In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Black's Theory of Law and Social Control

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Beyond Law and Social Control
  • Sociological Technology

Criminology Black's Theory of Law and Social Control
Bradley Campbell
  • LAST REVIEWED: 20 June 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 14 April 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0067


Developed by Donald Black and since extended and applied to various subjects by a number of scholars, Black’s theory of law and social control addresses a phenomenon relevant to specialists in nearly every subfield of social science: the handling of human conflict. The theory’s subject matter is present wherever there are moral disputes, wherever one person has a grievance against another, wherever one person defines another’s behavior as deviant. Conflict may occur wherever there is social life, then, and it may lead to arrests, restraining orders, suicides, thefts, boycotts, protests, revolutions, and numerous other responses. But the nature of the disputes themselves does not explain how they are handled. Some insults may lead to homicides, for example, and some homicides may lead to executions. But not all of them do. Likewise not all landlord-tenant disputes result in lawsuits, and not all marital infidelity results in divorce. According to Black’s theory, this kind of variation—variation in social control, or the handling of conflict—can be explained sociologically. Every case of conflict has a social geometry (or social structure) consisting of the social characteristics of everyone involved—such as whether they are wealthy or poor and whether they are intimates or strangers. The geometry of the case predicts how it is handled. This type of explanation—called pure sociology—distinguishes Black’s theory not only from other theories of law and social control but also from all other theoretical paradigms. Pure sociology thus may be applied to subjects other than law and social control. Any form of social life may be explained with its social geometry.

General Overviews

Black’s theoretical strategy, pure sociology, differs from other sociological paradigms both in what it seeks to explain and how it explains it. Pure sociology conceives of human behavior as social life rather than as the behavior of individuals, and it is social life itself that behaves—or varies from one situation to the next. Further, the behavior of social life is explained not with the characteristics of people—either individuals or groups—but with its location and direction in a multidimensional social space. Pure sociology conceives of human behavior in entirely social terms, then, and its explanations differ fundamentally from those of other approaches. Black 1979 gives a concise overview of this strategy, and Black 1995 discusses its main features and epistemological assumptions. Black 2000a and Black 2000b compare pure sociology with conventional sociological work and argue that the strategy allows for much more scientific explanations of social phenomena. Cooney 2006 similarly argues for the strategy’s advantage in explaining the phenomena that interest criminologists, while Michalski 2008 compares the global nature of pure sociology with the parochial concerns of other approaches. The essays in Horowitz 2002 discuss the importance, reception, and influence of pure sociology and of Black’s work generally. For applications of pure sociology to specific subjects, see The Theory of Law, The Theory of Social Control, The Theory of Violence, and Beyond Law and Social Control.

  • Black, Donald. 1979. A strategy of pure sociology. In Theoretical perspectives in sociology. Edited by Scott G. McNall, 149–168. New York: St. Martin’s.

    A concise overview of pure sociology. Discusses the five dimensions of social space and their relation to previous sociological work. Also notes how the approach can be applied to law, medicine, ideas, and art. Reprinted in Black 1998 (cited under The Theory of Social Control).

  • Black, Donald. 1995. The epistemology of pure sociology. Law and Social Inquiry 20:829–870.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1747-4469.1995.tb00693.x

    The most comprehensive discussion of pure sociology to date. Discusses the aims and characteristics of the paradigm and the standards by which theories employing it should be evaluated. Also details how pure sociology differs fundamentally from other sociological strategies by avoiding psychology, one-dimensionality, units of analysis, anthropocentrism, and teleology.

  • Black, Donald. 2000a. The purification of sociology. Contemporary Sociology 29:704–709.

    DOI: 10.2307/2655236

    Argues that modern sociology has advanced little beyond the classics, and where it differs it is less scientific. Pure sociology, however, advances beyond classical sociology to offer a new way of conceiving of the social and of explaining social life.

  • Black, Donald. 2000b. Dreams of pure sociology. Sociological Theory 18:343–367.

    DOI: 10.1111/0735-2751.00105

    An extended version of Black 2000a, this article also argues that pure sociology enables sociology to advance beyond the classics. Gives more detail on the characteristics of the strategy and also contains a much more extensive discussion of the pure sociology of ideas.

  • Cooney, Mark. 2006. The criminological potential of pure sociology. Crime, Law, and Social Change 46:51–63.

    DOI: 10.1007/s10611-006-9048-y

    Notes the key features of the strategy of pure sociology and discusses its contributions to the field of criminology. Argues that most criminological theories do little more than profile criminal offenders or groups, while pure sociology has the ability to explain the actual occurrence of behaviors such as violence and predation.

  • Horwitz, Allan V., ed. 2002. A continuities symposium on Donald Black’s The behavior of law. Contemporary Sociology 31:641–674.

    A symposium reflecting on Black 1976 (cited under The Theory of Law). Consists of nine essays by various scholars concerning pure sociology generally and the theories of law and social control more specifically.

  • Michalski, Joseph H. 2008. Scientific discovery in deep social space: sociology without borders. Canadian Journal of Sociology 33:521–553.

    Discusses how the characteristics of pure sociology can enable it to become a truly global sociology—unlike the politicized and nationalistic sociologies that are currently dominant.

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