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The first sociological writings on social control took an expansive view, applying the concept to all the institutions and practices whereby societies maintain social order. These writings often contended that while social control is unavoidable, it need not be repressive. The concept figured prominently for the Chicago School” of urban sociologists who argued that because cities are relatively anonymous, city dwellers feel less compelled to honor each others’ rights or sanction each others’ transgressions. Hence, cities must delegate the work of social control to professionals in place of the self-policing community found in small towns. They observed that because professional agencies of social control cannot be as ubiquitous, these agencies cannot as effectively maintain social order as can fuller community participation in this effort. The early Chicago School’s approach to social control was later both refined and rivaled by the likes of C. Everett Hughes, Talcott Parsons, and Harold Garfinkel each of whom focused in different ways on the collectively orchestrated aspects of social control and its role in creating and maintaining consensus, equilibrium, and collaborative activity.
In contrast, critical theories have insisted that because people inevitably disagree about what merits regulation, social control must entail stronger groups controlling weaker groups, not in the collective interest but in their own self-interest. Various research agendas emphasizing the coercive and exploitative dimensions of social control became prominent in the 1950s and 1960s. Labeling theory insisted that social control involves not only a response to deviance, but a definition as deviant of certain activities (e.g. drug use, homosexuality) that in other societies aren’t defined as deviant or singled out for social control. Ultimately, labeling theorists were challenged by other, largely Marxist, critical theorists who see social control not just as the imposition of one group’s morality upon another, but as a significant aspect of economic exploitation. Hence they emphasize efforts to: secure property through policing; debilitate unions through intimidation, scabs, and legal restrictions; discipline workers to make them both less threatening and more efficient; or diffuse working-class resentment through either a mass media that distracts and pacifies or social welfare programs. In sum, Marxist critical theorists see social control as a multifaceted project undertaken by elites to maintain or amass wealth and power.
Marxists often distinguish power as control by force from knowledge as control by persuasion. Michel Foucault argued this distinction fails to appreciate that all power requires knowledge regimes through which its goals are formulated, and methods for achieving those goals are devised and refined. Foucault described the fusion of power and knowledge in prisons, the military, hospitals, and bureaucracies more generally, arguing that each of these embodied a distinctive form of social control. He referred to these regimes as instances of governmentality,” a concept he applied broadly to all who engage in the ”conduct of conduct.” This is something that employers do with employees, parents do with children, teachers do with students, and that we as individuals do with our selves – as when we diet. Over the years, Foucault grew increasingly interested in the fact that we do, at some level, govern our own lives according to our own visions of the good. While these visions are heavily influenced by our place in history, they do not, for that, cease to be our own. He seemed to become more hopeful that social control could, in principle, be exercised democratically and compassionately rather than coercively and exploitatively. And along with many other students of social control, he was convinced that, while necessary as such, the regulation of society is, at present, considerably more coercive and exploitative than it has to be.
- Becker, H. S. (1963) Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance. Free Press, New York.
- Meier, R. F. (1982) Perspectives on the concept of social control. Annual Review of Sociology 8: 35-55.
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