Social control is a concept within the disciplines of the social sciences. Social control is described as a certain set of rules and standards in society that keep individuals bound to conventional standards as well as to the use of formalized mechanisms. The disciplinary model was the forerunner to the control model.

The term “social control” was first introduced to sociology by Albion Woodbury Small and George Edgar Vincent in 1894; however, at the time sociologists only showed sporadic interest in the subject.


Some social philosophers have played a role in the development of social control such as Thomas Hobbes in his work Leviathan that discusses social order and how the state exerts this using civil and military power; as well as Cesare Beccaria‘s On Crimes and Punishments that argues that people will avoid criminal behavior if their acts result in harsher punishment, stating that changes in punishment will act as a form of social control.[6] Sociologist Émile Durkheim also explored social control in the work The Division of Labour in Society and discusses the paradox of deviance, stating that social control is what makes us abide by laws in the first place.[7]

Society uses certain sanctions to enforce a standard of behavior that is deemed socially acceptable. Individuals and institutions utilize social control to establish social norms and rules, which can be exercised by peers or friends, family, state and religious organizations, schools, and the workplace. The goal of social control is to maintain order in society and ensure conformity in those who are deemed deviant or undesirable in society.[6]

Sociologists identify two basic forms of social control:

  1. Informal means of control – Internalizationof norms and values by a process known as socialization, which is “the process by which an individual, born with behavioral potentialities of enormously wide range, is led to develop actual behavior which is confined to the narrower range of what is acceptable for him by the group standards“.[8]
  2. Formal means of social control – External sanctionsenforced by government to prevent the establishment of chaos or anomie in society. Some theorists, such as Émile Durkheim, refer to this form of control as regulation.

As briefly defined above, the means to enforce social control can be either informal or formal.[9] Sociologist Edward A. Ross argues that belief systems exert a greater control on human behavior than laws imposed by government, no matter what form the beliefs take.[10]

Social control is considered one of the foundations of order within society.

Roodenburg identifies the concept of social control as a classical concept.[12]

While the concept of social control has been around since the formation of organized sociology, the meaning has been altered over time. Originally, the concept simply referred to society’s ability to regulate itself.[13] However, in the 1930s, the term took on its more modern meaning of an individual’s conversion to conformity.[13] Academics began to study Social control theory as a separate field in the early 20th century.

The concept of social control is related to the notion of social order, which is identified as existing in the following areas of society:[1]

The term social control has also been linked to the term delinquency, defined as deviancy, which is the violation of established mores, social norms, and laws.[14] More serious acts of delinquency are defined as consensus crimes and conflict crimes that are determined by society and the law to inhibit unwanted or negative behavior as a form of social control.

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