against the United States. If it is correct to view terrorism as a form of social control, the social control responses made to terrorism will likely exacerbate the conflict. Terrorists will regard repercussions as unjustified attacks and will feel justified in continuing to use terrorist tactics to redress any and all efforts at social control. Terrorism will beget social control that will beget terrorism, and the cycle will continue.

Clearly, social control is a fundamental of social existence—we can’t have group life without it. It plays a role in both the production of conformity and the production of deviance.


  1. Baumgartner, Mary P. 1984. “Social Control from Below.” Pp. 389-422 in Toward a General Theory of Social Control. Vol. 1: Fundamentals, edited by D. Black. New York: Academic Press.
  2. Black, Donald. 2004. “Terrorism as Social Control.” Pp. 9-18 in Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism: Criminological Perspectives, edited by M. Deflem. Amsterdam, the Netherlands: Elsevier.
  3. Marx, Gary. 1981. “Ironies of Social Control.” Social Problems 28(3):221-33. Staples, William. 1997. The Culture of Surveillance. New York: St. Martin’s.
  4. Marx, Gary. 2000. Everyday Surveillance: Vigilance and Visibility in Postmodern Life. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

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