Presented at an International Conference on “Charities as Instruments of Social Control in Nineteenth-Century Britain,” Université de Haute Bretagne (Rennes 2), Rennes, France, November 22-23, 2007.
Also check my related writings on social control.
Please cite as: Deflem, Mathieu. 2007. “The Concept of Social Control: Theories and Applications.” Paper presented at the International Conference on “Charities as Instruments of Social Control in Nineteenth-Century Britain,” Université de Haute Bretagne (Rennes 2), Rennes, France, November 22-23. Available via: www.mathieudeflem.net.
In sociology, the concept of social control has undergone various transformations. In contemporary sociology, social control is primarily understood in the context of the enforcement of law and/or the control of crime and deviance. Historically, however, the concept of social control enjoyed a much more expansive meaning. In this chapter, I review the conceptual transformation of social control in sociology as well as its implications in empirical research in the social sciences. Separate attention will go to historians’ reliance on various understandings of social control, including the use of social control in research on charitable work and organizations.(1)
Social Control as Social Order
Among the oldest concepts in sociology, social control has historically undergone important transformations in terms of the concept’s understanding within different theoretical frameworks (Cohen 1985; Coser 1982; Scull 1988). From the late nineteenth century onwards, social control was used primarily in American sociology to refer to a society’s capacity to regulate itself without resource to force. This broad concept of social control was understood in a benign sense of self-governance that emphasized a society’s continued need for social integration through socialization into common value systems despite trends of increasing individualism. Social control thus characterizes societal integration to the extent that a society does not need to rely on coercion to command conformity. This concept of social control, implying harmony and progressivism, remained en vogue until World War II, especially in US sociology.
The broad consensual notion of social control finds its sharpest expression in the works of George Herbert Mead (1934) and Edward Alsworth Ross (1901). Mead conceived of social control in voluntaristic terms as the ability of individuals to modify their behavior by taking into account others’ expectations, thus harmonizing one’s self control and the social control exerted by others. Social control depends on the ability of individuals “to assume the attitudes of the others who are involved with them in common endeavor” (Mead 1925:275). The implied consensual perspective of the relation between the individual and society is most clearly phrased by Mead by arguing that social control overlaps with self control: “self-criticism is essentially social criticism, and behavior controlled by self-criticism is essentially behavior controlled socially. Hence social control, so far from tending to crush out the human individual or to obliterate his self-conscious individuality, is, on the contrary, actually constitutive of and inextricably associated with that individuality” (Mead 1934:255).
The most important representative of the consensual understanding of social control as social order, Edward Ross articulated the role played by society’s institutions in fostering social control and identified law as one dimension of social control, next to other institutions such as education, public opinion, and religion. As a constant function in society, this conception of social control Ross understood to apply to all the members of a society, not just to those who violate normative expectations. Consensus, Ross argued, is the very foundation of social order. Social control is thus opposed to coercive control. The association of people with one another through various mechanisms of social control applies especially to organic societies, i.e., societies in which (as Durkheim formulated) people are essentially different from one another, perform different functions (division of labor), and have different belief systems. It is especially under these conditions of increased individualism that societies have to take special efforts to ensure their members to become social beings. Social control also transcends mere social influence. Whereas social influence refers to the ascendancy over individuals by the group to which they belong as a mere effect, social control ensures such ascendancy on behalf of the group in a directed and purposeful manner oriented at harmonizing clashing interests and activities.
The study of social control, Ross further maintained, is part of static sociology because social control is always needed in society, not just at certain times. All possible social institutions, such as art, law, beliefs, public opinion, religion, education, and custom, serve social control functions. Therefore, based on Ross’s work, it is not possible to categorize institutions in order to study their social control functions (e.g., a study of education as an institution of social control). Instead, with Ross, attention turns to the study of social control as a societal foundation which is secured through multiple institutions of social control (e.g., education is an institution of social control).
While clearly conservative in its bias towards assumptions on the consensual nature of modern society, Ross’s work was developed in the background of an attention for social problems, such as urbanization, poverty, alcoholism, and prostitution. The solution the early American sociologists typically favored towards these problems were liberal (in the traditional sense). As Spierenburg (2004) argues, social control was conceived of as a contribution to the creation of a social order that is based on peaceful social relations and collective harmony. Ross’s concept of social control also implied a plea for state intervention, especially of uncontrolled capitalism, a notion that was much admired by US President Theodore Roosevelt.
An important theoretical shift in the sociology of social control came about in the period following World War II, when the model of a consensual society could no longer be easily accepted, especially in the wake of the rise of fascism and Nazism, the atrocities of the war, and the build-up towards the cold war and the nuclear arms race. The concept of social control was now employed to refer to the more repressive and coercive forms of control that are instituted, not by socialization into norms, but on the basis of power and force. The emphasis in this concept of social control is thus on control.
Importantly, from the viewpoint of the coercive conception of social control, attention also goes to social institutions that are not traditionally understood in terms of coercion and power. From this perspective, for instance, sociologists Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward investigated the social control functions of welfare in their landmark study, Regulating the Poor: The Functions of Public Welfare (Piven and Cloward 1971). In this work, welfare is conceived as an effort to exert control over certain classes of people, such as the poor and the unemployed, in order to pacify the economically deprived classes and prevent social rebellion. Conversely, poor relief is constrained with the workforce needs to be expanded (see also Chilton 1970; Higgins 1980). As van Krieken (1991) argues, this use of the social control concept in historical-sociological studies of social welfare owes much to the Marxian instrumentalist theories of ideology and the state. By extension, this perspective of social control can also be applied to various special categories of people, such as the physically and mentally ill, the young and the old, and the deviant and the criminal. With this conception of social control, then, not all members of society, but only certain special and often suspect categories are subject to social control.
The Control of Crime and Deviance
Extending from the concept of social control focused on certain classes, social control has from the 1950s onwards been conceived more narrowly in relation to deviance and/or crime. Social control now refers to those institutions and mechanisms that define and respond to crime and/or deviance. Corresponding to the dominant theory groups in criminological sociology (the perspectives of crime causation, crime construction, and critical sociology), social control is now conceptualized as a functional response to crime, the societal reaction to deviance, or the reproduction of a social order beyond a mere focus on crime.
First, from the perspective of crime causation theories, such as Edwin Sutherland’s (1973) theory of differential association, social control is conceived as a dependent variable which functions, in response to crime, as a mechanism of redress. Crime takes center stage in such a perspective as criminal behavior, which needs to be causally explained, is observed to be sanctioned by the forces of social control in order to prevent the disintegration of society. This perspective of social control can theoretically rely on the functionalist sociology of Talcott Parsons (1951), who developed a perspective of social control as a corollary to a theory of deviance and crime. Whereas crime is seen as creating a tension in an otherwise stable system, social control is understood as a re-integrative attempt to stabilize the functioning of a society. The mechanisms of social control thus function to fulfill society’s integrative needs in the societal community. It is to be noted that this conception of social control is not to be confused with the so-called social control theory of crime, which was developed by Travis Hirschi (1969). In Hirschi’s theory, which is mostly an extension to Durkheim’s theory of a society’s need for integration and regulation (and what happens in the absence thereof), criminal behavior is accounted for as the result of a weakening of the bonds with society. As a function of social control, conversely, society offers restraints on people’s drives and desires.
Second, from the viewpoint of labeling or societal reaction theories, popularized by Howard S. Becker (1963) and Edwin Schur (1965), crime is viewed as a societal construction on the basis of a process of the criminalization of deviance. Whereas an act of deviance is seen as motivated by an actor, its subsequent criminalization is conceived as a function of the societal conditions that define and respond to deviance. Social control is thus constructive of crime through a process of labeling.
From the perspective of crime construction theories, social control mechanisms are not a functional response to crime, but instead determine crime. This occurs through two processes of criminalization: through primary criminalization, some acts are defined as criminal; and through secondary criminalization, this definition is applied to specific acts. The formal treatment of crime through the processes of social control, furthermore, is typically observed to not take into account the needs and motives of the deviant actor, but instead imposes a system of control that serves societal goals of retribution and punishment.
Third and finally, from the viewpoint of sociological conflict theory, the interactionist focus of labeling theory is transcended with a structural perspective that situates the labeling processes of social control within the broader society in which they take place (e.g., Quinney 1973). Instead of analyzing the interactionist order of rule-violator and rule-enforcer, a critical sociology focuses on social control in terms of the historically grown socio-economic conditions of society and its mechanisms and institutions that are mobilized to maintain order. Marxist perspectives, for instance, focus on the norms of enforcement as representing the interests of a class, the elite, which try to have their interests accepted as general norms. Non-Marxist critical perspectives more broadly focus on a variety of groups and inequalities (classism, racism, sexism, ageism).
To end this review of the concept of social control in relation to crime and deviance, it is to be noted that there have been continued attempts in modern sociology to redefine social control broadly, specifically in the works of Morris Janowitz and Jack Gibbs. Morris Janowitz (1975, 1978) uses the concept of social control to denote a society’s capacity to regulate itself within a moral framework that transcends self-interest. He argues that social control has been drastically weakened in advanced industrial societies, and wonders why this is the case and how social control can be re-strengthened. Jack Gibbs (1989, 1994) has developed a scientific theory with a high degree of predictive power (accuracy, testability, scope, range, intensity, discriminatory power, and parsimony). He defines (attempted) control 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” (Gibbs 1994:27). 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.
Turning to contemporary theories of social control in relation to deviance, at least two very different strands of theorizing can be highlighted: the general theory of social control developed by Donald Black; and the revisionist perspective of social control that builds on the work of Foucault.
A General Theory of Social Control
Originally conceived by Donald Black, the general theory of social control aims to provide a scientific theory of social control that is based on the principles of natural science (Black 1976, 1997). Black is interested in formulating a general theory of law and social control that can account for empirical variation irrespective of any value judgments or policy claims. Conceiving of law as governmental social control, Black’s pure sociology is oriented at a general theory of all forms of social control, defined as the handling of right and wrong by defining and responding to deviant behavior. The epistemological orientation that underlies Black’s pure sociology is scientific in its ambition to formulate a general theory, whereby the ordering of variation in empirical reality is seen as the goal of theory. The paradigmatic framework in which Black’s theory is situated is distinctly sociological. Rejecting teleological and anthropocentric premises that take into account, respectively, normative and subjective dimensions, Black’s approach is radically anti psychological in developing a multi dimensional perspective of social life, including law, as a function of structural characteristics of social space.
On the basis of this paradigm, Black has developed a number of propositions on the behavior of law and other forms of social control. Social control is generally conceived of as a reality that appears in variable forms of quantity and style. The quantity of social control refers to the amount of social control that is available, for instance whether or not a particular kind of human conduct is regulated by law and whether or not a legal sanction is applied. The styles of social control can be of various kinds, such as penal, compensatory, therapeutic, or conciliatory. In seeking to account for variations in social control in terms of quantity and style, Black studies the geometry of social control on the basis of variations in social space in terms of such characteristics as stratification, differentiation, integration, and culture. For instance, stratification refers to the vertical structure of society in terms of the inequality of wealth. Vertical space can be high or low in terms of position or downward or upward in direction. Morphology refers to the horizontal aspect of society, including the division of labor (differentiation) and the relative degrees of intimacy and distance (integration). Culture is the symbolic dimension of social life, including expressed ideas about truth, beauty, and ethics, such as in science, art, and religion. Culturally, societies and social groups can vary from being closely related to extremely distant.
On the basis of the suggested model, Black develops various testable propositions. Among them is the thesis that social control varies directly with stratification: societies with higher degrees of stratification have more social control. Law and social control also vary directly with culture: simpler societies have less law and social control than more differentiated societies. On the basis of such propositions, pure sociology seeks to explain and predict the behavior of social life in terms of social space in value-neutral terms. Irrespective of the intrinsic merits of Black’s approach, it is striking that the sharpness of his formulations has enabled much theoretical debate and empirical research (see Deflem 2008: 132 n.9).
Surveillance and Governance: Discipline and Governmentality
Among the most noteworthy developments among the critical theories of social control is the so-called revisionist perspective. Most influential and systematically formulated among the revisionist perspectives is the work of Stanley Cohen (1985, 1989). In this perspective, social control takes on a more sinister, negative meaning, in explicit opposition to any benevolent intentions (see Spierenburg 2004). Revisionist studies of social control are often macro-sociological, with a tendency towards Marxism and discussions on the social control functions of the state. Also, these studies are often distinctly historical in nature, as part of the movement, which was popular from the 1970s onwards, to bring history into sociology. The edited volume, Social Control and the State (Cohen and Scull 1985), contains an introductory chapter that is tellingly called “Social Control in History and Sociology”.
In general terms, the revisionist perspective argues that historical changes in social control that are formally justified as more rational and more humane relative to older measures of control are in fact more efficient and more penetrating than the methods of old. Suggested alternatives of traditional forms of social control, such as treatment programs that are meant to substitute punitive measures, in actuality function to complement existing forms of social control, bringing about an expansion (or widening of the net) of control. Moreover, such alternative forms of social control also work to ensure that each and every violation of rules will not go undetected, suggesting an ever-more detailed nature (or thinning of the mesh) of control.
Revisionist theories of social control have theoretically benefited most from the work of Michel Foucault, especially his famous work on the birth of the prison (Foucault 1977, 1980). A study on the transformation of punishment in the modern era, Foucault’s investigation is centrally involved in analyzing the disappearance of punishment as a public and violent spectacle centered on the infliction of pain (public torture) and the emergence of a meticulous surveillance of the soul. Since the second half of the 18th century, Foucault suggests, reform proposals were introduced in matters of punishment that proposed leniency only to enhance intervention and efficiency. Although the prison system originally did not fit this model, detention would become the most typical form of punishment. This peculiar development makes sense, according to Foucault, in terms of the spread of a new form of punishment which he calls discipline. Oriented at the production of docile bodies, discipline involves a series of techniques of surveillance which emphasize a continuous supervision, examination, and normalization of behavior. Like other theatres of disciplinary power (the school, the clinic, the factory), the modern prison has the Panopticon as its most prototypical expression to economically keep and oversee the subject. The modern prison (unlike the dungeons of the dark) brings its inhabitants to light: the prisoners are seen and overseen and subject to a normalization on the basis of models of medical, economic, and political expertise. The human sciences legitimize and contribute to disciplinary power. Discipline is both discourse and practice.
Summarizing the characteristics of discipline, it is a form of power that is productive and useful. Discipline does not come in the typical form of power that excludes and is negatively enforced (as a prohibition). Discipline does not prohibit; on the contrary, it prescribes proper modes of conduct. Disciplinary power is also pervasive throughout society in multiple institutions as a generalized function of panopticism. The relations of disciplinary power cannot be captured in a dichotomy of dominators and dominated: discipline is a machine in which everyone is caught. And power is always related to knowledge which justifies power. Yet, discipline is not, according to Foucault, the one master-concept of power in the modern age. Instead, power relations today are multiple, of various kinds. The procedures of power today are more diverse than only the disciplinary type, and there remains a trace of torture. Finally, there is also always resistance against power. Disciplinary power is omnipresent but not omnipotent; modern society is disciplinary but not disciplined.
Additionally developed by Foucault and especially popular among contemporary post-Foucauldian scholars, the concept of governmentality broadens the perspective of discipline to focus on the objectives of modern power (Foucault 1978). Governmentality is defined as “the way in which the conduct of a whole of individuals is found implicated, in an ever more marked fashion, in the exercise of sovereign power” (p. 101). Central to Foucault’s notion is that governmental power centers on the population and its truth by presupposing, measuring, and evaluating individuals in their conduct as living subjects.
Applying and extending the concepts of discipline and governmentality, the burgeoning scholarly move towards the study of surveillance and governance can be conceptualized as referring to the instrumental and goal-directed components of modern manifestations of social control, respectively. Importantly, the concept of social control has thereby come to be understood in an again increasingly broadened meaning that is no longer tied up exclusively with crime and deviance. Sometimes, even, scholars have altogether abandoned the notion of social control to move away from an implied functionality in surveillance and governance towards an observing attitude in terms of risk and suspicion. Not surprisingly, a tendency of postmodernism, implied or explicit, can often be detected in contemporary surveillance studies (see Deflem 2008:239-241).
Social Control in History: Charitable Control?
Having clarified the conceptual history of social control, a closer look can be taken of the manner in which historians have taken advantage of the concept. Generally, historians have turned to the study of social control on the basis of various conceptualizations, broadly corresponding to the relevant variations that exist in sociology and related disciplines (Spierenburg 2004; Thompson 1987). In the first place, there is a tradition in history that focuses on social control in terms of crime and deviance. This is the history of social control as the historical study of the responses to crime and deviance, a field of analysis that is conducted by historians as well as by other social scientists. Here fit analyses of the history of the police (Deflem 2002), the history of punishment (Garland 1985), and other practices of control in the area of crime and criminal justice (Roodenburg and Spierenburg 2004).
Additionally, historians have also, and even more so, applied the concept of social control in their study of dimensions of society outside the contours of crime and deviance. It is within this tradition that work can be situated on the history of charitable practices and organizations. The study of charity by historians has benefited most from using the concept of social control because of the counter-intuitive nature of applying social control to institutions, practices, and organizations that, in terms of their self-understanding, fulfill functions very different from and alien to control. Strikingly, the first book of historical essays to use the concept of social control in a systematic manner, A.P. Donajgrodzki’s (1977) edited volume Social Control in Nineteenth-Century Britain, already included work on charitable organizations. The focus on charity as social control was introduced to capture the idea that “social order is maintained not only, or even mainly, by legal systems, police forces and prisons, but is expressed through a wide range of social institutions... including... charity and philanthropy” (p. 9).
Since its initial introduction, the concept of social control in historical studies on charitable organizations has found considerable support among historians (e.g, Rosner 1979; Green 1992; Rozin 1999; van Leeuwen 2000). By example, in The Logic of Charity, Marco van Leeuwen (2000) argues that the development of charity came about when social problems, which were seen to lead to disorder, were responded to by utilitarians and philanthropists seeking to restore social order by implementing programs to fight poverty and illness, promote religion and education, and other charitable causes. These forms of helping, however, also implied an increase in social control. Analyzing the social control of charity, Van Leeuwen points out that it is important to consider who is controlling whom and to what extent and how control is accomplished (see also LaPiere 1954).
Despite its popularity, historians’ use of the concept of social control has also been criticized. Most often reiterated is the critique that social control is a catch phrase that lacks explanatory power, suggesting that all political, social, and economic institutions have some effects on types and standards of behavior and contribute to the shaping of cultures or life styles. Some historians, such as Frank Prochaska (1988) and F.M.L. Thompson (1981), have therefore rejected the social control model (see Shapeley 1998). By example, in The Voluntary Impulse, Prochaska (1988) places an emphasis on altruism in accounting for the development of philanthropic initiatives and claims that the history of charity is most fundamentally a history of kindness. The underlying orientation that is assumed on the part of those who perform charitable work (to either help or to control) brings up the problem of motive in charitable conduct. Some scholars, such as Alan Kidd (1996), have emphasized a need to dispense with questions of motive in favor of explorations of charity as a field, in line with Pierre Bourdieu’s sociological orientation. To what extent the concept of social control implies motive, however, is not altogether clear and itself a subject of debate among social control theorists.
Towards an Application of Social Control
The above review will have clarified some of the intricacies in the development and use of the concept of social control and the theories and research applications associated therewith. To end this paper, it may be useful to review the most central conceptual and analytical issues involved in the concept of social control in order to clarify the concept for research purposes.
- First, social control is an analytical concept, not a specific theory, that can be conceptualized in at least two ways: as a broad concept related to social order; or in a narrow understanding related to crime and/or deviance.
- Second, studying the history of charity as an institution and practice, its relation to social control needs to be specified. Charity can be conceived as an institution of social control with specific manifest and latent functions and/or specific motives of the agents of social control (charity is social control). Alternatively, charities can be conceived in terms of their social-control effects irrespective of the objectives and motives of those involved (charities as social control).
- Third, the objectives of social control need to be specified. Social control studies can focus on the intended modification of behavior without implying that any actual modifications of behavior take place. Or, scholars of social control can examine the actual behavioral modifications that charitable organizations bring about and the manner in which this is accomplished.
- Fourth, scholars need to clarify their level of analysis. Broadly, attention can either go to charity at an institutional level, emphasizing organizations and regulations, or to the interactional dimension, involving the providers and recipients of charity.
(1) This section partly relies on prior work on social control in the context of the development of the sociology of law (Deflem 2008:228-234) and the formulation of a discourse-theoretical perspective of social control (Deflem 1994).
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