Social Control

Sara Mustre-del Rio

Origin of the term

Social control was first theorized by Emile Durkheim, considered the founder of sociology and structural functionalism. By structural functionalism, he means how society forms and functions. In other words, he explained how society maintains its order and stability. According to Durkheim, what holds society together are the shared experiences, perspectives, values, beliefs, and behaviors that allow people to feel that they are a part of a group. It is in the common interest of each individual to work with others to maintain the group, and any kind of deviance from this is called an anomie. Crime is a kind of anomie(Cole, 2019). 

Being something that is present in all societies, Durkheim explained how crime serves the function of setting boundaries for behavior, which are recognized collectively in communities and reinforced by members of society, who react negatively to said crimes (Kempf-Leonard, 2019). According to him,social order maintains itself when humans are socialized in order to avoid disapproval, which is a consequence of deviant acts. (Durkheim, 1895)

However, the term was first formally introduced into sociology by Edward A. Ross in 1896 when he published an article titled “Social Control” in the American Journal of Sociology (O’Brien, 2014 . He defined social control as the “rules and arrangements that regulate the incompatible or disruptive actions in society”. (Ross, 1896) Ross introduced this term with the purpose of analyzing the processes of rapid social change that were happening at the moment: immigration, industrialization, urbanization. Ross’s research made sense, as he was an advocate of  melioristic sociology, which is the application of the discipline to the ends of social reform (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2019).According to Ross, societies are evolving from being “archaic and simple” to “complex and modern”. Said evolution requires new forms of social control to guarantee the stability of the new and conflict-ridden societies. Therefore, one can deduce that society is becoming more dependent on more formal and explicit forms of social control than informal and implied mechanisms.

Types of social control

In the sociology of deviance, social control is seen as more of responses to deviant conducts. Social control is classified according to the enforcing actors and nature of its sanctioning mechanisms. There are two categories which are formal and informal social control.

Informal social control

Informal social control occurs through sanctions that are not codified in the law but are maintained by informal mechanisms such as folkways, traditions, mores, and religion. These are imposed on individuals by informal institutions such as family, community, peers, school, work, religion, and even the mass media. This occurs through social interactions, as people learn which behaviors are deviant and which are not. Overall, sanctioning people for deviant behavior socializes them into conforming to the culturally normative expectations and norms within their social groups. If the majority of individuals act according to these standards, there will be order and coordination in society.

There are different sanctions according to the different kinds of norms which the individual deviates from.The two types of norms present in informal social control are folkways and mores. Folkwaysare basic everyday norms regarding customs, tradition, or politeness. The violation of folkways is not serious, so its sanctions consist in minor criticism towards the deviant individual, as people might consider the violator as weird, rude, or naive. Moresare norms based on general social consensus, and violators are sanctioned through more severe social criticism, as conforming to these norms is viewed as critical to social harmony and cohesion (O’Brien, 2014). Since the deviation of mores is deemed as a threat to social order, violators may be considered immoral or dangerous to society.

Formal social control

Formal social control is a response to a violation of codified law or institutional regulations. These violations are deemed as crimes. It is imposed by governmental authorities such as the police, judges, and attorneys through the criminal justice system. This kind of social control has been widely scrutinized, as it disproportionately targets marginalized individuals such as the poor and ethno-racial minorities. Being in this downtrodden position, they have less power to defend themselves from formal control mechanisms than individuals from dominant groups .

Deterrence is the main purpose of formal social control mechanisms. In other words, certain and severe punishments such as arrest and incarceration will theoretically deter people from committing crimes (O’Brien, 2014). However, the deterrence theory assumes that people rationally foresee the costs and benefits of criminal behavior before partaking in it. 

Why do individuals comply with the law?

  • Fear of punishment: Punishment by the State results in a loss of essential freedoms of individuals and thus, hinders individuals from breaking the law. 
  • Rule conforming habit: This is the notion that obeying laws is necessary for an individual’s well-being and social stability. Informal social control agents—such as family and educational institutions—play an important role in indoctrinating said notion into individuals (Rouček and Slabey, 1947). In other words, informal and formal social control interact with each other.

Why do people breach formal social control?

As mentioned above, the deterrence theory assumes people act rationally towards the sanctions of formal social control. However, sometimes formal social control is not enough to deter individuals from violating the law.There are three main sociological theories to explain the reason individuals commit crime: strain, social learning, and control theories. 

Strain theory

According to the strain theory, people commit crime as a result of becoming stressed or upset or having an urgent necessity.The negative situation pressures the person to seek corrective action, and people who have poor coping skills and resources such as social support may resort to crime. In other words, they see crime as a solution to the current situation they are facing.Some examples of this include: engaging in violence to end harassment from peers, stealing to unbind oneself from financial need, consumption of illicit drugs as an escape from emotional problems. People may even partake in criminal activity to seek revenge against a person that has harmed them.

One of the most notable examples of the strain theory is committing crime for money (Agnew, 2002).In the United States, many people in the impoverished sector of the population struggle to satisfy their financial necessity through legal channels such as work.Perhaps the main reason this occurs is that public schools in the United States are property-tax funded, causing disparities in the quality of the education among different socio-economic sectors of the population.This causes a difficulty for impoverished individuals to find employment, and as a result, they are obligated to turn to criminal activity–such as drug trafficking, theft, and prostitution—to fulfill their financial needs.

This is especially evident with young people between the ages of 15 and 24, as they suffer a high unemployment rate of 17.1% , compared to the overall unemployment rate for American workers of 5.5 %. A recent study by Dr. Roman Pabayo has shown that income inequality among teenagers and crime are strongly correlated. Young people are the most unemployed, since they are often competing for entry-level jobs with more experienced people (Pambayo, 2014). Also, “within every race and community, adolescents suffer poverty rates two to three times higher than older adults do…” (Males, 2015)This ultimately leads them to commit crime as a means of economic subsistence.

Social learning theory

According to the social learning theory, people engage in crime through their interactions with their peers. Through socialization, they are exposed to beliefs that favor crime, and as a result, come to see crime as something that is justified in certain situations and even desirable.Though the most common way of being socialized into criminal activity is direct contact, one does not necessarily need to be in direct contact with the crime perpetrators to learn from them. For example, an individual may learn to engage in violence from their contact with the media. This theory is perhaps the most supported and dominant theory today. Research has proven that the people and media one interact with significantly impact whether one engages in crime or not. These interactions influence an individual’s beliefs towards crime, the reinforcement or punishments one receives and the criminal activity models one is exposed to (Agnew, 2002).

Examples of this theory can be seen in the interactions among men of certain minority groups.Masculinity is an important trait for the men of said groups to possess in order to gain status and respect from their peers. Masculinity is often associated with crime, as both of these concepts are defined by other concepts such as dominance, toughness, competitiveness.Therefore, men of these minority groups are encouraged to prove their masculine status through “tough” and criminal activities such as partaking in violence, and occasionally assaults and robbing. (Messerschmidt, 1993)

Control theory

The previous two models focus on the factors that encourage individuals to commit crime. But the control model assesses why people conform or refrain from engaging crime. Another way the control theory differs from the previous two theories is that takes crime for granted. Control theorists argue that all people have necessities and desires that are more easily and effectively fulfilled through criminal activity than through legal means. For example, it is much easier to steal money that to obtain it through work.

Since people are always looking for the most efficient means to satisfy their needs, they do not partake in criminal activity because of the restraints that are put on them. These factors that prevent people from committing crime can be viewed as barriers.Control theory argues that people’s level of control differs because the restraints they face differ as well.In other words, differences in crime are explained because some people are freer to partake in criminal activity than others (Agnew, 2002). 

An example of this would be the fact that certain sectors of the population, such as impoverished people of color, are more subject to being discovered partaking in criminal activity by the police and therefore, sanctioned. Due to historical stigmas that relate people of color to criminality, police officers may hold implicit racial and socioeconomic biases against said sector of the population, which encourages them to patrol the neighborhoods of these communities in disproportionate amounts compared to more economically-privileged white neighborhoods. Therefore, impoverished people of color have a stronger incentive to refrain from crime than white people, as they are more likely to get caught. Most of the times, due to the abovementioned stigma, they are wrongly accused of engaging in crime, so they need to take more precautionary measures to disassociate with the negatives stereotypes placed upon them. In other words, white people are freer to commit crime than impoverished people of color, as they are less likely to get caught and are not associated with negative stereotypes involving criminality.This claim is especially evident in traffic stops, which are disproportionate towards people of color. “Nationally, 12 percent of drivers are stopped per year by the police. Among racial minorities the rate is considerably higher: 24 percent or more by some estimates (Epp, et al. 2014).”

Works cited

Cole, L. “How Emile Durkheim Made His Mark on Sociology.”ThoughtCo.Jan 22, 2019. Accessed 9 Feb 2019.

“Edward A. Ross” Encyclopaedia Britannica 10 Feb 2019.

O’Brien, Patrick K. “Social Control.” Encyclopedia of Social Deviance,edited by Forsyth, C. and Copes, H. vol. 2, SAGE Reference, 2014, pp. 652-656. Gale Virtual Reference Library, Accessed 29 Jan. 2019.

Rouček, J. and Slabey, J. Social control. New York: D Van Nostrand Company, Inc. 1947. Print 

Kempf-Leonard, K. and Morris, N.Social Control Theory. Oxford Bibliographies. 2012.

Agnew, R. “Crime Causation: Sociological Theories” Encyclopedia of Crime and Justice, edited by Dressler, J. 2nd ed., vol. 1, 202 pp. 324-334. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Accessed 31 Jan. 2019.

Messerschmidt, J. Masculinities and Crime: Critique and Reconceptualization of Theory. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield. 1993. Print.

Pambayo, R. et al. The Role of Neighborhood Income Inequality in Adolescent Aggression and Violence. Journal of Adolescent Health 55. 4. October 2014.ScienceDirect. Accessed 9 Feb 2019.

Males, M. “Age, Poverty, Homicide, and Gun Homicide: Is Young Age or Poverty Level the Key Issue?”SAGE Open. March 5th, 2015. 9 Feb 2019.

Epp, C. et al. Pulled Over: How Police Stops Define Race and Citizenship. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 2014. Print