Photo of an policeman armed for riot control     

Policeman in a modern
nation state--a common
tool used for social control

All societies impose social control on their citizens to some degree.  They monitor and regulate behavior formally and informally.  This is one of the most important prerogatives of political leaders.  In addition to exerting their political will, they strongly influence or actually manage the mechanisms of social control.  In large-scale societies, the most visible mechanisms are laws, courts, and police.  However, law and the legal bureaucracy that administers it is only one aspect of social control and is usually the least effective one.  As you will see in the next section of this tutorial, small-scale societies maintain social control without the complex legal institutions with which we are familiar.  However, this does not mean that they are without laws.

Key to understanding a culture's system of social control is understanding the social norms upon which it is based.  These are the commonly held conceptions of appropriate and expected behavior in a society.  Norms can and do change over time.  In tradition-bound societies, such as those of many conservative Arab nations, norms generally change very slowly.  In large, multi-ethnic societies such as the United States and Canada,  norms change rapidly.  Subsequently, what was acceptable earlier in one's life is often not today.  If one portion of a society has not changed its norms but another has, there likely will be conflict.  The modern term "political correctness" is, in a sense, a product of such a conflict.  It has been used by those who do not wish to accept the changing norms of others. 

Often a society's norms change but the laws relating to them have a long delay in catching up.  This was the case with anti-miscegenation laws in the U.S. southern states.  Over the last 30-40 years, it has become progressively more socially acceptable for people of different "races" to date and even marry.  However, the law prohibiting this was not struck off of the law books in Alabama until 2000.  This was despite the fact that it had not been enforced by the police since the mid 20th century.

Sometimes the laws change before the norms do for large sections of a society.  This was the case with the civil rights acts of the U.S. Congress during the 1960's.  These acts called for the legal enforcement of "racial" integration in schools and public places.  It took nearly a generation before the majority of European Americans in the southern states were willing to accept these new laws.  Gender equity law changes during the 1980's and 1990's were again ahead of the social norms for many in the United States, especially men.

The most effective form of social control is not laws, police, and jails.  Rather, it is the internalization of the moral codes by the members of society.  As children grow up they normally learn what is proper and improper, right and wrong, good and bad.  If a society is able to indoctrinate all of its members to accept its moral code, it will not need to use police or other external means of social control.  In the early 1950's, the American sociologist David Riesman referred to this most effective form of social control as being inner directed, or conscience controlled, in regards to social norms.  The conscience of inner directed people will not allow them to knowingly break the law.  Less effective social control is achieved when the members of a society are other directed, or only shame oriented, in regards to norms.  For such people, right and wrong are more ambiguous, and they normally only feel bad when they get caught and are publicly shamed for deviating from the norms.  In reality, the same individual may be inner directed for some norms and other directed for others.  For instance, most North American drivers regularly exceed the legal speed limits and don't feel bad about it unless they are caught by a policeman.  On the other hand, the vast majority of these same drivers would not drive away from a car accident that they caused.  As a result, police do not spend much time watching for hit and run accidents, but they do work hard at catching speeders.

Young children being
socialized at school
to accept the norm
of working together
  photo of a teacher and her students holding hands and orderly going around in a circle  

No society is able to rely solely upon internalization of its normative code, though some are more successful at it than others.  Nations that have a high degree of cultural homogeneity, such as Japan, have a far lower crime rate than do those, like the United States, that have many different cultural traditions.  However, small culturally homogenous communities in the U.S. typically are like Japan in having low crime rates.  People often do not bother locking the doors of their houses and do not fear walking the streets alone at night.  In these communities, most people have grown up together and were socialized in essentially the same way.  Subsequently, they share the same norms.  This is very different from large American cities in which people have come from many different societies and have internalized different norms.  This is reflected in differing expectations and attitudes about the society's rules.

All societies have laws to deal with the inevitable disputes that arise.  However, laws and their focus vary significantly from culture to culture.  The patterns of this variation are described in the next section of this tutorial.


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This page was last updated on Monday, July 10, 2006.
Copyright 2004-2006 by Dennis O'Neil. All rights reserved.
Illustration credits