Sociology Social Control
Jason Carmichael
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 September 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 June 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0048


Social control is the study of the mechanisms, in the form of patterns of pressure, through which society maintains social order and cohesion. These mechanisms establish and enforce a standard of behavior for members of a society and include a variety of components, such as shame, coercion, force, restraint, and persuasion. Social control is exercised through individuals and institutions, ranging from the family, to peers, and to organizations such as the state, religious organizations, schools, and the workplace. Regardless of its source, the goal of social control is to maintain conformity to established norms and rules. Social control is typically employed by group members in response to anyone it considers deviant, problematic, threatening, or undesirable, with the goal of ensuring conformity. It is a broad subfield of sociology that involves criminologists, political sociologists, and those interested in the sociology of law and punishment, as well as scholars from a variety of disciplines, including philosophy, anthropology, political science, economics, and law. The subfield includes both macro and micro components. Those concerned with macro forces of social control have focused primarily on the goals and effectiveness of the formal mechanisms, such as the police, law, and punishment, employed to maintain order. Scholars interested in the macro aspects tend to examine questions related to the role that elites, the state, and other political and religious institutions have on establishing the norms and rules that people are governed by. Researchers focusing on the micro, on the other hand, tend to be more focused on the role that socialization and peer influence have on placing limits on human action. The origins of the discussions of social control can be traced back to the writings of such social philosophers as John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, as well as classic social theorists such as Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, and Max Weber, among others. Today, social-control researchers continue to design and refine our understanding of social order and how it is maintained as well as the conditions under which it fails to do so.

Foundational Works

Social philosophers, as seen in Hobbes 2011, Rousseau 2003, and Beccaria 1963, have played an important role in the development of social control, a subfield of sociology. The modern origins of the writings on social control can be traced to some of the pillars of sociology, including Karl Marx and Emile Durkheim. Durkheim 1947 is a contribution to the area of social control and the maintenance of social order that is particularly important. The writings established the foundation of much of modern social-control theory. Marx and Engels 1978 is another significant contribution to the subfield, with particular attention paid to how class domination is at the base of social-control efforts. Contemporary works have borrowed from these classical writings but have left their own indelible mark on the subfield of social control. Mead 1925 first introduced other social-science disciplines outside of sociology into the modern debate, but perhaps the most profound statement on social control from a sociological perspective is Pound 1996. In his seminal work in the field, Social Control through Law (New Brunswick, NJ, and London: Transaction, 2006), Pound articulates rather-precise definitions of social control and the mechanisms and motivations for achieving it. Another seminal piece is Rusche and Kirchheimer 2007. These texts show that levels of punishment are a function of structural factors, particularly rates of unemployment. Recently, Foucault 1977 has dominated the discourse surrounding social control.

  • Beccaria, Cesare. 1963. On crimes and punishments. Translated by Henry Paolucci. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

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    The seminal text that has shaped all modern criminal-justice systems around the world. Establishes classical deterrence theory by arguing that social control can be achieved by modifying the criminal code. Beccaria maintains that humans will avoid criminal behavior if the cost is too high. Originally published in 1764.

  • Durkheim, Emile. 1947. The division of labor in society. Translated by George Simpson. New York: Free Press.

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    In this book, Durkheim argues that crime is normal because it exists in every society. Given this, he argues that the goal of punishment cannot be to cure it. He claims that formal punishment is a symbolic mechanism used to galvanize public sentiment. He also maintains that modern societies will increasingly utilize restitutive sanctions over punitive ones. Originally published in 1893.

  • Foucault, Michel. 1977. Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison. New York: Pantheon.

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    A historical, philosophical, and theoretical account of punishment. Foucault outlines his theory of power/knowledge and argues that changes in punitive policies are merely an attempt by the state to increase its domination over individuals in society.

  • Hobbes, Thomas. 2011. Leviathan: Parts I and II. Peterborough, ON: Broadview.

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    In Leviathan, Hobbes outlines his doctrine of the state and social contract theory. Famously, Hobbes argues that without a strong state, society would consist of “war of all against all.” He suggests social order is maintained by the state through its control over civil and military power. Originally published in 1651.

  • Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. 1978. The Marx-Engels reader. 2d ed. Translated and compiled by Robert Tucker. New York: Norton.

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    The Marx-Engels Reader, compiled by Tucker, includes writings by Friedrich Engels and is an excellent source of Marx’s key writings. Important sections include “The Communist Manifesto” (pp. 469–501), “The German Ideology” (pp. 146–203), and “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte” (pp. 594–618). These works were originally published between 1844 and 1883.

  • Mead, George Herbert. 1925. The genesis of the self and social control. International Journal of Ethics 35.3 (April): 251–277.

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    Borrowing from psychology and biology, Mead outlines the origins of social control and the interplay between social control and self-control. Specifically, Mead provides substantial detail on the creation and maintenance of consciousness, which he describes as the internalization of normative behavior relative to others’ behavior, and explains how this internalization modifies social conduct. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Pound, Roscoe. 1996. Social control through law. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.

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    In this seminal work, Pound defines social order and the law and outlines the ways in which the two operate together to enforce normative expectations of behavior. Originally published in 1942.

  • Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. 2003. On the social contract. Translated by G. D. H. Cole. Mineola, NY: Dover.

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    Rousseau’s classical statement on social order and politics. Originally published in 1944.

  • Rusche, Georg, and Otto Kirchheimer. 2007. Punishment and social structure. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.

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    Seminal work that examines the history of punishment through a critical lens. Authors argue that levels of punishment are a function of the surplus value of labor. They maintain that when unemployment is high, punishment levels will be high.

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