Social Control

Social Control


Social Control, general term in sociology indicating maintenance of order and stability. Similar to expressions such as coercion, social order, or sanction, the term indicates constraints, developed practices, and attitudes that enforce compliance and conformity, and promote group values.


Writers in the tradition of Max Weber, Émile Durkheim, and Karl Marx have commonly focused on two observable processes in the regulation of standards of behaviour and sentiment. These are the use of social sanctions to deal with rule-breakers, that is, people who do not conform to approved behaviour patterns; and secondly, in psychological terms, the internalization of norms and values, by which acceptable modes of conduct become ‘second nature’—routines of life that can be taken for granted.

In its extreme version, social control is exerted by totalitarian rulers in the form of terror organizations such as secret police; censorship of the press and other media; propaganda; and repressive laws regulating most forms of human behaviour and communication, such as freedom of speech, and even human sexuality.

Other social sanctions are, however, widely perceived as positive. These include controls that, through rewards, encourage people to conform to norms of society. They also include a subtle array of holds that people have over one another in more intimate relations: the power of informal praise or remonstration; approval; mockery; withdrawal of affection, and other forms of manipulation within family structures; or loss of esteem from peers or mentors.

According to the figuration analysis of the German sociologist Norbert Elias, human control and management of the environment—control of habitat and natural resources—are linked with one person’s restraint over another, particularly in the family, and individual self-control, resulting in a long-developed, but by no means irreversible, process of social control. Many sociologists stress that only to a limited extent are individuals knowledgeable about, or capable of, controlling the social forces to which they are subject. In the 20th century, dictators such as Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin have commanded massive powers of social control through a terror-based monopoly of violence and information that negated the chances of power for subordinates and repressed whole populations, minorities, religions, and dissident factions. Internal dissident movements and guerrilla movements, combined with a shifting balance of international power, have managed to destabilize several dictatorships against great odds.


Sociologists of communication identify mass media—newspapers, television, and transnational networks of information—as instruments of actual or potential social control. Especially at times of emergency, many governments have resorted to pressing and broadcasting censorship; some have used the media for indoctrination and for suppression of critical engagement. Authoritarian rulers of Eastern Europe to a great extent governed by the use of television. In certain instances, such as in Romania in 1989, government power was also eroded through television, especially by broadcasts from neighbouring countries. Many believe that, in the future, rulers’ ability to control people may be kept in check by worldwide electronic news networks and by international press reporting that is answerable to no government.

Contributed By:
Paul Nixon

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