In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Social Threat and Social Control

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Foundational Texts
  • Arrests
  • Police Size
  • Other Policing Behaviors
  • Sentencing and Incarceration
  • Death Penalty
  • Lynchings and Hate Crimes
  • Justice System Resources and Expenditures
  • Fear of Minority Crime
  • Other Social Control Mechanisms
  • Nature of Social Threat
  • Elaborations and Extensions
  • International Research

Criminology Social Threat and Social Control
David Eitle, Zachary Morgan-Edwards
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 October 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 14 April 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0122


For much of the latter part of the 20th century, social scientists have scrutinized the social control of crime. One focus has been on the role of extralegal factors such as race and social class in explaining the nature and distribution of various social-control efforts. A prominent explanation that incorporates issues of racial and economic stratification into an explanation of social control is social threat. Inspired by the conflict perspective and its emphasis on the use of state apparatuses, including the law and criminal justice institutions, to control subordinate groups who threaten the interests of dominant groups, social threat predicts that as racial and/or economically disadvantaged groups challenge the dominant group’s interests, both formal (e.g., arrests, imprisonments, executions, use of force) and informal (lynchings, hate crimes, interracial killings) social control mechanisms will be utilized to maintain the status quo. While the earliest studies examined the association between the relative size of the subordinate group and the use of various social-control mechanisms, recent research has been driven by more deliberate inquiry into the precise nature of the threat posed by the subordinate group. The nature of the threat, in terms of both its conceptualization and measurement, has varied considerably, including foci on such threats as economic competition, political mobilization, and even interracial crime. But while the nature of the threat and the particular subordinate group examined have inspired a number of different labels for this thesis, including racial threat, power threat, minority group threat, and realist conflict theory, these inquiries are united in examining an association between threat and social- control efforts.

General Overviews

For undergraduates and graduate students just starting out and exploring issues of social threat (especially racial threat theory), the four sources listed below provide good starting points. Higgins 2010 provides both an introduction to the theory and a published article as an example of work in the area, while Gabbidon 2010 is more of a classic, textbook approach to conflict theory and racial threat (chapter 6). Weitzer and Tuch’s 2006 important work on race and policing provides a simple but useful overview of social threat in their introductory chapter. Bridges and Myers 1994 provides a collection of articles addressing the nexus between inequality and social control, including insightful contributions from Darrell Hawkins on ethnicity and social control and Kathleen Daly on gender and social control.

  • Bridges, George S., and Martha A. Myers. 1994. Inequality, crime, and social control. Crime and Society. Boulder, CO: Westview.

    Papers presented at a meeting held at the Georgia Center for Continuing Education, Athens, Georgia, April 1992. A sociological examination of the linkages between inequality, crime, and social control, this anthology expands extant scholarship regarding the theoretical foundations of social control, the subjugated groups experiencing social control, the relationships between various social control mechanisms, and the link between individual attitudes and the use of social control mechanisms.

  • Gabbidon, Shaun, L. 2010. Criminological perspectives on race and crime. New York: Routledge.

    Like Higgins 2010, this text addresses ways in which criminology explains the association between race and crime. More of a standard textbook than Higgins 2010, Gabbidon 2010 provides a solid overview of conflict and racial threat theory (indeed, devotes an entire chapter to the topic) in chapter 6.

  • Higgins, George E. 2010. Race, crime, and delinquency: A criminological theory approach. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

    A textbook that tackles the linkages between race and crime; each chapter introduces a salient theoretical approach and the authors’ assumptions about race, crime, and delinquency. Chapter 6 presents conflict and racial threat theory and would be a great starting point for undergraduates interested in these issues.

  • Weitzer, Ronald, and Steven A. Tuch. 2006. Race and policing in America: Conflict and reform. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511617256

    Introductory chapter provides a good overview of social threat. The authors’ central findings from their elaborate study of police and race relations is that race matters a great deal—blacks have the most critical views of the police, whites express positive views, and Hispanics fall between the two.

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