Social Control

Second Edition

Social Control

An Introduction

Second Edition

James J. Chriss


Copyright © James J. Chriss 2013
The right of James J. Chriss to be identified as Author of this Work has been asserted in accordance with the UK Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
First edition published in 2007 by Polity Press
This edition first published in 2013 by Polity Press
Polity Press
65 Bridge Street
Cambridge CB2 1UR, UK
Polity Press
350 Main Street
Malden, MA 02148, USA
All rights reserved. Except for the quotation of short passages for the purpose of criticism and review, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher.
ISBN: 978-0-7456-8074-3
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.
The publisher has used its best endeavours to ensure that the URLs for external websites referred to in this book are correct and active at the time of going to press. However, the publisher has no responsibility for the websites and can make no guarantee that a site will remain live or that the content is or will remain appropriate.
Every effort has been made to trace all copyright holders, but if any have been inadvertently overlooked the publisher will be pleased to include any necessary credits in any subsequent reprint or edition.
For further information on Polity, visit our website:


Part I   Understanding Social Control
1. What is Social Control?
2. A Typology of Social Control
3. Informal Control
4. Medical Control
5. Legal Control
Part II   Case Studies in Social Control
6. Informal Control: Housing Segregation, the Code of the Street, and the Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood
7. Medical Control: ADHD, Selective Mutism, and Violence as a Disease
8. Legal Control: Racial Profiling, Hate Crimes, and the Growth in Imprisonment
9. Terrorism and Social Control
10. Conclusion: The Future of Social Control?


It was truly humbling and gratifying finding out from the publisher that there was enough interest in this book to warrant a second edition. Writing a second edition has been more of a challenge than I had previously imagined. Social control is a dynamic and fluid phenomenon, so there was much ground to make up with regard to the historical and substantive developments connected with issues of social control that have taken place since publication of the first edition. Even so, most of the feedback I received from anonymous reviewers suggested that I should not engage in wholesale changes in either the conceptual approach or the case studies used in the first edition, and I have tried to stay true to that recommendation. Where I could, I have updated relevant events, contributions to the scholarly literature, and available data. It is never a completed or finished process, however. Up until the very last minute (circa April 2012), there was a desire to include the latest bits of information relevant to coverage of social control. But alas, at some point you must just give it up, realizing that any manuscript can be massaged indefinitely as long as you are holding it in your hands. So you trust your editor, in this case Jonathan Skerrett (who did a fine job by the way), to take it from there and move it into the production process.

A couple of graduate students in the Department of Sociology and Criminology at Cleveland State University helped me out with various aspects of research for the second edition, and they deserve recognition. They are Jason Scott and John Blunk. I’ve had the opportunity to teach an undergraduate course in Social Control a number of times between 2007 and now, and I have to say the feedback and contributions I’ve received from a number of these students has helped make this a better book as well as clarify my own thinking on the subject. And of course it should go without saying, although I will say it anyway, that my family – Mandana, Ariana, and Johnny – has been a constant source of support and encouragement throughout the course of time I spent on this book.

In the spirit of kicking off this study of social control, I want to remind professors and students – indeed, anyone reading this book – to maintain a curiosity about social control, and to be alive to the many ways it shows up in our daily lives. I sometimes eat at a Burger King in South Euclid, an eastern suburb of Cleveland. Every time I go there I ponder over a sign visibly displayed in the parking lot. I took a picture of that sign, and offer it here for your perusal and rumination. This could be a great conversation starter at the beginning of the semester.


James J. Chriss
Cleveland, Ohio
April 2012


What are we to make of Stanley Cohen’s assertion that social control has become a “Mickey Mouse” concept in sociology and the broader social sciences?1 What Cohen meant by this is that, because it is used so extensively to cover so many things, the concept “social control” has no clear meaning at all. It is simply a catch-all phrase for explaining all the ways conformity is induced in human beings.

That there is a vast array of mechanisms and procedures in place for attempting to do just that – to extract compliance of individuals or groups to some ideal standard of conduct, whether this takes place at home, in the factory, in school, within personal relations, at the doctor’s office, while driving a car or at the stadium watching a ballgame – is undeniable. At home you are watched by your parents, brothers or sisters, or other extended kin, and you watch them as well. As a factory worker, you punch in at the beginning of your shift and report to a floor boss and are given work assignments for the day. At school you operate within a tight scheduling of classes and other school activities, and you are accountable not only to your teachers or professors, but also everyone else you know such as classmates, administrators, or other employees of the educational establishment. The many persons with whom you have ongoing social relations – mothers, fathers, friends, schoolmates, wives, boyfriends or girlfriends – exert pressure on you to comport your behavior to the expectations of those significant others as dictated by the nature of the relationship. At the doctor’s office, you are asked to show your insurance card to the receptionist, and if everything checks out you wait patiently in the waiting room until your name is called. Once face to face with your doctor, you answer all his questions about the reason for your visit, and after the examination you follow his instructions with regard to any prescription medication or follow-ups. The range of controls while operating a motor vehicle are extensive and explicit, from stop signs or red lights telling you to stop or slow down, to posted speed limits telling you how fast you can drive, to uneven pavement on the side of the road warning you if you are too close to the berm. Likewise, you provide a steady stream of signs and information to alert other drivers of your intentions, including use of horns, turn signals, flashing headlights, and so forth. And upon entering the stadium to see a baseball game, you are first confronted by an usher who inspects your ticket and shows you to your seat. Your behavior is then available for monitoring by all those sitting near you. For example, if you stand up too long to get something out of your back pocket, you might hear someone sitting behind you say “Hey buddy, I can’t see through you!” (This actually happened to me at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia years ago.) And of course, on the back of that ticket you can read the disclaimers regarding what you can or cannot do as a spectator, and under what circumstances you may be asked to leave the stadium. You also agree to incur all risks, for example, staying alert if you’re sitting along the third base line for any foul balls that could be screaming your way.

So from these various examples we can understand better what anthropologist Siegfried Nadel had to say about social control: “In this sense control is simply coterminous with society, and in examining the former we simply describe the latter.”2 The study of social control is the study of how society patterns and regulates individual behavior.3 Hence, in response to Cohen, why should the extensiveness of a procedure, practice, or process render the study of that procedure, practice, or process somehow problematic or even futile?

I would argue that even given its vastness and ubiquity, social control is very much a viable concept for sociology and other social and behavioral sciences. The study of social control can be managed by keeping in sight its basic forms. In this book, I lay out a typology of social control consisting of three main forms: legal, medical, and informal. The explanation of the derivation of this typology will be provided in chapter 2, but it should be acknowledged here that over the years a number of thinkers have developed alternative strategies for explaining social control. Three of the five strategies discussed below, by Beniger, Gibbs, and Parsons, are good examples of general theories of control which deal with social control as merely one type of control. The other two strategies are more micro-oriented theories which were created to deal specifically with social control as opposed to other kinds of control.

Five alternative approaches to control

F. Ivan Nye

Let us begin with the two micro or middle-range theories of social control. In chapter 6 I examine in detail the control theory of Travis Hirschi. In fact, an earlier version of control theory was developed by F. Ivan Nye.4 Nye’s theory is similar to my own to the extent that he envisions three main types of control. It is quite different, however, in its substantive details, conceptualizing the three categories as direct, internal, and indirect control.

By direct control, Nye is referring to all the actual or possible restraints that can be marshaled against deviance. The category of direct control renders irrelevant the distinction I am making between formal (legal and medical) and informal control, because direct control includes such things as legal punishments, informal sanctions such as shaming and ridicule, or even parental supervision of youth. This refers to direct, supervisory control, where control agents are in close physical proximity to those who are targets of control efforts. Noah Friedkin has made this point within the context of network theory, namely, that persons are held in check to the extent that they are directly observable by others with whom they form relationships in primary or secondary groups.5 For example, mothers who take their children out to public play areas will generally stay close by and provide a steady stream of feedback to the child about what he or she is doing right or wrong. Likewise, a bank manager usually is positioned close by to monitor the activities of cashiers as they interact with customers.

Internal control refers to internalization, namely, a system of socialization by which individuals are inculcated with a set of norms, values, beliefs, and rules which in effect keeps them from deviating. When I was a teenager, on Friday nights I knew that if I got back by midnight my parents would be happy and not bug me. In effect, I internalized the rule that I should get back by midnight, and this kept me from getting into trouble (or deviating).

Finally, indirect control refers to the warm and secure bonds of attachment that persons feel towards conventional others. The paradigmatic example of indirect control is children’s attachment to parents, and hence the family is the major source of indirect control in society. Indirect control is an example of control-from-a-distance. Control agents, such as parents or teachers, may be far removed physically yet still exert control influences on a child. A child off on his own or with friends may face temptation to do something bad. He will be less likely to carry out the bad act if he stops to ask himself one simple question: “What would mother think?”

Nye seems to be suggesting that social control boils down to sanctions (direct control), culture and socialization (internal control), and relationships (indirect control). But many sanctions are indirect, and some are meted out within the context of relationships. Also, the boundaries, if they exist at all, between internal and indirect control appear blurred and porous. For example, within the context of the family, both socialization and relationship formation occur simultaneously (ideally). Indeed, control-from-a-distance works equally well through the effects of both socialization (internal control) and through the development of stable attachments in relationships (indirect control). Wouldn’t it be more profitable to understand this nexus of activities or processes as amounting to the same kind of control, namely informal control?

Michael Katovich

The second micro-oriented theory of social control to be discussed is that of Michael Katovich. Although the connotation of control is that it is “evil” – especially in the hands of Marxists or conflict theorists who argue that the more powerful groups in society take advantage of less powerful groups through race, class, gender, or other forms of oppression – Katovich points out that there are cooperative as well as coercive bases of control.6 As discussed more fully in chapter 3, everyday life is held together by systems of informal control which are largely cooperative, such as those based in family life, peer and interpersonal relations, and face-to-face interaction more generally.

Katovich argues that within the micro realm of face-to-face interaction, informal control takes four basic forms: instrumental, ceremonial, interpersonal, and categorical control. Instrumental control refers to the fact that persons often come into contact with other persons over long periods of time to get various collective endeavors accomplished. In other words, instrumental control refers to the mutual give and take that actors exert on each other within relatively stable and persistent relationships. The kinds of cooperative arrangements indicative of instrumental control include marriages, partnerships, and organizational associations.

Ceremonial control represents a special kind of cooperation or mutuality between actors which tends to be more fleeting and episodic than instrumental control. For example, persons who aren’t closely acquainted will nevertheless provide to one another a smile, eye contact, and even a “Hi” when crossing each other’s paths in public. This is done merely for the sake of establishing mutual identification and availability should the need arise. In these sorts of fleeting encounters in public, proper conduct underscores the perception that the person being dealt with is not a threat and is identified as a “normal” person for the purposes at hand. Katovich’s ceremonial control is very close to Erving Goffman’s notion of interaction ritual, the latter of which will be explored in more detail in chapter 3.

Interpersonal control, according to Katovich, refers to two or more persons who share a focus on some immediate social objective. Yet they need not even invest their selves in the mutual project at hand (unlike ceremonial control). Interpersonal control means that everyone is “on the same page” and understands their roles in the accomplishment of the activity or event. Katovich gives the example of strangers meeting at the airport and negotiating over the availability of a table in a dining area.7 Stranger A is sitting at a table and has newspapers scattered out on the table next to him, and Stranger B asks “Is this seat taken?” Stranger A responds “No, let me clear it off,” while Stranger B says “Oh, I can do that.” Both work together to clear off the table, Stranger B takes his seat, Stranger A returns to his reading, and a little slice of interpersonal control is activated and then fades away into the tapestry of everyday life.

Finally, categorical control refers to the binding together of participants on the basis of structural or categorical identities, rather than on the basis of personal identities as was the case in instrumental or ceremonial control. Categorical identities refer to designations of persons on the basis of widely acknowledged social categories such as a person’s age, occupation, or income level. For example, if I want to sell my home I will not do business with a person until I know that he or she is a reputable real estate agent.

The main problem with Katovich’s theory of the cooperative bases of control is that it does not get us much beyond the category of informal control, which we will be examining in much more detail in chapters 3 and 6. In other words, there is nothing particularly wrong with Katovich’s four categories of control, but everything that he claims to accomplish by way of distinguishing between the four basic types of cooperative control is already covered in the much simpler and parsimonious notion of informal control.

James Beniger

We now turn briefly to the three grand or general theories of control. The first one to be discussed is a very broad conceptualization of control developed by James Beniger.8 Beniger suggests that from the beginning of life on earth (more than one billion years ago), there have developed four levels of control. The first level represents the emergence of organic matter and the appearance of protoplasm, namely, organisms moving about in space and time in a physical environment. All life is a struggle for existence, and organisms that are best able to adjust to their environments – that is, that are able to control themselves and any available resources – are the fittest for purposes of survival of their species.

Level two, which appeared on the scene about 100 million years ago, is the emergence of patterned behavior through imitation. Most sentient beings, above the level of the insects, engage in some form of imitation. Over the millennia, however, rote imitation was supplemented by learning by teaching, and with the rapid increase in brain size after the divergence of hominids and apes (which occurred some ten million years ago), humans developed linguistic systems which in turn increased teaching, learning, memory, and hence control exponentially. The creation of culture, characteristic of Homo sapiens, is an important step forward towards greater control of the environment and fellow beings at this level.

Level three, which occurred with the Neolithic or agricultural revolution (beginning about 5,000 years ago but accelerating with the rise of philosophy and science in Greece around 300 BC), vastly increased the need to organize activities associated with the production of food. Greater food productivity leads to larger populations, as well as greater stratification to the extent that some persons are now in positions to reap the benefits of the economic surplus created by this mode of production. The rise of the formal organization, or the bureaucracy, begins here as well but increases rapidly with the take-off point, which is the Commercial Revolution (about 450 years ago).

Finally, level four represents the transition from agriculture to industry as the major mode of production (beginning about 180 years ago). The Industrial Revolution leads to an acceleration of technological innovations (such as the harnessing of steam power, the railroads, the telegraph, and the harnessing of electricity), all of which lead to greater control of the natural and built environment. With the emergence of computers in the 1950s and the rapid acceleration of related information technologies since then (culminating in such things as the Internet as well as medical and genetic programming technologies), information itself becomes the basis of the new Control Revolution.

Within this developmental timeline, human social control is understood as merely one species of control, which sentient beings have always produced and which they continue to produce in new forms over time. As one can see, however, this broad panoramic sweep of the whole of earth history leaves the case of human control somewhat on the back doorstep. There is no doubt that the sketching out of this grand backdrop can be useful for understanding how we got from there to here, but it cannot be the focal point for explaining what social control is and how it operates in the here and now.

Jack Gibbs

An alternative grand theory of control has been developed by Jack Gibbs, but it is somewhat more manageable than the all-encompassing perspective of Beniger, and parts of it are directly related to issues of social control.9 At the grandest, most abstract level of his theoretical system, Gibbs argues there are three basic forms of control: inanimate, biotic, and human. Inanimate control is the human attempt to control, modify, or affect an inanimate object or its characteristics. Examples include throwing a rock to ward off a predator, as well as many forms of technology, which after all are attempts by humans to gain greater control over their environment through the development and creation of these various technologies (as Beniger similarly argued).

Biotic control is the human attempt to alter, affect, or change the characteristics of plant or animal organisms. Examples include food quests, the creation and maintenance of monoculture forests, and the use of animals for various purposes including transportation, as beasts of burden, in medical research, or even in warfare. This means, for example, that genetic engineering would fall under biotic control.

The third category, human control, amounts to the diverse ways humans attempt to control human behavior. Within human control there are two subcategories: internal and external control. Internal human control equates simply to self control. Going on a diet to lose weight, changing jobs to reduce depression or increase salary, or even trying to stop smoking are all examples of self control, according to Gibbs.10

External human control refers to the human attempt to control the behavior of human beings, excluding self control (which is covered under internal control). External control consists of three subcategories, which are proximate, sequential, and social control. Proximate control refers to attempts at direct or unmediated control of other human beings. Examples include coming into physical contact with another person (a pat on the back, a kiss, or an assault), or acts that do not require direct contact such as inviting someone over for dinner, saying hello, or hailing a cab.

The category of sequential control is necessitated because not all social life is conducted in face-to-face settings with co-present others. That is, often persons try to control others when there is spatial distance between the parties. Examples of sequential control include the chain of command in the military, use of communications technologies such as the telephone or the Internet, or person-to-person communications dispersed across social networks.

With regard to the category of social control, Gibbs breaks from the traditional understanding of the term, which typically emphasizes norms and conceptualizes control as the counteraction of deviance. (Indeed, in the modern era the most influential theory of social control as the counteraction of deviance was developed by Talcott Parsons, whose ideas we will examine shortly.) In contrast, Gibbs believes defining deviance and social control with reference to norms is overly narrow, primarily because such an approach cannot account for large-scale attempts at social control such as mass media advertising or state terrorism. Gibbs attempts to overcome the deficiencies of traditional approaches by defining attempted social control as

overt behavior by a human, the first party, in the belief that (1) the overt behavior increases or decreases the probability of a change in the behavior of another human or humans, the second party in either case; (2) the overt behavior involves a third party but not in the way of sequential control; and (3) the increase or decrease is desirable.11

The main thing to note about Gibbs’ theory of control is that the typology is generated on the basis of the objects of control. To summarize, control efforts aimed at inanimate objects are inanimate control, control efforts aimed at biological organisms (other than human) are biotic control, while control efforts aimed at human beings are human control. Within human control, control efforts aimed at oneself are internal control, while control efforts aimed at other humans are external control. Finally, external human control may be in the form of proximate control, sequential control, or social control. Notice also that, according to Gibbs’ definition, social control must always involve at least three parties (but not in the way of sequential control). This leads to some complexity in that there are five different types of social control, namely referential, allegative, vicarious, modulative, and prelusive control.

In order to better understand Gibbs’ theory of social control, some concrete examples of referential social control are provided here. In referential social control, the first party makes reference to a third party in order to influence the behavior of a second party. So for example, a little boy might tell his brother “Give me back my candy or I’ll tell mother!”12 Not all referential social control occurs at the small group or micro level, however. For example, law is a type of referential control according to Gibbs. In the courtroom, lawyers direct their arguments to a third party (the judge, the jury, and a mass public if the trial is being televised) in an effort to win a conviction against the defendant, the second party.

Creating a general theory of control on the basis of the objects of control is ingenious, but Gibbs’ system may also be too radical for purposes of social control specifically. One source of radicalism is Gibbs’ rejection of the traditional emphasis on norms, which we have already discussed. Another, perhaps even more important aspect of this radicalism is that the complexity of social control itself, with its five types, may discourage any attempt to utilize or test the theory within the research setting. Finally, the notion that social control occurs only in situations involving three or more parties appears to exclude from consideration or treatment a vast array of dyadic, or two party control situations. Gibbs’ solution is simply to treat such dyadic situations as proximate control, a move which makes sense only with a full-blown commitment to Gibbs’ theory of control.

Talcott Parsons

The third general theory of control is one developed by American sociologist Talcott Parsons. Parsons’ theory is closest in spirit to the tripartite typology of social control I will be discussing throughout the book. However, unlike my approach, Parsons argues that there are four basic types of social control corresponding with four functional requisites operating across all conceivable levels of social and physical reality.

According to Parsons, there are four functional problems which human societies must solve if they are to remain viable over time: adaptation (A), goal-attainment (G), integration (I), and latent pattern maintenance (L). Adaptation is the problem of adjusting to environmental conditions and extracting raw materials from that environment for use by human beings within the society. In modern society, the special institution set up to solve this problem is the economy. Goal-attainment is the problem of determining which goals to pursue, and deciding which of these goals are most important for system survival. This is a question of the production and utilization of power, and the social institution established for this purpose is government or the polity.

Societies tend to become more complex and structurally differentiated as they survive over an extended period of time. With increasing structural differentiation and segmentation, mechanisms arise to ensure the smooth and orderly operation of the many parts which otherwise could interfere with one another if left unchecked. Hence, a key functional problem internal to the system is that of integration of the multiple parts and specialized structures within the system. Parsons suggests that in a modern society the legal system is the paramount integrative mechanism, insofar as disputes are solved not haphazardly but through recourse to well-established rules and procedures.13 (It will be argued below that conceptualizing law as the key integrative system in society cannot work according to the logic of Parsons’ AGIL schema.)

Finally, it is important for a society to ensure consistent and predictable operation over time. Since new members are continually being introduced into the society (mainly through birth), there must be a variety of fiduciary or socialization systems whereby recognizable patterns are introduced and maintained over time. Culture, or the pattern of rules, norms, values, signs, and symbols operating in any particular society, provides latent pattern maintenance for society through the work of key fiduciary agents or units such as the family, the education system, and religion.

The prevailing norms and values of a society’s culture specify what is and is not acceptable. Hence, Parsons defines social control as any attempt to counter deviance.14 (This is the position that Gibbs opposes as discussed above.) Parsons goes further, however, by arguing that deviance and reactions to it can be viewed from two distinct analytical perspectives. From the first perspective, one may focus on the particular concrete situation in which a person acts, for example, the situation in which a driver seeing an amber light must decide whether to run through it or stop. Or one may focus on broader norms irrespective of any particular situation. Orientation to broader normative patterns raises more abstract issues such as respect for the law, honesty, responsibility to the community, recognition of authority, willingness to abide by contracts, and so forth. None of these need be tied to any specific situations or role obligations.15

Hence, along one analytical dimension Parsons suggests that the conceptualization of deviance and its control can take either a situational or normative focus. The other analytical dimension is to take note of whether deviance involves a disturbance of the total person (an individual orientation), or whether it involves disturbances in particular expectations (a group orientation). When considering deviance from these two axes – situational-normative and individual-group – four distinct kinds of social control emerge. Below I provide a brief description of how these four forms of control are derived.

Where there is a disturbance of the total person from a situational focus, Parsons interprets this as a problem of “capacities” for performing specific tasks or roles in a situation. Persons who are healthy can generally perform tasks or roles in particular situations, and this would be the conformity situation. Persons who cannot perform in these situations, who lack the capacity to get things done as expected, would be considered ill or sick. Hence, deviance within the individual-situational configuration is illness, and it is here that medical control prevails.

When there is a disturbance of the total person from a normative focus, Parsons interprets this as a problem of commitment to values. The conforming situation is a “state of grace” or “good character.” Conversely, the deviance situation is sin or immorality. The salient form of social control here is religious control.

When the disturbance shifts from the individual level to the group expectations level, two additional forms of social control emerge. Again, we need to consider this group level first from a situational and then from a normative focus. Within the group-situational focus, disturbance of group expectation in particular concrete settings leads to poor social bonding or rejection of significant others (such as estrangement from primary groups). Hence, the general category of deviance produced here is disloyalty to or detachment from the group. As a result, the salient form of social control here is informal control.

Finally, when considering the group level from a normative focus, deviance is the problem of a lack of commitment to norms. Here, Parsons is referring to lack of commitment to legal norms, and of course the type of deviance generated here is crime or illegality. This means that the form of social control most salient to the group-normative dimension is legal control.

This is certainly an interesting typology, but there appear to be some conceptual overlaps and anomalies which render it difficult to use in practice. For example, along the group-normative dimension, Parsons is reducing all social norms to legal norms, hence providing the context for the work of legal control. But informal norms – the tacit norms of everyday life – are also part of any cultural heritage, yet Parsons limits everyday or informal control only to the problem of a lack of commitment to values (as we saw along the group-situational dimension).

There are also seemingly clear implications for which functions the four types of control fulfill. Following the AGIL schema, there is only one way of assigning functions to the four types of control. Medical control fulfills the adaptation function, as this involves the capacities of the human organism to adjust and adapt to his or her environment. Insufficient mental or physical capacities limit the individual from performing expected roles, and hence illness is the form of deviance with regard to the function of adaptation.

Parsons argued that law fulfills the primary integrative function for society, but this cannot be defended. Law uses the social medium of power, seated in the polity, to extract compliance from individuals or groups through coercion or its threat. Law does not assure integration first and foremost; instead, that is the work of group living and everyday life, that is, of informal control. Law attempts to steer persons to pursue goals which are defined as legal and legitimate, using strong inducements such as the threat of arrest or incarceration if criminal laws are violated. Hence, legal control fulfills the function of goal-attainment not integration.

The integration function of social control is fulfilled by informal control. The bonding of individuals to each other within the context of groups and interpersonal relationships creates a tapestry of solidarity and stability which makes it difficult for properly-bonded individuals to violate group expectations. Finally, the latent pattern maintenance function of social control is fulfilled by religious control. Religion encompasses the realm of ultimate values, providing guidance for the thoughts and actions of true believers in this world who, if they remain devout in following the teachings of their religion, are promised salvation or grace in the afterlife. The realm of ultimate values transcends all other earthly concerns and pursuits, trumping even the informal norms of everyday life which constitute informal control. In this way, Parsons is able to distinguish religious control from informal control, in the process establishing it as a fourth category of control within his schema.

Even given some of these problems, Parsons’ typology of deviance and control was highly influential in its conceptualization of illness as a type of deviance, especially with regard to the concept of the sick role. The sick role will be returned to in chapter 4 when we examine more closely the category of medical social control.

A brief overview of the book

As a broad introduction to social control, with emphasis placed on the development and utilization of the concept as it has appeared both within classical and contemporary sociology, in this book it is impossible to get into the detail needed to fully explore the ideas of Nye, Katovich, Beniger, Gibbs, and Parsons. Nevertheless, exposure to the basic outlines of their approaches by way of this Introduction is useful for any student of social control.

This book may profitably be used at the undergraduate or beginning graduate level, in a wide variety of courses including of course social control, but also deviance, juvenile delinquency, criminology, criminal justice, sociology of law, corrections or the sociology of prisons, the sociology of policing, and the administration of justice. It should also be noted that the topic of social control brings together literatures from a number of fields including history, social psychology, medical sociology, sociological and criminological theory, law, criminal justice, and sociology more generally. As a consequence, the bibliography is quite large, and should be a useful reference to scholars in many of the disciplines and fields of study listed above.

Part I of the book lays out the groundwork for understanding the concept of social control, including its history and usages. As discussed in chapter 1, the early American sociologist Edward A. Ross was the first person to investigate, in sustained fashion, something called “social control,” beginning with a series of articles written on the subject in 1896. It should be pointed out that, unlike Ross, most of the authors we will be investigating in this book did not set out to study social control per se. That is, a number of philosophers, political theorists, and social scientists from the 1600s onward have written about the relationship between the individual and society, and in most of these instances, although the term “social control” may never have been explicitly invoked, there nevertheless was a concern with how the individual is held in check by wider social arrangements or structures, whether in the form of the state, the family, the community, the economic system (the explicit focus of Marx’s political philosophy, for example), the group or tribe, or some other regulative mechanism.

After establishing the threefold typology of social control in chapter 2, separate chapters are devoted to issues and controversies associated with informal control (chapter 3), medical control (chapter 4), and legal control (chapter 5). These five chapters will provide the student with a rigorous understanding of social control as it is typically used and applied in sociological analysis.

Part II is dedicated to critical case studies in social control. Chapters 6, 7, and 8 build upon the basic groundwork established in chapters 3, 4, and 5 respectively. For example, while chapter 3 lays the foundation for an understanding of informal control, chapter 6 provides critical case studies of informal control. Because it continues to play a prominent role in modern society, race and race relations are the themes of two of the three case studies in chapter 6, as well as those in chapter 8 (on legal control). The case studies of medical control in chapter 7 focus on the control of youth and adolescence.

Chapter 9 focuses exclusively on terrorism since it is the most pressing concern of western democracies today. Finally, chapter 10 ponders what the future of social control may hold in light of the distortions to the social fabric which global terrorism has wrought. It also examines broad cultural, political, and social trends which, in concert with the specter of terrorism, have produced a blending of medical and legal controls, all for the avowed purpose of shoring up what is presumed to be a weakening of informal control.

At the end of each chapter I have provided an annotated bibliography consisting of five books and/or articles which are strongly recommended to readers seeking more in-depth information about the topics and issues treated therein. I also provide five discussion questions pertaining to the material covered in each chapter.




What is Social Control?


The morning of January 8, 2011 started out like any other day in Tucson, Arizona. Democratic congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, along with her staff, were busily preparing for a town hall meeting in the parking lot of a Safeway grocery store. At 10:10 a.m., with some 30 members of the public already assembled anticipating the start of the activities, shots rang out. The gunman, who later would be identified as Jared Lee Loughner, had purchased some two months earlier a Glock Model 19, 9 mm handgun with a magazine which could hold 33 rounds of ammunition. His primary target was Giffords, whom he shot in the back of the head. After shooting Giffords, Loughner turned on the crowd and started squeezing off rounds randomly. Within seconds Loughner was subdued by a few brave bystanders and others in attendance, but not before he had killed six people and injured thirteen.1

The early media reports were that Giffords had died as a result of her head wound, but later it was discovered that she had somehow miraculously survived. Others were not so fortunate. One of the persons killed in the attack was Arizona Chief Judge John Rolle. Another was a nine-year-old girl, Christina Taylor Greene, granddaughter of former major league baseball manager Dallas Greene.2 The lives lost that day were a monumental tragedy, but Christina’s death was perhaps the most tragic not only because she was so young and innocent, but also because, ironically enough, she was born on September 11, 2001. This young girl was brought into the world and departed it on days of infamous violence on American soil, tragic bookends framing a brief but precious life lived to the fullest.

The unspeakable horror perpetrated by Loughner set into motion a range of social control responses. First, persons on the scene did what they could do to help victims and subdue the gunman. The courageous acts of these men and women, acting only in their capacity as fellow citizens and human beings, are part and parcel of self-help or informal control. Soon after the shootings, media reports alerted the general public to the story and frantic calls to 9-1-1 led to the dispatching of law enforcement and medical personnel to the scene. It was here that both legal and medical control stepped into the fray in profound ways.

Afterwards, as there were ongoing attempts to explain why Loughner opened fire, attention turned to his life and mental health history. Friends of Loughner at school and elsewhere described him as unstable and withdrawn during the year leading up to the shootings. Loughner attended Pima Community College from 2005 through 2010, and during that time he was cited on five separate occasions for disruption in classrooms and at the library. He was eventually suspended after he posted a YouTube video in which he claimed that the actions taken against him by the university were unconstitutional.3 Yet, during this time, no one reported his behavior to legal authorities.

On March 22, 2011, a federal judge ordered that Loughner be transported to a medical referral center at a federal prison facility in Springfield, Missouri to conduct mental health evaluations to determine whether Loughner was competent to stand trial.4 About two months later it was announced that Loughner was found mentally incompetent and would not stand trial for the murders. Shortly after federal judge Larry Burns announced his finding, Loughner yelled out “Thank you for the freak show,” “She died in front of me,” and “You’re treasonous.” The next step is for physicians to determine whether Loughner could ever attain competency with mental health treatments. If mental competency is deemed a possibility, Loughner could at some point stand trial for the murders. If not, he will likely spend the rest of his life in a secure facility for the criminally insane.5

This tragic vignette illustrates how deviant acts put into motion a range of reactions for dealing with such acts. The study of social control – namely, all those mechanisms and resources by which members of society attempt to assure the norm-conforming behavior of others – is almost as old as the discipline of sociology itself. If we mark the beginning of scientific sociology with the publication of Lester Ward’s Dynamic Sociology in 1883, social control did not appear as a specific and sustained focus for sociological analysis until about 13 years later, in 1896. In that year, Edward A. Ross published the first of many articles on the topic of social control in the American Journal of Sociology. Although Ross is credited as being the innovator of the study of social control within sociology, by no means did he create this subfield out of whole cloth. Rather, like the great majority of intellectual innovations, Ross deftly synthesized pertinent aspects of the extant literature that dealt with the relation between the individual and society, as well as with the problem of social order more broadly.

Before we get to the more familiar treatment of social control as it has appeared in the sociological literature over the last 40 years, we must first tell the story of how and under what circumstances the study of social control appeared, beginning with Ross’s seminal writings in the late 1800s. Ross provided a justification for a sociological agenda which placed the study of social control at or near the top of the list of substantive sociological phenomena. In order to understand the justification for Ross’s agenda, it is important to understand the context within which his work was appearing. The context, in short, is the founding of sociology as a scientific discipline in America in the last three decades of the nineteenth century.

After establishing the social context within which the study of social control emerged within American sociology, we will then be in a position to analyze similar movements of thought among classical European sociologists, two of the most prominent being Emile Durkheim and Max Weber. Although this overview of the thought of Ross, Durkheim, and Weber will provide a solid foundation for conceptualizing social control, in later chapters additional theoretical background will be provided as particular substantive phenomena are introduced, including norms, sanctions, socialization, groups, culture, the professions (especially medicine), and the criminal justice system (police, courts, and corrections).

The Gilded Age, the Progressive Era, and the establishment of American sociology

The 50 or so years leading up to the Progressive Era was a time of immense social change and shifting cultural and political landscapes in America. First, of course, there was the Civil War which ended in 1865. Then a period of economic prosperity known as the Gilded Age arose, especially for those businesses such as oil, steel, and transportation which reaped the benefits of the massive efforts of social reconstruction. This was also a period in which the theory of evolution came to prominence, and social thinkers such as Herbert Spencer applied notions of survival of the fittest to human society and championed both rugged individualism (supported as well by the Protestant work ethic) and laissez-faire or “hands” off government policies. Finally, by the 1890s a Progressive Era had emerged which in effect attempted to buffet the dislocations experienced by working- and lower-class Americans who were left behind during the Gilded Age, as well as a large group of immigrants arriving to America during the great “second wave” of immigration running from 1880 to 1920. The impetus toward progressivism in America was also the operational logic for the establishment and institutionalization of sociology. In effect, sociology was turned to for “scientific” understandings of the bewildering social changes unleashed over the course of the century since America had gained its independence from Britain.

The stirrings of professional sociology in America can be traced back to the early 1870s. Indeed, the founding of American sociology can be said to have occurred during the 20-year period stretching from 1875 to 1994. The first notable event was William Graham Sumner’s offering of the first course in sociology taught in any university. The course was offered at Yale University, and Sumner used Herbert Spencer’s Study of Sociology, published in 1873, as the primary textbook.

The second event in the establishment of American sociology was the publication, in 1883, of Lester Ward’s two-volume Dynamic Sociology. Ward, who fought and was injured in the American Civil War, went into government work as a botanist and paleontologist shortly after he was discharged from military service in 1864. By 1869, Ward had begun work on Dynamic Sociology, writing and conducting research for the book throughout the decade of the 1870s while working in government service in Washington, DC. Dynamic Sociology was the first general theoretical synthesis of sociology in America.

American Journal of Sociology,