The Invisibilities of Social Control: Uncovering Gary Marx’s Discovery of Undercover

Mathieu Deflem
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This is a copy of a paper in Crime, Law and Social Change 18:177-192, 1992.
Also available as a PDF file.

Please cite as: Deflem, Mathieu. 1992. “The Invisibilities of Social Control: Uncovering Gary Marx’s Discovery of Undercover.” Crime, Law and Social Change 18(1/2):177-192.

Over the last five to ten years, research on undercover policing has received increasing attention in sociology and criminology. Of considerable influence in this regard has been the work of Gary Marx. Especially since the publication of his acclaimed book, Undercover: Police Surveillance in America (1988a), the debate on undercover law enforcement and other related forms of social control has come to the foreground of discussion.

In this paper I wish to discuss Gary Marx’s analysis of covert policing from the perspective of the sociology of social control. I will first show how Marx, from his initial research on collective behavior and social movements, started to focus on undercover work as an exceptional police strategy. Next, I want to demonstrate that undercover law enforcement in Marx’s work is essentially related to other important trends in social control, and that undercover policing should be understood as only one manifestation in a new wave of covert social control strategies.

This presentation will serve to focus more closely on two central topics of debate in the social control literature. First, relevant from an analytical point of view and with regard to some central conceptual issues in social theory, I will discuss the so-called "revisionist" model of social control and examine to what degree the work of Gary Marx fits in with this perspective. Second, the implications of his research will be discussed in relation to the way the work may contribute to mould our view on some ethically and socially significant debates on contemporary forms of social control: what can and should research on covert law enforcement tell us about the way we wish to evaluate what is going on and what directions social control should take?

Police and the control of behavior: an ironic spectacle

In his early career, Gary Marx studied collective behavior and social movements and tried to unravel how these phenomena come about in society (e.g., Marx 1967). He discovered that not just pre-riot (or more generally, pre behavior conditions), be they structural, cultural or personality-related, are important to explain such events. The actual disturbance situation and the dynamics of a conflict on the interactional level have to be brought into the analysis to clarify all that is involved (cf. Marx, 1970, 1974, 1979, 1981). In particular, Marx focused on the way in which the police, as supreme agents of official social control, shape the course and consequences of disturbance and conflict situations. His historical analysis of civil disorders and riots, for instance, led Marx (1970) to conclude that the police may sometimes participate in riots by taking the side of one of the opposing parties. Police may also remain passive (non-control) or enforce the law with great partiallity toward one of the conflicting groups (differential control). In addition, effective police control does not always turn out to mean efficient control: inappropriate control strategies (e.g., excessive responses to minor incidents), lack of coordination among police units, or a breakdown in police organization, resulting in insufficiently well-thought out strategies, all may speed up rather than halt a conflictual situation.

The irony becomes even more manifest when police actions lead to an escalation of deviant behavior. Marx (1974, 1981) discusses three ways in which social control agencies may motivate or produce deviance. First, police may unintentionally encourage rule breaking by adopting escalated enforcement strategies ("escalation"). While police control is usually manifest only in response to crimes that already have taken place or in terms of crime-prevention, in these cases police action may lead to more frequent, more serious or new types of deviance. The agent-provocateur infiltrating a social movement, for instance, may actively seek to influence actions so that induced criminal acts can be recorded and subsequently responded to. Second, deviance may also be created or at least tolerated by the police when they are concerned with some higher goal (a more serious violation) that is assumed to justify the "little fish" swimming about in a pond of unlawful activity ("nonenforcement"). The use of informants gathering information on behalf of the police, for instance, often involves weakening control on the deviant activities of the informants. Finally, police may induce rule-breaking behavior by covert facilitation procedures in undercover operations.

Before we turn to Marx’s analysis of undercover work, it is interesting to note from a methodological point of view some important implications emerging out of his shift in focus from overt behavior to covert control. This attraction to illuminating the covert may partly be a function of Marx’s acknowledged sense of marginality, beyond any (left-wing) ideology about conspiracies (cf. Marx, 1984b, 1990). Those in marginal positions may be expected to have greater need for controlling personal information and are probably also more sensitive to the possibility of deception by others.

The foregoing indicates some of the inherently critical and counter-intuitive nature of Marx’s exposure of ironies in social control. Indeed, Marx (1972) emphasizes that his kind of research is directed at "the searching out and public exposure of misconduct on the part of prominent individuals and the discovery of scandal and incriminating evidence" (p.2). The official and often generally accepted social wisdoms on what is right and what is wrong in the crime/control cluster can thus become perverted to bring to light discrepancies between accepted norms and actual practices, indicating the need for change. With regard to the method of inquiry, this type of research implies that information must be gathered on discrediting, and often concealed and specially protected data.

Marx (1984a) suggests four special investigation procedures by which these so-called dirty data can be obtained: (1) through accidents, mistakes, coincidents or traces of an event; (2) via voluntary exposure by informants, covert observers or whistleblowers; (3) by means of deceptive disclosure by covert participants and in real-life experiments; or (4) by coerced revelation using force, manipulation or institutionalized procedures. Marx acknowledges that his type of muckraking research may face special problems with regard to ethical concerns: the values inspiring such research may conflict with the academic standards of objectivity; the privacy and human rights of the subjects under study may be brought into danger; or the researcher may be confronted with the same ironic consequences that face informants and undercover agents.

Undercover law enforcement: now you see it - now you don’t

The irony in social control and the special ethical and methodological considerations in its analysis are exemplified when undercover police operations are considered. Over the last decade, Gary Marx has investigated this type of policing intensely, laying bare its socially and sociologically relevant contexts. I want to discuss material and arguments centering around three social control themes: the nature and spread of undercover practices; the specific character of the irony involved; and an evaluation of undercover procedures (see especially Marx, 1988a; and Marx, 1980, 1982, 1983, 1987a, 1987b, 1991a).

What undercover is

Undercover is not only an extremely hidden, concealed and invisible form of policing, it also involves deception and/or provocation on the part of the agent (unlike passive covert police surveillance). As such, there is by definition an intrinsic ironic quality in undercover operations: police are usually thought of as uniformed and as acting merely as preventive agents or in response to crime. With undercover both characteristics are altered.

Although always faced with some resistance, undercover tactics have managed to spread considerably over the last decades: more agencies resort to the mode of operation; more types of criminal activity are targeted; and the goals of undercover tactics have expanded to include pro-active operations. The goals of an undercover operation can now vary from gathering information (intelligence) and deterring crime or protecting victims (prevention) to facilitating rule-breaking behavior by undercover agents collaborating in crimes (suspect strengthening) or posing as "easy prey" (victim weakening).

Marx attributes the current spread of undercover activities first to changes in crime-patterns: particular types of crime have arisen which are by nature less visible; in addition, the increase in crime rates over recent years has been accompanied by citizens’ growing reluctance to report crimes. Some organizational changes in the police force also have led to an increased use of undercover tactics. Specialized police units dealing with less visible crimes were created, the police were granted greater financial means, the private police sector has expanded, massive anti-crime programs were launched, and new, highly sophisticated technological equipment is now available, all leading to undercover’s continuing expansion. In addition, undercover operations have received support from the judicial system, both by giving the police the authority to set up such investigations and by accepting the results of covert policing operations as court evidence. Most ironically, the increased pressure by citizens to curtail respressive action by the police and the resulting restrictions on the use of coercive police enforcement tactics have also "compelled" the police to engage in undercover tactics.

What undercover does

Evaluating undercover law enforcement with regard to its consequences reveals a core irony. Marx distinguishes between intended and unintended consequences, referring respectively to the success of the operation and to its unanticipated outcomes for the parties involved. If only the matter of success ("does it work?",) is considered, it remains doubtful how to evaluate undercover work. Are undercover operations successful when they lead to arrests (because in that case crime has been detected) or, conversely, when they do not lead to any arrest (because they are effective deterrents)?

Apart from this paradox, undercover operations often produce unintended consequences, both for the agents and the targets, as well as for third parties. The wealth of empirical material that Marx presents on such matters is overwhelming; only a few of its "highlights" will be mentioned here. Targets may not only be deceptively provoked to commit a crime, it can also be the case that undercover operations are undertaken for political reasons (to destroy a

reputation) and that crimes that never occurred are reported. People not involved with targeted activities (third parties) are at times also lured into a net of unintended consequences. Victimization and psychological, physical or financial loss as a result of police-initiated or -facilitated crimes, and intrusions on privacy and trust occur. Police agents participating in undercover work also can get their slice of the unintended cake. Such operations usually require a lot of technical skill and are highly demanding on the psychological and social level because of stress, feelings of guilt, and the increased chance to become corrupted or seduced. In the execution of their role, undercover agents may get entangled in a web of mistaken identity: different undercover agents can be targeting one another (cops killing cops) or can face attacks from citizens, private detectives and uniformed policemen. Likewise, after the agents have left their undercover role, they may still face personal, social and physical problems.

What undercover can be

In evaluating undercover operations, Marx first analyzes the rethoric that accompanies the tactic. Arguments for as well as against undercover can be heard. Arguments for undercover claim it is an ethically just form of deception when an important goal (the fight against serious crimes) is at stake. Covert means of policing, undertaken by specially trained agents and initiated on reasonable grounds of suspicion, would also result in the law being enforced more equally. Besides, it is argued, undercover operations are acceptable because they are controlled, both internally by guidelines (the guards guarding themselves) and externally, by legislative oversight.

On the other hand, others assert that undercover by definition implies deceptive, unjust and immoral tactics. It blurs the boundaries between what is right and wrong by having agents engaging in the dirty business that they are expected to suppress. Moreover, it is claimed that undercover is in fact an unequal law enforcement strategy which often invades people’s privacy and threatens to weaken and disrupt the basic values of trust and confidence.

Marx concludes that the arguments both for and against undercover should in each case be weighed against one another and that, in some instances at least, they can be reconciled. But, Marx goes on, even when undercover tactics are employed on well-conceived grounds, it is clear that there is always some price to pay: every virtue, no matter how good in itself, never stands alone. There will always be a moral cost. If we acknowledge, as Marx does, that (some types of) crime should be taken seriously and that undercover operations can be justified only when sufficient controls regulate it, even then it should be clear that "they must be used with extreme caution, and only after consideration of alternative means and the cost of taking no action" (Marx, 1988a: 205). The delicate balance between liberty and order, between privacy and the right to know, and the important matter of "controlling the controllers" are at stake. Tighter controls are needed to accompany the execution of undercover operations. In addition, the pressure towards undercover can be lessened by changes in the definition of crime, by preventive strategies, and by improving relations between the police and the community. At its best, undercover law enforcement is a necessary evil.

Social control technologies: the road to a surveillance society?

Marx considerably broadens his scope by treating undercover police operations as only one strand, though an important one, in a wide-ranging fabric of new forms of social control, all having in common that they are covert and penetrate into social relationships. The recently increased reliance on technological innovations in social control seems to suggest the rise of a new surveillance (Marx, 1986: 149-159). Now, social control is able to run straight through time, space and other physical boundaries. The technological means, being capital-intensive but hardly needing any human input, are largely invisible and can be directed at anybody. Emphasis also is put on pro-active techno-prevention and, by intensively penetrating into many social relationships, the boundaries between center and periphery or controllers and controlled are blurred.

Marx (1991b) organizes recent technological novelties according to the way in which they may affect the target or the offender. Engineering strategies are seen to be directed at: - target removal: technology renders targets physically absent (e.g., debit-cards instead of cash money); - target devaluation: the object remains but is devaluated (e.g., access cards); - target insulation: technological means expand the possibilities of the "key to lock the door" technique (e.g., remote central locking of doors); - offender incapacitation: potential offenders can be prevented from committing a felony by direct engineering of their body (e.g., chemical castration); - offender exclusion: as with prisons, offenders are put aside from society, but now remain in society (e.g., electronic home monitoring); and - offense, offender, or target identification: when the engineering of social control has failed to prevent a violation, it can at least be possible to know that, and where and when an offense took place (e.g., computerized data-storage).

These developments in social control suggest to Marx (1988b) the image of a maximum security society, a society, in which not only technological-engineering is taking over, but also in which people actively engage in self-monitoring. Everything on everybody is recorded, rendering the whole of the community suspicious (guilty until proven otherwise) and creating a "nation of whistleblowers". It seems then that, whether by undercover police operations or by a sophisticated technological apparatus, we are all threatened, not, as Orwell alerted us, by a total system of repression, but by "soft" and invisible means gradually creeping into our lives.

Two cheers for the sociology of social control 1

I this section I want to offer some comments on Gary Marx’s work from the perspective of the sociology of social control. I will first identify the main characteristics of the revisionist model of social control and, next, investigate the extent to which the work of Marx fits with this position.

Restoring realism and logic to the social control debate

Social control is arguably the oldest concept in sociology.2 Ever since Edward A. Ross’s treatise of the subject in the late nineteenth century, social control has remained alive in sociology and criminology, although with different meanings.’ At first, social control referred to a society’s capacity to regulate itself. Then it was employed to indicate the more repressive and coercive forms of top-down control in capitalist regimes. From the 1950s onwards, social control has been conceived more narrowly in relationship to deviance and/or crime: social control refers to those mechanisms that are put into operation in response to crime, deviant behavior, or other deviations from socially prescribed norms. Within the last perspective, recent years have seen new forms of social control, generally thought of as progressive and rational alternatives to oppressive and coercive means, are added to the already existing systems of punishment, criminal justice and social control.3

Pioneering in the development of this perspective has been Michel Foucault (1977) who argued that penal reforms entail the unfolding of a new mode of power-structure penetration into the entire community through architecture, normalizing behavioral norms, and other disciplinary techniques focusing on the human body and will. In criminology and the sociology of social control, Foucault’s ideas have been applied in the revisionist frame to Indicate that so-called reforms and diversions of repressive social control mechanisms represent an increase in social control ("widening of the net") and, moreover, that these often concealed forms of social control are used indiscriminately against more and more categories of people in the community ("thinning the mesh").’ Next, it is argued, the official rethoric accompanying social control reforms, presenting them as benevolent and rational alternatives, should be demystified to indicate new master-patterns of an essentialistically conceived notion of social control. This would emphasize that nowadays everybody is constantly surveilled and the guilty are subjected not only to punishment, but, in addition, to medical treatment, psychiatric therapy and educational and re-integration programs. Social control is expected to move extensively and deeply into all domains of society, so that the boundaries between private and public, formal and informal and, metaphorically, between prison and community are progressively broken down.

If we take a second look at Gary Marx’s discussion of police, undercover and technological control strategies, some general trends emerge that fit well with the revisionist model. First, Marx conceives social control analytically as that set of social mechanisms which are intended to regulate socially unaccepted behavior, such as crime. His analysis of irony in police controls of mass behavior transgresses a too narrowly conceived notion of interactional social controlling (as in labeling theory) by attending to the dynamic interplay of the police and the controlled in the disturbance situation (cf., Marx, 1981: 240242). As such, Marx’s work tries to jump through the so-called "trampoline-model" of social control in which social controlling operations are only considered unilaterally as a response to crime or deviance. Marx focuses on the importance of the specific context in which rule-breaking behavior occurs: the way in which social control agencies act moulds the nature of and can create deviant outcomes.

Next, the shift in Marx’s work from the study of collective behavior (and the crucial role of ironic police strategies related to this behavior) to the analysis of ironic outcomes of control strategies, regardless of the type of behavior it is intended to regulate, corresponds closely with the revisionist notion of treating social control as an object of study in its own right. Undercover law enforcement and other concealed forms of controlling are put under investigation, not rule-violation. Furthermore, Marx advances the idea that technological innovations are able to circumvent the will of the individual and can operate directly on the body (for instance, by chemically induced body alterations). The counter-intuitive nature of an analysis of these covert types of social control, especially the identification of the complex mixture of their intended and unintended consequences, also demystifies the rhetoric that often seems to justify their use (see most recently in this regard the identification of ten "technofallacies" in the electronic monitoring movement, cf. Corbett & Marx, 1991; see critique by Lilly, 1992). Finally, again in close concord with the revisionist model, Marx outlines a general pattern in recent developments of social control by treating undercover policing as but one type in a new movement of control strategies: ironic police control, undercover law enforcement, and technological engineering strategies are seen together to suggest the prospect of an encompassing surveillance society.

Thoughts on a neglected category of social control

The mere identification of a general trend or "master-pattern" does not resolve the question of why the different manifestations of such a pattern should be considered together. This is exactly were the core debates within the revisionist model have dealt with over recent years. A few of the themes in this debate are important to assess Marx’s control perspective.

A wide variety in the forms of controlling come under scrutiny in the revisionist perspective. While originating in discussions on penal reform (e.g., Cohen, 1977; Foucault, 1977), revisionist theories have also been applied to psychiatric institutions (e.g., Rothman, 1971; Scull, 1979), private detective and security industries, public police organizations (e.g., Shearing & Stenning, 1983, 1987; Spitzer & Scull, 1977) and agencies of state control (e.g., Cohen & Scull, 1985). While some kind of a master-pattern is often suggested, there is considerable disagreement on the exact nature and the unifying force behind this pattern, as well as on the central explanatory variable (Chunn & Gavigan, 1988; Cohen, 1989). Although Foucault refused to seek such an explanation (disciplinary power-control operates "self-functionally"), revisionist explanatory models vary from putting emphasis on economic conditions (e.g., Spitzer, 1979), historical patterns (e.g., Garland, 1985), an ideologically motivated complex (e.g., Cohen, 1985) or on the role of the state (e.g., Melossi, 1983, 1990).

It is clear that Marx hardly considers the problematic of explaining the over-all control pattern. Though his work on undercover policing attends to the historical origins of the strategy and the specific conditions under which undercover has spread in the United States, and while he obviously assumes a master-pattern of social control, he does not suggest any explanatory frame that would bring its manifestations together. Marx seems to assert that the different techniques of the "new surveillance" share a core rationale; but the question of what, if any, conditions could help explain this is left unanswered. It would be interesting to see if and to what extent such an analysis would (re-)fashion Marx’s contentions on covert policing. Several research topics remain open (and Gary Marx must be acknowledged for having paved the way to investigate them in terms of undercover and technological control strategies): What if we were to consider undercover in relation to the rise and development of capitalist societies (as compared to non-capitalist states and developing countries?); How do historical circumstances and economic conditions affect the spread and nature of covert types of policing and how do they shape the particular constellation of the pattern with other types of covert (technological) control?; How do relationships between different control agencies in any one country and, internationally, between different states transform our view of recent developments in social control?4

Covert control: opiate or inspiration of research among sociologists?

In these final comments I will discuss the main strengths and limitations of Gary Marx’s work as I see them with regard to its more pragmatic, policy-oriented conclusions. First, I want to focus attention to some problems related to Marx’s underlying analytical and methodological perspective. Next, some observations on the analysis/praxis nexus in his work will be presented.5

Muckraking sociologists: creative social research or constitutional threat?

I have indicated that Marx considers his work to be fundamentally critical, counter-intuitive, and directed towards social change. This implies some features at the methodological level: research on covert control almost by definition has to resort to tactics digging deep into the dirt of the data. A few problems with this type of research deserve further consideration.

First of all, what about the delicate position of the muckraking sociologist? Getting into the dirt of undercover and other forms of covert social control is one thing, getting back out is another. Even if the methodological difficulties involved in getting the data can be resolved, what about the ethics of such a bold enterprise? Could not all the muck that Marx exposes on agent-provocateurs, informants, undercover agents and control -technologies also apply for the muckraking sociologist? What right does the muckraker have to resort to such deceptive strategies as covert observation and in-depth interviewing? Can the muckraking enterprise be justified by academic and ethical standards, by a quest for the Holy Grail of Scientific Truth, or by any other of the causes of social research? While Gary Marx is obviously aware of such problems (cf. Marx, 1972; Useem & Marx, 1983), I don’t think that all is said and done when we are merely alerted to these issues. It is not too difficult to construct lists of both deceptive ethics and ethical deceptions with respect to muckraking social research (just as Marx has done with regard to undercover policing). But, producing such a list merely restates the problem. While this may serve to remind us about the difficulty of our position and in this way offer a startingpoint from which to reach a decision, it cannot replace the decision-making itself or force us in any one direction with regard to ethical concerns in social research. After all, sociologists are human beings, and choices need to be made, for ethical issues are always involved in any kind of research.

Marx is constantly careful to mention all that can be said for and against the undertaking of a control strategy and he continually outlines the different issues at stake and alerts us to the puzzle of the related intended and unintended consequences. As such, Marx’s work attracts a wide variety of readers, both social scientists and "real-life" control agents. It is to his credit to have raised the issues and to have received such widespread attention.’ But, "no virtue stands alone". In presenting his work in a way that is widely accessible but at the same time barely offering definite conclusions on when and when not to resort to covert strategies, one may question what the price is of carefully outlining pro- and con-considerations and whether his work does not amount to, to put it bluntly, "saying nothing to nobody by trying to say everything to all". Should we not be allowed to expect that more than a decade of harsh investigation and painstaking analysis of covert policing would have gone further than merely identifying the "give and take"? Should we not have expected some more "no go!" (versus "go ahead") answers. Not taking a clear-cut stance for or against covert policing is in fact also taking a stance, one moreover, that runs the danger of being exploited any which way. There may well be ironic unintended consequences of an identification of ironic consequences when the material runs the risk of being used in a way the author does not feel comfortable with. Below I will, hint at some of the roads that I feel should not be followed when recent trends in covert social control are considered.

Ironies of social research: sociologists as contributors to law
enforcement through investigations of covert policing?

In June 1989, Charles Freeman sold a copy of the album As Nasty As They Wanna Be by the black American rapband "The 2 Live Crew". The album had been banned two weeks earlier. Because of its explicit sexual lyrical content, it was considered an infringement of obscenity laws. The album was bought from Mr. Freeman by an undercover policeman. Mr. Freeman was arrested and brought to court facing a sentence of a $ 1000 fine and a jail term for up to one year.6 This is one instance of undercover law enforcement. Is this what Gary Marx calls a necessary evil?

Calling undercover police operations a necessary evil is obviously the most tricky part in Marx’s analysis. A few qualifications to his conclusion should be made. First of all, Marx has made an analysis of undercover law enforcement and covert control strategies in the United States and it would be presumptuous to transpose his conclusions to covert policing operations outside the U.S. Most important of the circumstances under which undercover work has arisen in the States are certainly the severe limitations put on coercive, overt police actions. More than anywhere else in the world, public pressure and judicial regulations, largely focusing on the freedom of the individual, in America have managed to restrain police forces from engaging in all too far-reaching overt forms of law enforcement. As a consequence, pressure on police to turn to undercover tactics is greater in the United States than elsewhere.

Next, Marx’s contention that undercover policing is a necessary evil should be qualified by keeping in mind the context in which the remark appears. I have pointed out often the ironies and intrinsic problems that Marx has discovered with regard to covert types of policing. Undercover work is not simply a necessary evil: to Marx, it is a necessary evil under the "when" and "if" circumstances documented in his work.

Still I wonder whether it is useful to call undercover law enforcement a necessary evil, even when various considerations are taken into account. While Marx has rightly emphasized the relevance of irony in actual social control operations (the control praxis), one should not forget that there may be irony too in social control as logos. Even when social control is studied as an essentialist category (that is with little, if any, regard to the behavior it is intended to regulate), it can best be understood as just one construction of reality (though, as Marx demonstrates, one with overwhelming consequences, especially when "officialized" by legal regulations). Therefore, could we not conclude that social control operations should not only be put under scrutiny with regard to their ironic outcomes but, at least in some cases, also with respect to their ironic intent? After all, could we not question whether the use of drugs, for instance, should be subjected to law enforcement strategies? Could we not question whether social control is ever necessary when human beings march for what they hold to be just causes? Are we not allowed to doubt the appropriateness of police action when certain types of behavior are targeted while others succeed in escaping the controlling eye? Should we not wonder about why the lyrics to songs in certain types of popular music are considered "obscene" and are we not entitled to "just say no!", as the author of this paper certainly does, to the targeting of the people who like and perform that kind of music?

By and large, such profound questions are left untouched in Marx’s work. I believe this may be due, first, to the fact that, as argued before, Marx hardly looks at the conditions in the wider social context that explain why undercover policing and the new surveillance have managed to pop up so vigorously in present-day American society. A more thorough investigation of the historical, economic, political and ideological circumstances, might have led Marx to more devastating conclusions on the "necessity" of covert forms of social control. What if, for instance, it was discovered that undercover law enforcement is different in politically different nation-states (e.g., capitalist versus socialist regimes)? What if the emergence of covert control strategies in different times are found to correspond to similar historical conditions? What should we conclude when the know-how of undercover operations is observed to be imported and exported among different countries on an international "police tactics market"?

Second, I feel that Marx has lost some of his muckraking force because of the particular type of "open to everybody" kind of way in which he presents his data and arguments. Entering a discourse, as Marx does, that brings together the many parties involved with the topic under investigation is a commendable enterprise. In the past, social scientists all too often have become entrapped in highly sophisticated discussions that are "so way up there". But a price has to be paid when descending into down-to-earth discussions. Is it sufficient to indicate complexities and irony in social control or should we take a clear-cut stance for or against what is and should be done? It would be foolish to look for a definite answer to the issue here, but a debate on the complexity of the issue seems unavoidable when research on social control is at stake. A discussion of some basic values in society, then, seems in order: where do we stand on the delicate balance between applied social research and "pure" science? Whatever the choice may be, if recent observations on covert policing are valid and having in mind all that is revealed in Marx’s analyses, choices must be made and something should be done. After all, how benign can we get?


1. For this and all of the following subtitles, my apologies to Gary Marx (see respectively: Marx 1968, 1987b, 1974, 1967, 1977, 1981).

2. On the history of the concept of social control in sociology see: Coser, 1982; Higgins, 1980; Janowitz, 1975; Martindale, 1978; Meier, 1982; Roucek, 1978; Scull, 1988.

3. For general accounts of the revisionist notion of social control see: Cohen, 1979, 1985, 1989; Rothman, 1985.

4. In addition, it can be noted that the revisionist model of social control has recently also come under quite severe, more fundamental attacks from different positions. Limited space does not permit to go into these criticisms (see, for instance, Garland [1990a, 1990b] on the need for a multi-dimensional frame of punishment; Rose [1987] on the relevancy of gender; and, of course, our beloved deconstructionists on (anti-) rationality [cf. Cohen, 1989]).

5. See, for instance, the reviews of Marx’s Undercover by: Fijnaut, 1990; Lemert 1991; Shernock, 1990; Uviller, 1989; Wheeler, 1989; Zimmer 1989.

6. About a year ago the author of this paper bought the album too. No arrests were made.


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