Social Control (Deviance and)

Mathieu Deflem
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This is the manuscript version of a chapter published in The Handbook of Deviance, edited by Erich Goode, pp. 30-44. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2015. 

Also available as a PDF file.

An earlier version of this paper was available online as “The Concept of Social Control: Theories and Applications.” Presented at International Conference on Charities as Instruments of Social Control in Nineteenth-Century Britain. UniversitĂ© de Haute Bretagne (Rennes 2), Rennes, France, November 22-23, 2007.

Please cite as: Deflem, Mathieu. 2015. "Deviance and Social Control." Pp. 30-44 in The Handbook of Deviance, edited by Erich Goode. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

Throughout the history of sociology, the concept of social control has undergone various conceptual transformations with multiple implications for sociological theory and research. In contemporary sociology and in related areas of criminology and criminal justice, social control is primarily conceived in the context of the control of deviance and/or crime or the enforcement of law and other normative frameworks (ranging from the more formal to the most informal). Taking into account the theoretical diversity that exists in this field of inquiry, social control can presently be defined most adequately and inclusively as the definition of and response to deviance and/or crime. Historically, however, the concept of social control was originally used in a different and much more expanded meaning to refer to the foundation of social order. In this chapter, I will review the most important moments and movements in the conceptual transformations of social control in sociology and indicate some of its potential and implications for theory and research. The main emphasis will be on the conceptual aspects of various sociological notions of social control and their respective theoretical frameworks, additionally indicating the relevance thereof for social research.

Keywords: social control; deviance; crime; criminalization; Ross, Edward Alsworth; social welfare; Foucault, Michel; punishment; charity; surveillance

Social Control and Social Order

The concept of social control is among the oldest most distinctly sociological concepts, especially among certain representatives of classical American sociology. The American origins of social control in the history of sociology place the concept and its respective theoretical frameworks in a relatively unique position as the intellectual roots of modern and contemporary sociology have otherwise been very largely shaped by the European traditions that stretch from August Comte to Emile Durkheim and Max Weber and other continental classical scholars. Throughout the concept’s history, social control has undergone important transformations in meaning in relation to evolving and differing theoretical perspectives (Cohen 1985; Meier 1982; Scull 1988).

The concept of social control was in late-19th and early-20th century sociological writings relied upon to refer to the need and capacity of a society to provide social order without an explicit or threatened reliance on force or violence. Within this broadly understood notion, social control was therefore primarily viewed as a social condition of societies that relied on a relatively high degree of consensus and harmonious social relationships. Social control involved various mechanisms of integration aimed at securing order and stability at the social level despite increasing trends of growing individualism and cultural diversity. The concept of social control was centrally placed in relation to the sociological problem of a quest for normative integration in the light of an increasing diversity of values, a condition that, in turn, was connected with the march of industrialization and capitalism, urbanization, and other manifestations of increasing societal complexity and differentiation. The broad concept of social control as the foundation of social order rooted in a paradigm of consensual understanding and social harmony was articulated by various scholars, involving both what in contemporary terms could be called a micro- and a macro-theoretical version.

Self and Social Control

From the micro-theoretical viewpoint, the sociologically influential Chicago philosopher George Herbert Mead (1934) developed a concept of social control in the context of his theory of self and society. The self, argues Mead, consists of a unique or active part, referred to as the ‘I’, and a shared or passive component, which he labels the ‘me’. Conceived of as both two co-existing components and two phases in the development of the member of a group, the ‘I’ and ‘me’ form the theoretical foundation of a model of the self to theoretically establish a consensual relationship between individual and society. On the basis of this posited ability of individuals to modify their behavior by taking into account the expectations of specific and generalized others, Mead responds to the notion that individual and society are not contradictory, but, on the contrary, mutually constitutive elements in the formation of self and social order alike.

Social control is the term Mead specifically uses to refer to the integration of individual and society within the framework of his notion of the self. As a form of self-criticism or self-correction (of the ‘I’ by the ‘me’), social control is effective to the extent that the self takes on the role of others and the sentiments and expectations of the group as a whole. Thus, writes Mead, “through self-criticism, social control over individual behavior or conduct operates by virtue of the social origin and basis of such criticism. That is to say, self-criticism is essentially social criticism” (Mead 1934, p. 255). This statement clearly reveals the consensual orientation in Mead’s thinking, implying a notion of social control that does not crush individuality but is instead constitutive of it.

The Function and Institutions of Social Control

No scholar has contributed more to develop the classical foundations of the sociology of social control than Edward Alsworth Ross, who wrote about the matter at length in a series of articles that were also compiled and expanded in book form (Ross 1901). The broadly understood concept of social control is displayed in Ross’s work, as indicated by the book’s subtitle, ‘A Survey of the Foundations of Order.’ Unlike the work of Mead, however, Ross’s orientation operates on a macro-theoretical level to ponder the societal function and institutions involved with social control. Ross develops his perspective from the notion that consensus is the foundation of social order in modern society. As such, social control is conceived explicitly in opposition to coercive control. The central function of social control is to bring about a harmonious association among the various members of a society, especially under conditions of a social order that Ross, following the famous terminology of Durkheim, labels as organic in nature, involving a high degree of cultural differences and increasing differentiation in economic and other relevant respects. It is especially under these conditions of increased individualism and differentiation that the members of society must be integrated with one another in their conduct and expectations through a series of institutions and mechanisms purposely oriented at establishing social control.

Ross rejects the theories that a social division of labor (Emile Durkheim), a quest to preserve private interests (Herbert Spencer), or the mechanisms of authority and subordination (Karl Marx) can account for social order. Instead, Ross articulates the idea that social control fulfils this function as one form of social ascendancy next to social influence. Whereas social influence refers to the ascendancy over the members of a group to which they belong as a mere effect resulting from sheer membership and social contact, social control involves the ascendancy over individuals on behalf of the group in a purposeful direction oriented at harmonizing clashing interests and activities.

Given its emphasis on social order, Ross’s understanding of social control is conceived of as a part of static sociology, for social control is a persistent function of society. Further, Ross argues, as people are not by nature oriented at one another through sympathy or sociability but inherently selfish, social control applies constantly to all members of society, not just to those who violate a norm. Because of Ross’s commitment to a reform of society based on sociological insights, his orientation is developed as distinctly analytical in orientation, on the basis of a science of society, rather than evaluative or critical in the sense of an ethics.

Because of its broad understanding on social order, Ross’s notion of social control implies that all social institutions in society serve a function as instruments of social control and should be studied accordingly. The sociology of institutions is as such a sub-field within the sociology of social control as a more fundamental area of investigation. The institutions Ross reviews in function of social control include public opinion, law, belief, suggestion, education, custom, religion, ideas, and art, amongst others. By means of illustration, Ross defines suggestion as the shaping of conduct by social inclination in view of modification of the will. Suggestion, Ross argues, emanates from the group with the explicit function of restoring order when individual choices clash with one another. Ross mentions the interesting example of a wife staying in a unhappy marriage because of the suggested negative impact of otherwise being stigmatized as a ‘divorcĂ©e’.

While Ross’s work might by some be labeled conservative in its assumptions on the consensual nature of modern society, his work must actually be understood in the background of a concern for important social problems of his days, such as urbanization, poverty, alcoholism, and prostitution. The solution the early American sociologists such as Ross typically favored towards these problems were situated in a liberal understanding of fostering order while preserving freedom (Spierenburg 2004). Ross’s work was therefore conceived of as a contribution to the creation of social order by means of peaceful social relations and collective harmony. Ross’s concept of social control also implies a defense of the need for state intervention, especially of uncontrolled capitalism, on behalf of the collective interests of society.

Social Conflict and Social Order

In the development towards modern sociology that began in earnest after World War II, the harmonious models of social control introduced by Mead and Ross came under attack. This transformation in sociological thinking did not occur only, or even mainly, as the result of changes in sociological theorizing, but was also a function of important societal developments. The decades preceding the end of the Second World War had witnessed unexpected hardships and turmoil in political, economic and other respects. The First World War was the bloodiest war until that time and would eventually lead to a renewal of hostilities on an even larger scale, beginning with the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939. The rise of fascism and Nazism in Europe were devastating factors in these transformations of the international political order as were the profound economic calamities that occurred during the inter-war period. Realizing the need to account for such societal disturbances, the concept of social control was in early modern sociology employed to refer to the more coercive and repressive means through which order is secured, not through a consensually understood process of normative integration, but on the basis of the threat and use of coercion in the modern state. The emphasis in this concept of social control therefore shifts from the social component to the element of control.

Illustrating this new understanding of social control, the influential legal scholar Roscoe Pound (1942) developed a theory of law as social control within the framework of a sociological jurisprudence that studies the actual effects of law and seeks to formulate the ultimate purpose of law as a matter of social control (Deflem 2008). Pound defines social control as the ordering of human relations in politically organized societies in terms of the fulfillment of certain claims, demands, and desires of an individual or collective nature. While law is not the only means of social control, Pound argues it to be the most conspicuous and most effective form of control in the modern era. According to Pound, the law must reconcile conflicting interests among individuals and groups and also express those interests that serve collective goals, such as security, morality, rights, and progress. Thus, the law appears as an instrument of social control that is sanctioned by the state and backed up by the threat or use of specified means of coercion. As such, social control is centrally involved with the exercise of power.

From the viewpoint of this broad but coercive conception of social control, sociological attention has also gone to social institutions that are not traditionally understood in terms of power and control. Given the historical roots of the classic theories of social control in a consensual framework, modern conflict-theoretical perspectives have thereby often abandoned the concept of social control altogether and instead relied on a newly developed Marxist language of oppression and class domination. But some critical scholars retained the concept. Among the noteworthy examples is the study of welfare as social control by Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward (1971). Rather than conceiving of social welfare in its conventional understanding as a form of help, Piven and Cloward argue that welfare programs should be viewed as efforts to exert control over certain groups of people, particularly those who are economically deprived. Welfare then functions to avert large-scale rebellion and appease the members of society who might otherwise feel left behind.

The use of the social control concept in studies of social welfare obviously dispenses with any consensual understanding of society in favor of a Marx-inspired instrumentalist theory of power and the state. Sometimes extending from, but always harmonizing with this perspective of social control, more recent modern as well as most all contemporary theories of social control focus on a variety of special categories of people that are subject to social control, such as the mentally ill, the sick, and the young and the old (Chriss 2007). This new concept of social control thus pertains no longer to the whole of social order and all members of society at any time, but is conceptually more specifically tied to specific categories of people targeted by targeted control, among them the deviant and/or the criminal.

The Control of Deviance and/or Crime

In most all of contemporary sociology and related work in the areas of criminology and criminal justice, social control is conceived more specifically in relation to crime and/or deviance. Reviewing the various perspectives within this orientation, a classification of schools of thought can be used that is both historical and analytically valuable to differentiate among the following three theory groups: crime causation theories; crime construction perspectives; and critical perspectives of crime and deviance (Deflem 2008, pp. 229-231).

Crime Causation Perspectives

The sociological study of crime and deviance is historically rooted in the positivist traditions of social science that focused attention on the causes of behavior (Lilly, Cullen, and Ball 2007). Originally aimed at unraveling the biological and psychological causes of crime, sociologists began to develop formally similar theories and research to explore the social causes of crime as a social fact. The era of modern sociology of crime and deviant behavior was ushered in by the seminal works of Edwin Sutherland (differential association theory), the Chicago School (social disorganization), and Robert K. Merton (anomie and opportunity structures). What these perspectives have in common is that they are primarily interested in the causes of crime or deviant behavior at the level of the group and that they offer a variety of non-individualist theories of explanation.

Not always as much discussed, but theoretically more or less explicitly implied, is the perspective within crime causation perspectives that social control is to be regarded as a functional response to criminal behavior. Social control is consequently seen as a social reaction to crime that is functionally oriented at the restoration of social integration by means of various institutions of control, such as the police, the courts, and punishment. This perspective of social control can theoretically rely on the 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 regarded by Parsons as creating a strain or tension in an otherwise stable social system, social control is understood as a re-integrative attempt to stabilize the functioning of society. The mechanisms of social control thus function to fulfill society’s integrative needs to provide stability. Parsons’ conception of social control is not to be confused with the so-called social control theory of crime that was developed by Travis Hirschi (1969). In Hirschi’s work, crime is regarded as a consequence of a weakening of social control, referring to the mechanisms that place restraints on human drives and desires and establish bonds with society. Hirschi’s social control theory, in other words, is a theory of crime, not of social control.

Crime Construction Perspectives

Crime causation theories are the oldest theoretical perspectives in sociology focusing on crime (and they remain the most applied today, especially in the fields of criminology and criminal justice), but they were sharply criticized in the modern era of sociology with the rise of so-called crime construction theories. Within this school of thought, which developed gradually from the 1950s and 1960s onwards, crime is not seen as a form of behavior as it is regarded as a construct or a label that is attached to certain forms of behavior (Lilly, Cullen, and Ball 2007). Although the terminology is not always consistently applied, a distinction can be made within the crime-constructionist perspective between deviance and crime. Deviance then refers to behavior that violates a more or less formal or informal norm, while the concept of crime is reserved to refer to the specific label that is attached to deviant forms of behavior under conditions of a system of law or otherwise highly formalized system of rules.

Crime construction perspectives can trace their theoretical foundations back to early social-science work on juvenile delinquency, such as Frank Tannenbaum’s (1938) observation that juvenile delinquents shared, not so much some kind of behavioral experiences, as the fact that they were labeled or ‘tagged’ as being evil. Crime-constructionists later used this basic idea to demarcate between primary and secondary deviance, to use the terminology of Edwin Lemert (1951). Primary deviance refers to an initial norm violation that is based on some motive on the part of the deviant person. Secondary deviance occurs when primary deviance is met with social control efforts that ironically lead the deviant person to adopt the negative label that is applied and subsequently act upon it through continued norm-violating conduct. When such deviant behavior continues to occur, members in the deviant’s community may regard it is as all-important to the person who engages in it. The stigmatizing effect of social control can then acquire a master status for the person who engages in deviance to become referred to as a ‘criminal’ of some sort. A youngster, for instance, may initially smoke illegal drugs to get high and feel good, but subsequently engage in additional drug use precisely because it was negatively sanctioned and then be referred to as a ‘junkie’. It is to be noted that secondary deviance is a possible, but not a necessary effect of social control. The conditions of the different outcomes of social control are evidently important subject matters of sociological research. Focusing explicit attention on the surrounding environment of deviance and the process of labeling, the perspective of crime construction or labeling theory is therefore also referred to as societal reaction theory.

Rather than being a mere response to crime or deviant behavior, crime construction theorists instead devote central attention to social control as a process of criminalization through which crime is constructed out of some form deviance as norm-violating behavior. A convenient and useful distinction can in this respect be made between primary and secondary criminalization. Primary criminalization refers to the process through which certain kinds of conduct are defined as criminal. In the most formal case this involves the specification of certain kinds of conduct as criminal by means of state-sanctioned laws. Secondary criminalization then refers to the application of such a law. This conceptual differentiation is far from trivial as it can lead to question and empirically uncover the extent to which certain crime labels are more or less applied than others and further investigate the conditions under which any differences in enforcement and prosecution occur.

There is a tendency among crime construction theorists to focus attention on the problematic consequences of criminalization as processes and systems of social control are typically observed to not take into account the specific social conditions of the deviant actors and those in their surrounding environment. Thus, adherents of the crime construction perspective have articulated alternatives to formal mechanisms of social control that range from decreasing the severity of formal criminal justice sanctions to outright decriminalization.

Critical Crime Perspectives

The above review of crime-causation and crime-construction perspectives clarifies the contemporary notion of social control as the definition of and response to deviance and/or crime. This understanding of social control is narrowed down from the originally broad concept of social control as social order, yet it also indicates the theoretical diversity that exists within the sociology of crime and deviance. A third development in sociology can be added to this review without the necessity to expand the definition of social control because this school of theorizing extends from insights developed in crime construction perspectives. Specifically, roughly from the 1970s and 1980s onwards, a new wave of sociological work on social control appeared that can be broadly situated in the camp of conflict theory (Lilly, Cullen, and Ball 2007). Many variations exist within this perspective, which can be usefully clarified in terms of their relative proximity or distance from the philosophy of Karl Marx, who has served as a central inspiration for modern conflict perspectives. Taking the two relative extremes of Structural Marxism and Left Realism as examples will clarify the relevant perspectives on social control.

In most general terms, Structural Marxism is very radical perspective that holds on to the materialist premises of Marx and conceives of criminology and the sociology of crime as only one part of a more general and profound critical perspective to society. By contrast, Left Realism is a more pragmatic, reformist response to what are considered to be people’s everyday concrete and real problems with crime, based on an understanding that there are multiple sources of conflict along the lines of class, gender, age, and more. As such, these theoretical varieties in critical crime perspectives center on the question to what extent crime and crime control can be accounted for by the materialist theses of Marx or whether it should be broadened from a more multidimensional approach.

With respect to the study of crime, Structural Marxism adopts the view that the problematic aspects of crime are intimately related to conditions of the wider social structure, especially the economic conditions in which criminalization takes place and in which a (capitalist) criminal justice system has historically evolved. There is a reality of crime as a social fact, but it is the product of a class struggle. As the manifestation of class antagonisms, moreover, criminalization disproportionately targets the working classes, while criminalizable offenses by the elites are not criminalized to the same extent.

Adherents of Left Realism take crime seriously in a manner that is primarily focused on the concrete negative implications of crime, specifically victimization and the creation of a fear of crime. This negative reality of crime is not explained away in terms of the structural conditions of criminalization but is conceptualized in terms of the negative effects of criminal behavior on the social order and people’s perceptions of quality of life.

The theoretical consequences of conflict theory for the study of social control involve that the Structural-Marxist viewpoint situates crime and criminalization within a wider socio-historical and economic context of a criminal justice system and the (capitalist) society in which it is imbedded. This contextualization of social control goes to the very heart of an orthodox Marxist viewpoint that always considers the economic conditions of society as a whole, and which consequently also rejects a narrow criminology or sociology of crime in favor of a more profound and general critique. The inequalities of social control are exposed as inequalities of society. Hence, this radical version of conflict theory will typically describe itself as sociological or criminological Marxism rather than as Marxist sociology or criminology. Sometimes even the disciplinary categorizations of sociology and the other social sciences are rejected in favor of a simple Marxism.

Rejecting the premises of a conventionally understood Marxism, Left Realism is more reform-oriented in its focus on the specific problems involved with the mechanisms of social control. As such, problems are exposed that relate to the relatively bureaucratic, overly centralized, gendered and racist dimensions of social control, especially the formal criminal justice system, without necessarily attacking capitalist society as a whole. Instead, the notion is defended that such a radical Marxism would not take into the gains that have been accomplished through the democratization of modern society throughout the (post-Marx) 20th century as well as the positive contributions that have been made and can be made in modern criminal justice systems dealing with the negative realities of crime and disorder.

Visions and Revisions of Social Control

Recent decades have witnessed various shifts and modifications to the sociological understanding of social control and related fields of inquiry with an at times dizzying array of viewpoints, terminologies, and objectives. While it is no doubt a problematic consequence of the present state of so-called theoretical pluralism in sociology and other social sciences, the following review of some of the more recent developments in theorizing on social control cannot claim to be complete, but should nonetheless be valuable in terms of its analytical value in the history of relevant thinking.

Reviving Social Control as Social Order

Despite the very widespread contemporary understanding of social control in relation to crime and deviance, there have been a few attempts in modern sociology to continue to define social control broadly, in line with the works of Mead and Ross, as a foundation of social order. Among the most noteworthy efforts in this respect, mention can be made of the works of Morris Janowitz and Jack Gibbs.

Chicago sociologist Morris Janowitz (1975) employs a concept of social control to denote a society’s capacity to regulate itself within a normative framework that transcends individual self-interest. This notion is strongly reminiscent of the consensually oriented perspective of social control as social order that was originally developed by E.A. Ross. Likewise mirroring an ambition already found in the work of Ross, Janowitz’s work is reform-oriented in its ambitions by arguing that efforts should be made to strengthen social control in view of the negative implications of its weakening in advanced industrial societies.

In two ambitious books, Jack Gibbs (1989, 1994) has sought to develop a general scientific theory of social control, which he seeks to establish as the central notion of the discipline of sociology. Gibbs defines 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, p. 27). Gibbs seeks to develop a highly scientific theory that is concerned with developing sociological propositions that are accurate, testable, parsimonious, and otherwise formally appropriate to develop a theory with a high degree of predictive power. He therefore takes great pains to be clear, precise, and meticulous in conceptualizing his concept of social control. On the basis of the variable targets of control, for example, Gibbs distinguishes inanimate from biotic and human control, defined as, respectively, control over objects, nonhuman organisms, and humans. Control over human behavior comprises self-control, proximate, sequential, and social control, relative to how many and how other humans are involved.

Revisionist Perspectives of Social Control

Turning again to the perspectives that rely on social control within the realm of criminologically relevant work, a new perspective in the sociology of social control has developed, roughly from the 1980s onwards, in which social control is studied as a self-standing topic of investigation, which, although conceptually tied to crime and/or deviance, is no longer exclusively or even primarily in connection therewith. More simply put, this work focuses on all relevant social and sociological dimensions of the agents, institutions, and mechanisms of social control (as a dependent variable) irrespective of their role in controlling crime or deviance. In this sense, the representatives of this new movement have moved from an explicit or implied criminology to a veritable sociology.

Although there are some variations within this perspective, it can theoretically be positioned as an extension of labeling theory and a version of the critical crime perspective that is distinctly non-Marxist. Most influential in the turn towards these so-called revisionist perspectives has been the work of the French philosopher Michel Foucault, especially his study on the historical development of punishment and the generalization of the modern prison system (Foucault 1977). Foucault’s historical book focused on the transformation of punishment from involving a high degree of violence, such as by means of public torture, to the modern prison system that allows for reform and re-integration of the offender. The prototypical expression of this prison system as penitentiary is the panopticon that was originally developed by the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham as the ideal new prison, allowing for maximum visibility, intervention, and reform of the prisoner.

Foucault argues that what this important change in punishment reflects is the appearance of an entirely new form of power. Referred to as discipline, Foucault argues that the disciplinary techniques of control are oriented at positively instilling a ‘docility of the soul,’ rather than negatively inflicting pain on the body. Discipline is according to Foucault also pervasively present across the institutions of society, such as in the factory, the school, and the asylum, where obedience is similarly enforced. At the same time, Foucault acknowledges that disciplinary power is not the exclusive mode of social control in modern society, as ‘traces of torture’ continue to exist. As an additional qualification, disciplinary control also invokes resistance and is not always effective. Modern society, Foucault argues, is disciplinary but not disciplined.

Influenced by Foucault’s ideas, a host of research and theorizing has developed to contemplate on new directions in social control (Deflem 1992). Following Foucault, these so-called revisionist perspectives of social control assert that newly devised mechanisms and institutions of social control which are presented as more humane as compared to earlier repressive and violent forms of control are in fact developed because they are held to be more efficient and more intrusive measures. Moreover, instituted alternatives of conventional (punitive) forms of social control, such as treatment and re-education programs, are observed to actually constitute an expansion of social control, so that there has in effect occurred a ‘widening of the net’ of control (Cohen 1985). And because alternative and new forms of control, especially those that are technologically highly advanced, also seek to ensure that any and all instances of deviance and crime, no matter how small, will be detected and acted upon, there has also taken place a ‘thinning of the mesh’ of social control.

A General Theory of Social Control

Revisionist perspectives can lay no claim to a monopoly in the study of social control as a topic of investigation in its own right or, in other words, in the study of social control as a dependent variable. In this respect, a famous alternative to the Foucauldian perspective on social control is presented by the work of sociologist Donald Black (1997). Black’s perspective of social control has very distinct scientific ambitions similar to the approach suggested by Jack Gibbs. Unlike Gibbs, however, Black develops this theory in terms of a more delineated concept of social control, defined as the handling of right and wrong by defining and responding to deviant behavior. Specifically, Black seeks to formulate a general theory of social control (including law as governmental social control) to order empirical variations in the style and quantity of social control. The level of analysis is very distinctly social, rejecting any psychological variables, to construct a so-called pure sociology.

Within the paradigm of pure sociology, Black develops various testable propositions on the behavior of social control in terms of a geometry of social control existing in social space that varies in terms of such characteristics as stratification, differentiation, integration, and culture. Stratification, for example, refers to the vertical structure of society in terms of the distribution of wealth. This vertical space can be high or low in terms of position or downward or upward in direction. Among the propositions of Black’s model of social geometry, social control is argued to vary directly with stratification: social control in a society increases in function of increasing levels of stratification. Although Black’s approach has occasionally been dismissed by sociologists of social control as too obsessively scientific in scope, it must be noted that his work has influenced a great deal of empirical sociological research on a wide number of matters of social control and law (Deflem 2008).

Surveillance Studies

Unlike the work of Donald Black, revisionist and other contemporary perspectives of social control have generally been clearer in the observations they make about new forms of social control rather than in developing a coherent explanation of why such changes have taken place. In fact, from within the camp of revisionist perspectives, a wide variety of explanatory models have been forwarded to account for the appearance of what has been labeled a ‘surveillance society,’ including all kinds and variations of economic, political, historical, and ideological factors. It is further striking to note that some scholars have recently, over the past few decades and, especially, since the events of September 11, 2001, begun to abandon the concept of social control in favor of the development of a new field of so-called ‘surveillance studies’ (Lyon 2007).

Most perspectives in the burgeoning field of surveillance studies exhibit a critical view of surveillance and intelligence activities as a powerful and deeply invasive force, particularly in the context of the development of new, sophisticated technological means of information gathering and analysis that threaten privacy and civil liberties. Of particular concern in this regard is the lag between fast-paced technological change versus slow-moving legislation to compensate for the ever-expanding loss of privacy engendered by new surveillance technologies.

The idea of surveillance as an increasingly powerful and far-reaching force tends to dominate this contemporary movement of scholarship. A central focus of surveillance studies includes the unintended consequences of these increasingly sophisticated and technologically advanced surveillance tools. Especially since the events of 9/11, it is argued, the development of a totalitarian state of control through surveillance has become a more imminent possibility. The impact of September 11 on surveillance has indeed been a central topic of discussion among sociologists and other scholars of surveillance. David Lyon (2003), for example, argues that September 11 most critically led to the authorization and justification of technologically-enhanced surveillance techniques, accelerating pre-existing trends toward the building of a ‘surveillance society,’ the converging of state and commercial surveillance systems, and the focusing on objectives of prevention in the policing of terrorism.

A profound suspicion towards existing forms of social control is widespread among contemporary surveillance scholars. Heavily discussed is the proliferation of surveillance technologies and post-9/11 counterterrorism practices to bring up the increasing potential and real infringements on civil liberties. Specifically oriented at developments since September 11, some scholars have therefore resolutely attacked the notion that the threat of terrorism cannot justify the counterterrorism measures in the name of which they are taken. Among the reasons are the wide-ranging and indefinite nature of counterterrorism measures, the fact that innocent civilians are inevitably targeted, and the harm that is brought about to basic rights, especially the right to a fair trial and the protection of privacy. Because of the tendency to critique surveillance efforts on the basis of their assumed negative implications, rather than an analysis of actual occurrences of abuses and rights violations, work from the surveillance studies perspective has been criticized for contributing to an unwarranted fear of surveillance (Deflem and McDonough 2014).

Social Control in History

Many studies of social control, especially in the revisionist camp, are macro-sociological and distinctly historical in orientation, 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.” The place of social control in (the discipline of) history, therefore, deserves separate attention that scholars of deviance and crime may find more than merely interesting.

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). First, there is a tradition in history that focuses on social control in specific terms related to crime and deviance. This tradition involves the history of social control as the historical study of the responses to crime and deviance, a field of analysis that is explored by historians as well as by other social scientists. Second, historians have also, and even more distinctly so, applied the concept of social control in their study of aspects of society that do not involve the institutions of social control purposely oriented at controlling crime and deviance, but that nonetheless fulfill such functions.

In this latter tradition, work can be situated on the history of charitable organizations as manifestations of social control (Higgins 1980; Spierenburg 2004). 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 in the discipline of history 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 thereby 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” (Donajgrodzki’s 1977, p. 9).

Since its initial introduction, the concept of social control in historical studies on charitable organizations has found considerable support among historians. For example, Marco van Leeuwen (2000) argues in his book The Logic of Charity that the development of charity came about when social problems 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 providing assistance and help thereby also implied an increase in control. It must be noted that some historians have rejected the concept of social control in related studies because it would be a catch-all term that lacks explanatory power as all political, social, and economic institutions would inevitably have some effects on types and standards of behavior (van Krieken 1991). As such, social control should or could once again be relegated to the more specific realm of the study of deviance and crime.

The Future of Social Control

The concept of social control has been used in sociology and related fields of social science in a number of ways and with various implications for theory and research. Originally conceived of as the foundation of social order in society at large, social control was a broad concept, which was articulated from both a micro- and a macro-theoretical perspective. George Herbert Mead developed a notion of the self as a harmonious co-existence of uniquely individual and shared collective aspects through which social control could take on the form of self control. Likewise conceived from a consensual framework but transposed at the macro level, Edward Alsworth Ross clarified the institutional mechanisms of social control and their function in maintaining order without the need for coercion. These broad notions of social control would be re-defined from a conflict-theoretical viewpoint to allow for a clarification of the role of the threat and use of force by a state apparatus as a basis of social control in modern society.

An important transformation occurred in modern sociology to conceive of social control more specifically in relation to the control of deviance and crime. Taking into account theoretical diversity on relevant sociological thinking, social control now refers to the functional response to and the construction of crime and/or deviance. Despite some attempts to re-define social control once again in terms of social order, this more restricted understanding of social control has become a mainstay in contemporary sociology and related areas of inquiry. However, the term social control itself is no longer always or consistently used and is oftentimes replaced by other expressions such as surveillance, crime control, and criminal justice, or more delineated concepts such as punishment, incarceration, and policing. The tendency to discard the concept of social control in some recent strands of research, except to draw an analytically not very powerful distinction between informal and formal social control, may be rooted in the association that is made between social control and certain strands of theorizing and research. This skepticism towards social control, however, is unwarranted as the concept can and should be used strictly analytically, whether it be in connection with social order or in relation to deviance and crime.

Another dilemma confronting the study of social control concerns its relationship to the study of various manifestations and forms of deviance and crime. In the modern era of sociology, the study of crime as a social fact and/or criminal behavior was almost exclusively reserved for research conducted from the viewpoint of crime causation perspectives, whereas the study of social control, labeling, and criminalization formed the province of crime construction perspectives and conflict theories. Yet, during the 1990s, one can note, there was a general pull towards studies on the reality of crime, even among adherents of labeling theory and critical perspectives. This trend can be explained as an effort to deal with rising concerns on crime that were of great concern to policymakers as well as the public at large and academics. In most recent years, however, there has been a push towards research on the new realities of social control, even among scholars who are primarily interested in the causes of crime. This development can be attributed to a need that is nowadays more widely recognized to transcend a simple trampoline-model of social control in the wake of various important transformations of social control, such as the failure of the rehabilitation ideal, hyper-incarceration, the rise of new surveillance technologies, and the global spread of counterterrorism measures. In view of such developments, the study of various mechanisms and institutions of social control can be expected to remain of considerable significance, thereby also necessitating a continued need to clarify the concept of social control.


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See other writings on social control and criminal justice.