Social Control Research Paper

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Social control refers to the mechanisms through which a society is able to regulate and direct the behaviors of its members. These mechanisms take many shapes and sizes and are often classified by type and/or level. For example, social control is often divided into two types: informal and formal. Informal sanctions encompass such things as not engaging in an action so as not to disappoint one’s parents or because one believes the act to be wrong. Formal social controls involve more direct action against a person such as suspension from school or arrest and incarceration in the criminal justice system. These mechanisms also traverse various levels or domains of control ranging from the private to the public realm. The private level refers to those modes of control that are the most intimate or close to the person such as the control exhibited by family and friends and is the level most likely to contain informal measures. The next level, often referred to as the parochial or institutional level, involves those controls invoked by social institutions such as churches and schools. The public domain represents manners of control that are the most removed from the individual. This includes broader social connections between individuals, institutions, and the greater society and is often realized through formal legal sanctions. The levels of control are often complementary, interactive, and interdependent as well.

The following essay provides the reader with an introduction to the study of social control, formal theories of social control, and modern extensions and analytical techniques that have evolved to account for its multifaceted and multilevel nature. This research is grounded in two complementary sociological perspectives: social disorganization and social control. Originating in studies of the break down, or “disorganization” of communities, research in the first tradition looked to structural characteristics of a neighborhood that were associated with high crime rates. Later theorists then drew clear connections between the concepts of “disorganization” and “social control” clearly noting that the two concepts are but distinct ends of a continuum between high and low levels of social solidarity (Kornhauser 1978). When high, the community is able to exert both levels of informal and formal social control upon its members to achieve desired social outcomes. When low, on the other hand, individuals are left to their own devices.

From a social control perspective, this is not a good thing. That is, social control theorists do not begin with the question of why individuals commit crime, but rather why they do not (see, Hirschi 1969). The assumption being that left to our own devices, humans will always pursue pleasure and will do so in the easiest way possible. Since crime often offers high excitement and pleasure with less effort than traditional mechanisms (e.g., hard work), social control is then necessary to inhibit individuals from taking this path.

The following section reviews early studies of the organization, or rather the breakdown of the organization, of communities and their elaboration into formal theories of crime and delinquency. Connections between social disorganization and social control theories are described. Later sections then detail modern extensions of these theories and advances in scientific research that have informed the current state of knowledge and set forth pathways for future research.

Early Studies Of Community Structure And Social Control

The 1996 publication of Hilary Clinton’s It Takes a Village: And Other Lessons Children Teach Us brought national attention to the notion that the socialization of our nation’s children is not just a family affair but involves all members of the local community. While this heightened attention to the crucial function of the community in the control and socialization of our nation’s youth may seem somewhat novel, it is in fact nothing new to those who study societies and the mechanisms by which societies control their citizenry. Indeed, philosophers as far back as Aristotle noted the importance of community governance in maintaining social order and raising children. Beyond mere philosophy, a rich tradition of research and theory exists that details the important and complex relationship between community structure, interpersonal social relationships, and the exertion of social control upon a community’s residents, particularly its youth.

The formal study of social control in America can be traced back to studies of the growth of American cities such as Chicago around the turn of the twentieth century. This school of thought, often referred to as “The Chicago School,” approached the question of social control from the opposite direction – that is, this research examined what happens when a community is not able to exert social control upon its members. W. I. Thomas and Florian Znaniecki provide some of the earliest empirical work in this area writing on the life experiences of immigrant families trying to “make it” in the new world (1927). Of the many struggles these families faced, one of the greatest was raising their children in a community setting that was unfamiliar to them. The traditions in which they were raised no longer existed, and new traditions had yet to be established in their place. Thus these immigrant parents were ill prepared to socialize their children to this new environment. As immigrant populations tended to settle together (e.g., Polish families with Polish families, Irish families with Irish families, etc.), these problems rose above the individual or family level to become a larger group and even community phenomenon.

With the breakdown in traditional parental socialization roles, this research also found peer networks to take on a heightened influence in the lives of children. This is further demonstrated in an influential writing by Thrasher, The Gang (1927), that presented a chronicle of the evolution of neighborhood childhood playgroups into more formal “gangs” – some of which were criminal, some of which were not. According to this study, one primary feature of delinquent gang formation was that it filled a space or crack in social solidarity. These cracks, referred to as interstitial areas, were seen as pockets in society in which the community could not exhibit social control. These were the areas in which gangs were then free to form. As described by Thrasher, the gang provided the essential human needs of belonging and camaraderie that the family and community had failed to provide.

In addition to these qualitative accounts of life in a growing city, researchers at the University of Chicago began the development and formal testing of theories of community growth and governance. The most prominent of these theories was social disorganization theory developed by Clifford Shaw and Henry McKay. Applying a model of community growth developed by colleagues Robert Park and Ernest Burgess, Shaw and McKay were able to document patterns of arrest in the city over a 30-year time period. During this time, Chicago was experiencing rapid population growth primarily due to large influxes of immigrants from Europe as well as southern states. The city, in turn, started to experience high levels of crime. While some tended to place blame on the latest group of immigrants – be they from Poland, Ireland, Italy, etc. – Shaw and McKay conducted a scientific study of the arrest of delinquent youths and found that the criminal activity was concentrated in a small area of the city encircling the central business district which became known as the “Transition Zone.” This area was in flux as neighborhoods that were once homes were swallowed up by business as the central business district (referred to in Chicago as the Loop) expanded. Housing in this area became relatively cheap as landowners stopped investing in properties they knew would soon be demolished. Because the rents in this area were cheap (and the housing in poor condition) it was often that the newest group of immigrants would first live in this area until they found jobs and gained solid footing in the “New World.”

By mapping out crime data for over 30 years, Shaw and McKay were able to show that the crime remained in this area of the city regardless of the population inhabiting the area. In addition, they found that when crime did “move” to a new area it was because that area was experiencing conditions similar to those neighborhoods where crime had previously been concentrated. Thus, this study found that “social disorganization” and the high crime rates that attend it are primarily characteristics of a place and not the people who inhabit that space.

The characteristics of the place most often associated with social disorganization were high poverty, high residential mobility (people moving in and out quickly), and high racial heterogeneity. The first, poverty, was influential because there was little money to invest in improving the area. Homes would become dilapidated and community institutions such as schools, churches, and social organizations would break down. Second, because the neighborhood was “deteriorating” rather than being maintained, this is not an area where people desired to put down roots. Rather it was a stepping stone, an area where they would live briefly only until they could afford something better. Thus, once an individual or family acquired some wealth, they did not invest it in this area but rather they would move away leading to high residential mobility. Thirdly, as people came and went, especially during this time of high immigration, the area became populated by people with very different cultures, values, and even languages. This racial and ethnic heterogeneity lead to conflict and mistrust between groups as well as the inability of inhabitants to form basic social networks that help to hold a community together. Social Disorganization theory therefore posited that it was a combination of these three elements – poverty, residential mobility, and racial/ethnic heterogeneity – that lead to high levels of crime and delinquency in a given community.

Social Disorganization And Social Control: Making The Connection

While Shaw and McKay offered these basic renditions explaining why these structural factors might be of importance, it wasn’t until much later that this theory was formally recognized as a version of Social Control theories and further elaborated from a pure macro-level theory to an examination of the micro-level processes that occur within a community. In a classic 1978 writing, Ruth Kornhauser examined many existing theories of crime and delinquency detailing their primary assumptions and classifying them based upon these underlying assumptions. Through this process she was able to clearly demonstrate the inherent ties between social disorganization and social control theories. According to Kornhauser, the structural factors related to disorganization of a community were indeed important predecessors of crime and delinquency because they lead to the disruption of the various components of both informal and formal social control.

In addition to highlighting the connections between social disorganization and social control, Kornhauser’s work brought renewed attention to the social disorganization perspective by pointing out that the primary overlooked components of Shaw and McKay’s work were the processes through which social disorganization at the neighborhood level is linked to individual-level delinquency. Not only are community structural characteristics important for understanding neighborhood crime levels. These ecological and social causes set the stage for a variety of undesirable consequences including weak social bonds developed between the individual and society, the inability of institutions to enforce common standards and goals, the defective socialization of children, the lack of continuous social networks, and, even the lack of the ability to take action to fix these problems. During the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, the search for a better understanding of the social processes by which social disorganization leads to reductions in social control became a fruitful branch of research for criminologists. The following section outlines some of the key knowledge gained during this time.

Extensions Of A Theory: Systems Of Social Control

John Kasarda and Morris Janowitz (1974) introduced what they coined the “systemic model” of a community control which envisioned the local community as a complex system of friendship and kinship networks. These networks were rooted primarily in family life and were the basis for the ongoing processes of socializing youth in the family and community. This research then tied these friendship and kinship networks to the social structural characteristic of residential mobility proposed by Shaw and McKay.

Specifically, the authors proposed that residential mobility is a temporal variable as the development of social bonds and networks takes time. The longer one lives in a community, the more people one knows and the more opportunity one has to become involved in community activities and institutions. When people are moving in and out of an area fairly rapidly, these basic mechanisms naturally break down. This then leads to a reduction in the social networks a person is able to develop. Fewer social networks in turn diminish the ability of the family to properly socialize children and to enforce social controls, informal and formal, upon youth.

Subsequent research has further documented the importance of social ties. For example, Coleman (1988) argued that it is the resources transmitted through social ties, not the ties per se that are key to facilitating neighborhood social control. Similar to the familiar notion of financial capital (e.g., one’s financial resources), these social ties and networks became known as a person’s “social capital.” Research in this area has examined such things as the number of family members living close by, the number of neighbors one knows by sight and by name, family composition (e.g., single-parent families), and the number of moves a family makes as potential indicators of social capital.

Although research has evolved to measure and explain social capital in various ways, it is important to remember that its primary nature is that it is something not housed within an individual but rather within the structure of the community in which the individual lives. Research by Robert Sampson and colleagues has been highly influential in the development of this concept and has resulted in the development of several terms and measures that are now generally accepted as a standard in the social control literature. The first of these is Intergenerational Closure. Intergenerational Closure reaches beyond the immediate family to measure the extent to which children are linked to adults within the community. While this includes immediate family, it also includes the parents of friends, as well as other adult figures such as teachers, coaches, church officials, or even just other concerned resident.

A second concept, reciprocal exchange, moves beyond the mere existence of such relationships and places emphasis on the ability of community members to rely on each other to exchange items (e.g., borrow a tool), information (e.g., tryouts for a sport team or new community organization), and even advice such as turning to one another for advice on child rearing. This concept encompasses more than merely knowing other community members to incorporating levels of trust between community members.

A third concept that has been highly influential in research in this area is that of “collective efficacy.” According to research social capital may be a necessary, but not sufficient, aspect of neighborhood relations in the exhibition of social control. In addition to forming ties and resources in one’s community, collective efficacy then refers to the willingness and ability of community members to come together and take action on a specific task. One such important task is the socialization of youth. Collective efficacy could also be visualized as a community coming together to earn funds to build a park, start a youth soccer league or improve a library. A classic example often given is the creation of a neighborhood or block watch group in which community members take turns patrolling the neighborhood and reporting suspicious people or activity in a direct effort to reduce crime. Not surprisingly, empirical evidence shows strong relationships between high levels of collective efficacy in a community and low levels of crime. In addition, some research has suggested that factors such as friendship networks and participation in community associations matter only through their ability to promote collective efficacy among residents (Morenoff et al. 2001).

Another aspect of social relationships brought to light in this research was social cohesion. While this particular term has several various definitions in general it refers to the sharing of common goals and values. For example, it would be hard for a community to come together to achieve a common goal (e.g., collective efficacy), if members did not agree on the goal. Just as residential mobility was shown to influence crime through its impact on social ties and networks, another social structural characteristic – racial and ethnic heterogeneity – appears to exert its influence mainly through its impact on another social interactive process. In this case, the effect is upon levels of social cohesion and the sharing of common beliefs and goals. Logically, the more different people are in a community the less likely they may be to share common goals and/or to be willing to come together and take action to achieve such goals.

Scholars note, however, that social cohesion can indeed go both ways when it comes to influencing crime and delinquency. That is, a family with strong cohesion with criminal members might then promote criminality in other members. As such, a community that accepts drug dealing, prostitution, or other types of deviance as normal can exhibit social “cohesion” in a fashion that promotes high levels of crime.

As the body of research on systemic social control continues to accumulate knowledge is gained about additional mediating processes and the reasons why they are important for the imposition of social control. For example, in addition to the factors noted above, variables such as family disruption, percent of single-parent families, sparse local friendship networks, mixed land use, population density, and the presence of unsupervised teenage peer groups all have been found to be indicators of decreased social control and, in turn, to lead to increased levels of crime and delinquency. Thus, the systemic model of social control informs us that the social structural conditions identified by Shaw and McKay as indicators of social disorganization do not directly cause crime but rather are related to high levels of crime and delinquency because they disrupt the more micro-level social process of human interaction that are necessary for a community to exert social control upon its residents.

Levels Of Social Control

At the same time as the systemic model of social control was being developed and elaborated, complementary research was being conducted that elaborated upon the various levels of social control. Research by Albert Hunter (1985), and later Robert Bursik and Harold Grasmick (1993), detailed three distinct levels of control: private, parochial, and public. While these levels have been hinted at by the previous research, this section will more specifically identify the levels and their relationships.

The first level, private social control, is primarily informal in nature and is evoked through personal relationships. This level thus relates closely to the measures of social ties, networks, and cohesion noted above while adding in aspects of emotional attachments as well. For example, according to Travis Hirschi’s original Social Bond Theory (1969), what stops an individual from committing delinquent acts are his/her bonds to society. These bonds take the form of personal attachments to people, commitment to conventional goals, involvement in conventional activities and the adoption of pro-social beliefs. Thus, simply knowing that a behavior will bring a negative response by a friend or family member or may negatively impact the ability of one to reach a goal exhibits enough “control” to stop the individual from engaging in the behavior.

The parochial level then incorporates the role of local social institutions in a community such as schools, churches, and community groups. This level of social control relates closely to the institutional controls noted in previous research and the importance of these institutions for the socialization of children. As children age such institutions take on increased importance in their lives and therefore become primary sources of socialization. The parochial level of social control may reinforce that exhibited at the private level, or in some cases, may protect the youth from further problems if the private level is not sufficiently developed. For example, a youth who is not highly attached to a parent in the home may form a strong bond with a coach or a teacher. That youth would then be less likely to break the rules than one who had no social control at either the private or parochial level. Thus, when the informal controls traditionally exhibited at the private level break down, the parochial or institutional level of social control may then serve as a second line of defense to prevent antisocial behavior.

The third level, public social control, was described by Albert Hunter (1985) as the ability of the community to access public goods and services to maintain order. This included but was not limited to police services. At this level the focus is either on the development of programs to create order and prevent crime or to catch those who are breaking the law and invoke enough formal control upon them to discourage them from continuing to break the law. At this level community financial resources and ties to greater society and social resources are of central importance.

It is easy to see the interdependent nature of these levels. If private social controls are strong, there is less need for parochial and public controls. On the other hand when private and parochial levels of control are weak, a greater use of public social control would be warranted (Black 1976). For example, an increased use of police force in an area is actually seen as a breakdown in private and parochial levels of social control. If all three levels are lacking, however, an area will be ridden with high rates of crime and violence. Research also suggests the potential for these levels to interact with one another. That is, for the effect of low social control at one level to have varying effects upon individuals based on other levels of risk or social control.

Moreover, it is important to note that this multilevel model of social control is not distinct from the systemic model but rather a further elaboration of the dynamics of social processes used to invoke social control. For example, levels of private social control in a neighborhood are determined by the ties between individuals and the strength of families. At the parochial level the strength of institutions and their ability to socialize youth is dependent on community member support both in terms of finances and participation. Research has further suggested that the social processes leading to the determination of private and parochial social controls are inherently tied to the larger structural characteristics originally identified by Shaw and McKay.

Advances In Theory, Testing, And Techniques

As highlighted by the previous discussion, social control is exhibited not only at distinct levels but through intricate interpersonal processes that are linked to the larger social institutions and structural characteristics of a community. Thus, the study of social control has become more complex in nature as have the theories that explain it.

One particular direction of theory development has been the integration of theories to address the various causes of crime and levels of social control. One example is Terence Thornberry’s Interactional Theory that connects elements of social control and social learning theories as well as incorporating elements of the social structure as the interactional setting in which delinquent behavior is learned and even reinforced (Thornberry 1987). This theory also holds that different factors command primary influence at different stages of life. For example, while the family is key in early childhood through early adolescence, by mid-adolescence the school and other institutions outside of the family become more prominent with peer groups and the broad community taking dominance by late adolescence. Thus, according to this theory, the level of social control (private, parochial, public) bearing the strongest relationships to delinquency would change over the life-course.

John Laub and Robert Sampson (1993) also look at social control over different points in the life course and offer some of the first theories to extend this examination into adulthood noting what they call “adult social bonds.” The institutions and social bonds that they incorporate as mechanisms of social control include marriage and employment as these offer new mechanisms of informal control upon the adult individual. For example, in adulthood the introduction of a spouse adds a new type of private social control while employment would expand connections to both parochial and public levels of social control.

Another fruitful theoretical avenue has been the risk-protective factor approach which seeks to identify factors at the individual, institutional, and neighborhood level that increase or decrease the possibility of deviant outcomes. Research in this area has tended to emphasize those factors that increase deviance such as previously noted correlates of delinquency (e.g., broken families, low attachment to schools). Analyses at the neighborhood level have also expanded to include such new things as number of gangs, availability of weapons, and ease of access to drugs.

Research utilizing this approach has been highly informative in gaining a better understanding of the interdependent and interactive nature of the multiple levels of social control. For example, one study asks “Do disadvantaged neighborhoods cause well-adjusted children to become adolescent delinquents?” (see Wikstrom and Loeber 2000). The answer here generally appears to be “No.” However, some neighborhood enticements were found to lead some well-adjusted youth into delinquency particularly in later adolescence when influences outside of the home gain dominance. Other studies approach the question from the opposite direction asking whether “good” communities can help “not so well-adjusted” youth avoid negative outcomes (see Sampson et al. 2002; Kurlychek et al. 2011). In sum the basic consensus of these studies appears to be yes, that is, at-risk children fair better when raised in communities with high levels of parochial social control (e.g., strong social institutions and connections/cohesions among residents).

As theories of social control and crime become more complex, so do the data sets and analytical techniques needed to test them. For example, if social control spans three levels, then so must the data collected to explore it. The compilation of such data sets is time consuming and expensive thereby prohibiting a great deal of research in this area. However, several recent data collection efforts have evolved that are specifically designed to advance our understanding of the multilevel nature of social control. One such effort, the Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods (PHDCN), was specifically designed to examine how families, schools, and neighborhoods combine to affect child and adolescent outcomes. As an example of just how complicated such a data collection process can be it should be noted that this project has been ongoing for since 1994 and has received funds from a variety of entities including the National institute of Justice, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the US Department of Health, the US Department of Education, the National Institute of Mental Health the Harris Foundation, and the Turner Foundation.

In addition to the collection of data, the analyses of the data has been plagued by complexities such as the identification of compositional versus contextual effects and the spatial dependence of data as individuals are nested within schools and communities. Fortunately, recent developments in statistical techniques and packages have allowed researchers to effectively tackle many of these issues.

Perhaps the most significant advance in this area has been the use of hierarchical linear modeling (HLM) techniques to enable researchers to further disentangle the impact of individual-, institutional-, and neighborhood-level effects as well as exploring how factors at the various levels interact with one another. In addition this technique allows the researcher to identify what are known as “contextual” effects, which are effects above and beyond the mere aggregation of individual factors. For example, if being from a single-parent family increases the risk of delinquency by 5 % and one community has 10 % single-parent homes and another 50 %, the neighborhood with 50 % single-parent homes would naturally be expected to have more delinquency because more youth exhibit the 5 % greater risk of delinquency. However, a contextual effect would emerge if being in a community with more single-parent homes actually increased the risk of each youth, for example, instead of a 5 % greater risk of delinquency, it might be a 10 % greater risk of delinquency. Existent literature suggests that a pattern such as this might emerge as the percent of single-parent homes impacts other things such as the presence of adult role models, the ability of adults to supervise their children, and even the ability of parents to participate in community institutions/associations.

Examples of findings using this technique are abundant in the criminological literature. For example, research has found that the concentration of social disadvantage in neighborhoods has an independent contextual effect on adolescents’ serious offending behavior even after controlling for multiple measures of individual-level risk. Studies have also found that adolescents residing in more economically disadvantaged neighborhoods were more likely to be involved in a range of serious violent behaviors after controlling for levels of individual-level risk. On the other hand, research has begun to show that youth with high levels of personal risk actually have lower chances of becoming delinquent if they reside in neighborhoods with strong social institutions and high levels of collective efficacy.

Future Directions

Although much knowledge has been gained about the role of social control, its types and levels in the causation of crime and delinquency, much is left to learn about the interactive and interdependent nature of social control. In particular, as noted above, research has just begun to show that living in an area with high levels of parochial social control can actually reduce the risk of a delinquent outcome for even high-risk youth. Research further exploring these connections holds the potential to inform crime prevention and intervention policy. For example, we might know that a youth is at high personal risk for delinquency because of family turmoil or other issues, but there may be ways to still reduce the overall probability of a criminal outcome for this youth by increasing other social controls such as attachments to school, involvement in community groups, and improving overall community levels of cohesion and collective efficacy. Or, working in the opposite direction, for youths living in high-risk communities, this research informs what might be done at the private/informal level to improve outcomes.

To answer questions such as these, there is also a need for more systematic social observation which better captures both the notion of a neighborhood and the real “feel” of living in that community. According to experts there are simply too many features of a neighborhood that are not measured readily by available public data sets (e.g., census) or cannot be systematically captured in surveys. To gain this type of information more observational and qualitative research is needed. Key researchers in this area stress the importance of collecting this information at the smallest unit possible (e.g., a block face – one side of a street within a block) (Sampson et al. 2002). This allows the researcher to then study these small geographic units, as well as providing the capacity to aggregate these units into larger geographical constructs (e.g., block groups, neighborhoods).

In conducting future research it is also important to remember that no community is an island. That is, each geographic area may be impacted by those areas surrounding it as well. As one example, when studying an adolescent it may be important to consider not only his/her home neighborhood but also the neighborhoods through which he/she travels to attend school or to which he/she travels to spend time with friends. It may also be important to understand concentrated disadvantage by not only looking at one community, but to also incorporate the resources of those communities that border it. One of the few studies in this area suggests that the consequences of being poor are worse for African-Americans in our society because not only do these individuals live in poor neighborhoods but they are much more likely than poor white individuals to live in communities embedded in areas of sustained poverty and disadvantage (Pattillo-McCoy 1999).

In summary, while we know much about social control and its importance in preventing crime, there is still much more to learn about the complex and dynamic processes through which it impacts individuals and the communities in which they live. Future research in this area holds the promise to help build stronger families, safer communities, and provide better life outcomes for even the most at-risk youth.


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