Book review: A Theory About Control

Mathieu Deflem

This is a copy of a review of A Theory About Control, by Jack P. Gibbs, in Contemporary Sociology, 1996.

Please cite as: Deflem, Mathieu. 1996. Review of ‘A Theory About Control,’ by Jack P. Gibbs. Contemporary Sociology 25(4):571-572.

The work of Jack Gibbs has, over a period of some three decades, significantly contributed to develop a formal mode of sociological theorizing, and, relatedly, proposed control as sociology’s central notion (see, especially, his Sociological Theory Construction [Hillsdale, IL: The Dryden Press, 1972 and Control: Sociology’s Central Notion [Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989). With his latest book, Gibbs has brought this twofold ambition full circle, and pushed the endeavor further. A Theory About Control elaborates a formal theory of control and offers an empirical test thereof. This review must, by implication of the nature of the theory, violate one of its basic characteristics. For, as Gibbs emphasizes, the proposed theoretical scheme cannot be reduced to "one central idea or argument . . . because the theory comprises numerous intrinsic statements (premises and theorems), none of which should be ignored" (p. 66).

Gibbs first details the requirements and conceptualizations of a formal theory of control. The appropriate criterion to judge the strength of a scientific theory, he suggests, is its relative predictive power, that is, its accuracy, testability, scope, range, intensity, discriminatory power, and parsimony. The notion of (attempted) control itself Gibbs defines as "overt behavior by a human in the belief that (1) the behavior increases or decreases the probability of some subsequent condition and (2) the increase or decrease is desirable" (p. 27). Distinguished on the basis of the target of control are inanimate, biotic, and human control, pertaining to control over objects, nonhuman organisms, and humans, respectively. Control over human behavior comprises self-control, proximate, sequential, and social control, relative to how many and how other humans are involved. It should be noted that the concept of social control in this model far extends the common usage of the term (as in the threesome "crime, law, and social control").

Gibbs’s theory of control consists of no fewer than 28 premises and 15 theorems. Posited are a series of axiomatic relationships between attempted control and perceived control capacity, supernaturalism, scientific activity, the three target-differentiated types of control, division of labor, technological complexity, and technological efficiency. The specification of these relationships and their elaboration at the level of postulates, transformational statements, and theorems are far too complex to be adequately addressed here. But grossly simplified, the theory posits at the conceptual level that attempted control is related positively with educational attainment, industry differentiation, occupational differentiation, and inanimate energy use, and related negatively with variation in death ages, and the predominance of animate industries.

Putting the theory to a test of predictive accuracy, Gibbs examines 15 hypotheses of specified relationships between measures (referents) of the six mentioned concepts. Based on data from 66 countries, the results indicate moderate accuracy in the predicted direction. In conclusion, Gibbs comments on strategies that could enhance the theory’s predictive power.

This book does much more than develop and test a theory. It also reviews alternative modes of sociological theory construction and endeavors to provide coherence to the potential readers from seriously studying the field. The rigor with which Gibbs clarifies his position relative to other theoretical viewpoints is commendable. Somewhat troublesome in this respect, however, is the excessively aggressive manner with which Gibbs defends his perspective over and against just about all other theories in sociology. Gibbs criticizes, in my view rightly, recent currents in our discipline that dispense altogether with standards of objectivity and testability. But Gibbs time and again attributes these evils to all other, discursively formulated, sociological theories.

Moreover, the theory Gibbs presents in this book is by any standard extremely complicated, and that in itself may deter potential readers from seriously studying the work. Not for this reason only perhaps, critics could indeed, as Gibbs sarcastically remarks, "be delighted to learn that this book may some in this respect, however, is the well be [his] last" (p. xvii). Yet to the extent it is recognized that the counterpart of epistemological nihilism is not necessarily formal theory, and that the latter should not be all too readily dismissed, the ambitious goals of this book make it no doubt worthy of the attention of anyone interested in the advancement of sociology as a scientific discipline. Unfortunately, keeping in mind Gibbs’s astute observation of an ever-increasing drift among sociologists toward this book is by any standard extremely "post ad nauseam" (p. xvii), one may well wonder how many of those are left.