Social Control Research Paper

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An important concept of US sociology at the beginning of the twentieth century, social control referred to those aspects of social life contributing to the social order. It was used to answer a perennial question in sociology: How is it that social order is possible? In the 1970s, a shift in meaning became noticeable. Sociologists and historians studying state institutions designed to deal with deviants, like prisons and mental health facilities, gave it a pejorative connotation: Social control came to mean coercion, manipulation, labeling, and stigmatization. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the term is more often used in criminology than in sociology. Two different meanings can be found. First, in control theories, it means informal social controls imposed on juveniles within the family and the school. Second, it is sometimes used as a synthetic term to include all the actions and institutions intended to curb crime.

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1. The Original Meaning In Sociology

In the eyes of the early sociologists, the question of how society curbs individual passions and interests so as to perpetuate itself in peace, was of paramount importance. Social control ‘referred to the capacity of a society to regulate itself according to desired principles and values’ (Janowitz 1975, p. 82). In 1901, E. Ross published a book called Social Control. A Survey of the Foundation of Order which was influential in putting the concept at the center of US sociology. The question he undertook to answer was: ‘How is it that people come to live together and cooperate with that degree of harmony we see about us?’ A kind of natural order emerges first from people living together with their capacities for sympathy, sociability, sense of justice, and resentment. Second, society develops a certain measure of control over the individual. The means of control surveyed by Ross (1901) cover a whole range of social practices and institutions: public opinion, law, belief, social suggestion, education, religion, personal ideals, ceremony, art, social valuation, etc. According to Ross, social control includes all those aspects of social life inducing conformity amongst individuals and contributing naturally to the social order.

Ross shared the preoccupations of Emile Durkheim, who was also trying to discover the roots of social harmony. The French sociologist used the term ‘social constraint’ to refer to the influence of the ‘collective conscience’ on individuals. The pressures of society on the individual does not take only the form of external constraints, it also creates a sense of moral obligation to accept duties and to obey the rules (Durkheim [1893] 1960, 1895, 1923).

Following Ross, sociologists of the Chicago School, like Park, Burgess, and Thomas, continued to place social control at the center of sociology. ‘All social problems turn out to be problem of social control’ (Park and Burgess 1921, p. 785).

While developing the concept of social control, the early sociologists had another agenda besides explaining social order. They wanted to demonstrate the capacity of sociology to explain social facts more completely than economics or plain common sense. They first wanted to show the limitations of Adam Smith’s analysis of the natural harmony of interests fostered by the famous invisible hand of the market. Economic self-interest cannot fully account for the existence of the social order (Pitts 1968, Janowitz 1975). They also wanted to debunk the common sense assumption that order resides in the hands of the police, judges, prison guards, and the like. Co-operation, harmony, and/organization do not rest predominantly on coercion nor on utilitarian calculations but on subtle pressures, expectations, and informal sanctions in the family, in the peer group, the workplace, the local community, etc. However, if social control is neither market regulation, nor state control, nor coercion, we are left with a notion referring essentially to informal social control. But if we stick to the ambition of taking into account most of the social order, how is it possible to ignore the utilitarian and coercive ways of achieving it?

Another problem emerges: by its very nature, social control is a static concept. When it occupies a central place, sociology becomes the science of social order, unable to analyse social disorder or social change. During the 1920s and 1930s, ‘sociologists became so caught up with the source of cohesion that they neglected to examine the source of change’ (Rothman 1983, p. 108).

Those problems cooled the enthusiasm of sociologists for the concept. Some restricted it to the control of deviance. In many contemporary textbooks and handbooks of sociology, one finds a chapter on deviance and social control (e.g., Scull 1988). After the 1970s, the few sociologists attempting to write on general theory do not make more than a passing mention of the term. The search for the foundation of social order is no longer conceived in terms of the control of society on individuals. A major sociologist like Coleman (1990) explains the social order with the concepts of interdependence; transaction (including exchange, bribes, threats, promises, and resource investment); authority relations; rights; and norms.

2. The Skeptic Reaction

In the 1960s and 1970s, sociologists critical of the rhetoric and reality of the institutions dealing with deviants (mainly prisons and mental hospitals) gave a whole different tone to the term. Social control came to mean first those stigmatizing actions putting in motion an amplification of the deviance process, and second those bureaucracies pretending to reform and treat deviants but, in fact, indulging in manipulation and coercion.

2.1 Labeling

In labeling theory, social control refers mainly to those reactions of police officers, judges, psychiatrists, etc. which consist of arresting, condemning, classifying, and incarcerating. Somebody comes to be classified as criminal, mentally disturbed, dangerous, or deviant in one way or another, and is set apart in a prison, an asylum, or any other place of exclusion. Those reactions mark such individuals, they stigmatize them, they attach a label to their personality. Doing so, they not only modify the social identity of the individuals but also their self-perception, their way of life, and their behavior. ‘The experience of being caught and publicly labelled as a deviant … has important consequences for one’s further social participation and self-image’ (Becker 1963, p. 31). ‘Treating a person as though he were generally rather than specifically deviant produce a self-fulfilling prophecy. It sets in motion several mechanisms which conspire to shape the person in the image people have of him’ (Becker 1963, p. 34). Instead of producing order, the attempt at social control amplifies the deviant tendencies of the labeled person (Wilkins, 1964). The arrest, the sentence, the psychiatric diagnostic, the imprisonment, or the institutionalization in a mental hospital puts individuals subjected to one of those treatments at risk of internalizing the infamous label while putting them at the margin of society. They might feel obliged to become part of a deviant group and act as one of the gang. Accordingly they might become more deviant after being labeled than before.

The labeling theory has been criticized mainly on two counts. The labeling process is not totally arbitrary nor completely unrelated to the pre-existing deviant behavior and characteristics of the labeled individual. More often than not, the court condemns accused people who really committed a crime, and generally, the more serious the crime, the more severe the sentence. The number of crimes committed in the past by an individual is also related to the severity of the punishment. If such is the case, the question to be asked is: Does the label create a new social identity or is it just a disclosure of a deviant identity already there?

Empirical tests of the labeling hypothesis provide an inconsistent picture, with some researchers finding a weak effect of social reaction on subsequent offending, others failing to find one. The overall impact is small. ‘The preponderance of research finds no or very weak evidence of labeling effects. The more carefully the research keeps other factors constant, the less likely it is to find evidence that labeling has significant effect on criminal or deviant behavior’ (Akers 1994, p. 134, see also Braithwaite 1989).

2.2 The History And Sociology Of State Dealing With Deviants

A related trend of research focuses not so much on the effects of social control but on the characteristics and evolution of state institutions dealing with offenders, mental patients, and other deviants. In this context, social control is defined as ‘the organized ways in which society responds to behavior and people it regards as deviant, problematic … or undesirable’ (Cohen 1985, p. 1). As with labeling theory, the concept carries strong pejorative overtones. Gone are the benevolent informal controls to be replaced by coercion, the repressive state, and the manipulation used by the powerful against the lower classes. The negative overtones come also from a disenchantment with the rehabilitative ideal and from skepticism concerning the so-called reform movement with its self-serving ideologies (Rothman 1983). The historians and sociologists working in this perspective embark upon a work of demystification, confronting the official discourses with the real functioning of the social control apparatus. Psychiatrists and correctional officials pretend to treat and rehabilitate; in fact, they cannot help but keep on putting mental patients in total institutions and incarcerating offenders. Reformers speak of decarceration, decriminalization, and diversion, but in fact the old prison system remains, more crimes are created by the law, and new deviants are caught in the social control net. ‘Overall, the system enlarges itself and becomes more intrusive, subjecting more and newer groups of deviants to the power of the state and increasing the intensity of control directed at former deviants’ (Cohen 1985, p. 38).

This discrepancy between discourse and reality, between what officials say they do and what they do in fact, is an enlightening exercise provided that it goes beyond plain conspiracy theory.

The main contribution of authors working in this perspective is in the history of changes in punishment in Europe and the USA beginning at the end of the eighteenth century. Foucault (1975) and Ignatieff (1978, 1983) documented the following trends: (a) a sharp decline in physical punishments inflicted in public in order to inspire terror in the spectators; (b) the emergence of the prison as the dominant punishment for serious crimes; (c) the creation of the penitentiary, an institution pretending to reform, deter, and isolate prisoners not only from the outside world but also from the criminogenic influence of their fellow prisoners.

In a related vein are sociological studies of the internal functioning of mental hospitals and prisons, like Asylum by Goffman (1961). The thesis of the book is that institutions like prisons, mental hospitals, concentration camps, and even monasteries share some basic characteristics. They are all total institutions in which guards, nurses, doctors, etc. are given the mission and the power to control the inmates and isolate them from the outside world. In those total institutions, the dominating group organizes everyday life in minute details for maximizing their control over inmates. They impose detailed regulations so as to make the inmate’s behavior most predictable. Swift punishment and degrading measures are visited upon the rebellious.

3. Social Control In Criminology

Nowadays, it is mostly in criminology that the term social control is found. It is often used in the same skeptical spirit in which the term was used by sociologists criticizing the state’s apparatus of control. Some criminologists, though, remain faithful to the orientation of the early sociologists preoccupied with the foundation of social order. One aspect of this social order which, for obvious reasons, is the focus of criminologists, is a society having a tolerable level of crime. Accordingly, social control is conceived as the means to achieve it.

3.1 Control Theory

Instead of asking the usual question, ‘Why do people commit crimes?,’ criminologists who developed the control theory turned the problem around and asked ‘Why do people obey the rules of society?’ ‘Deviance is taken for granted; conformity must be explained’ (Hirschi 1969, p. 10). Basically, this is the kind of questioning which was at the center of the works of Hobbes, Durkheim, and Ross.

Control theory was mostly used to explain juvenile delinquency or, more precisely, its absence. Such was the intention of Reiss (1951). He was able to show that delinquency is a result of ‘a failure of personal and social control.’ Of interest is his definition of social control: ‘the ability of social groups to make norms or rules effective.’

It is Hirschi’s (1969) formulation of control theory that is the most influential in criminology. His basic proposition is that ‘delinquent acts result when an individual’s bond to society is weak or broken’ (p. 16). For adolescents, the bond materializes in the family, at school, and with their peers. This bond is made of four elements: attachment, commitment, involvement, and belief. Attachment means the close emotional ties to parents, school teachers, and peers, and caring about their expectations. Commitment is the investment in conformity, in education, and in a future career that would be jeopardized by violating the law. Involvement is the time spent in legitimate activities, like studying, taking part in sports, or leisure activities in the family. Belief refers to the adhesion to the rules of society, to the conventional values, to the idea that law has a moral value and should be obeyed. Hirschi provided the measures for those elements of the bond and a persuasive demonstration that the stronger young people’s ties to society (in fact, the family and the school) are, the fewer delinquent acts they report. Later research found many confirmations of the theory, especially with the attachment and involvement constructs. It is beyond contest that juveniles attached to their family and school do not tend to indulge in delinquency. Also, strong involvement, measured by educational and occupational aspirations, is related to a low level of delinquency (Akers 1994, pp. 116–20, Braithwaite 1989, pp. 28–9).

3.2 Promising Trends

Control theory refers to informal social control, leaving aside the law and other formal controls. This is not to say that the latter are neglected in contemporary criminology. On the contrary the focus is increasingly on official controls and the evaluation of their effectiveness. The revival of deterrence theory is a case in point. In its classic formulation, the deterrence hypothesis predicts that the frequency of crime will vary inversely with the certainty, celerity, and severity of punishment handed by the state. Recent researchers cannot find much deterrent effect of severity on crime, but crime rates tend to be low when the certainty of punishment (often measured by the police clearance rate) is high. It is also the case that there is much more evidence of a general effect of certainty on crime rate (general deterrence) than on the level of recidivism of punished offenders (specific deterrence) (Andenaes 1974, Gibbs 1975, Blumstein et al. 1978, Cook 1980, Nagin 1998).

However, there are other ways to limit crime than deterrence and informal controls. The state uses nonpunitive ways to keep crime at bay, like therapies to rehabilitate or reform offenders and crime prevention measures such as street lighting, surveillance of public areas, gun control, and regulations on car antitheft systems. In civil society, crime control activities are very common. Everybody devotes time, money, and effort to protect their goods against theft and to safeguard their person against aggression. People put their money in banks, lock the doors of their houses, avoid dangerous places; in some cases, they even buy guns for self-protection. Businesses and other organizations spend considerable amounts of money to protect their assets from loss or crime: They hire private guards, control access to their premises, use safes, install CCTV, etc.

All those actions and precautions—public and private, formal and informal, repressive and preventive—are clearly aimed at reducing the probability of a crime occurring. As such, their common goal is crime control. This leads us to a last definition: the social control of crime refers to all the means specifically aimed at reducing the probability or severity of crime.

The reader will note that social control is now defined by its intention or aim, not by its results. By doing this, we follow Gibbs (1989, pp. 23–4) who criticizes the sociological concept for belittling the intentional quality of social control. In its common use, the term ‘control’ conveys intention: one tries deliberately to control, to direct, to influence another. Actions having the unintended effect of preventing crime no doubt exist. For example, Felson (1998) explains the sharp decline of crime rates starting in 1994 in the USA by the coming of a cashless society. People use more credit cards and the like, so they have less cash in their pockets and their houses. Having less cash to steal, the offenders become less active. In this instance, we should not speak of social control but of an unintended preventive effect of an economic evolution.

Results (more or less crimes) are important matters but should not be included in the definition of social control. Attempts at social control, including failures, are social control. The latter’s impact is not a matter of definition but of evaluation. Because of their exclusive focus on scientific evaluation, Sherman et al. (1998, p. 2) chose another path. They define crime prevention not by its intention but by its consequences. It is ‘any practice shown to result in less crime than would occur without the practice.’

If social control is made of intentional actions and choices, is it possible to conceive its impact on offenders in terms of actions and choices? The potential offender—that is, the individual having the intention to commit an offence—might choose to do it despite social controls or not to do it because of them. Such an individaul is a decision maker acting under the constraints of social control.

The impact we try to have on offenders when we attempt to control crime is essentially to: (a) increase the effort of commiting crime (e.g., by target hardening or gun control); (b) increase the risks (by surveillance, punishment, burglar alarms, and the like), (c) reduce the anticipated rewards of crime (by target removal, identifying property, etc.), and (d) removing excuses used by offenders to minimize the moral opprobrium cast on crime (e.g., by rule setting and public condemnation of crime) (Clarke 1997). If potential offenders live in a well-ordered society where those impacts are achieved, they will find themselves in a radically different choice situation than in a disorganized society where social controls are erratic. Most of the time they will find commiting crime difficult, risky, unrewarding, and reprehensible. If they are minimally rational (Cornish and Clarke 1986), they will tend to look for noncriminal alternatives. This means that where and when the social controls operate reasonably well, they shape the alternatives of choice for social actors. They close most of the criminal options for of us. They attach quite negative utilities (in the economic sense) to the criminal options. To commit crime in such a situation, one needs a fair amount of greed, temerity, disregard for long-term consequences, or plain foolishness.

Logically, the more serious a type of crime is, the more it should be worthwhile controlling. In fact, we find that guardianship is lax when minor valuables are to be protected and increased when major valuables or life must be protected. Police detectives work harder investigating murders than burglaries. The positive relation between the gravity of crime and the severity of punishment, as well as between the gravity of crime and the certainty of punishment are basic facts of research on penal decision making (Gottfredson and Gottfredson 1980). This heightened pressure of social controls on the most serious crimes will give incentive to offenders to choose the least criminal option, the least severe offence in the eventuality that they persist in crime. That should explain the inverse relation one finds between the frequency of a type of crime and its severity (there are fewer murders than robberies, and fewer robberies than burglaries). Those pressures on criminal choices can be called the structuring effects of social control (Cusson 1993).

However, the lesson learned by sociologists and historians, showing that social controls often operate in an erratic manner, should not be forgotten. Formal and informal controls are not in place where they should be for a number of reasons: groups are too disorganized, resources are lacking, the acts do not follow the rhetoric. This is to mean that the quality and intensity of social control have every reason to be highly variable in space and time. In turn, this uneven quality and intensity of social control should not be unrelated to the uneven distribution of crime rates in space and time.


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