What is social control theory?

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pohnpei397's profile pic

pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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This theory is one that argues that the main purpose of law is not to coerce people into various kinds of correct behaviors.  Law does not scare people by punishing them.  Instead, the main purpose of law and the legal system is to make people less likely to want to behave in "bad" ways -- ways that society does not like.

The idea here is that law sets up a set of pressures.  It socializes people and pressures them to think that there are certain right ways and wrong ways to behave.  When they internalize these ideas, they start to want to behave correctly.

Maintaining order through social control is much less costly and much more effective than maintaining it through coercion.

enotechris's profile pic

enotechris | College Teacher | (Level 2) Senior Educator

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Laws are enacted to safeguard individual Rights.  Freedom is the exercise of Rights.  An individual is free to do whatever he or she wishes, as long as such actions do not impact the rights of another. If such actions do, then the force of law is called upon to restore equilibrium.

The concept of Social Control implies some authority to determine the likes and dislikes of society. Or, might it be by majority rule?  In either case, this at best is dangerous philosophy and at times deadly. Individuals must possess their own authority to act as they see fit, while harming no one in their actions.

Rather than being concerned about maintaining order, a culture should concern itself with maintaining the sanctity of the individual.  Applying a "one-conduct-fits-all" approach is an invitation to extreme disaster.  Consider the "correct social behavior" created within Nazi Germany.

krishna-agrawala's profile pic

krishna-agrawala | College Teacher | (Level 3) Valedictorian

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Social control theory is concerned with issues much wider than enforcement of law, which is just a one of the many mechanism used for social control.

Social control theory explains the factors and processes that are used for promoting social order and conformity. It is concerned with how human behavior is regulated within a society. Among other issues covered by the theory, it identifies the constraints that prevent individual from undertaking anti-social and criminal activities. It identifies many influences such as that of family, friends, beliefs, values and law enforcement that  determine individual behavior.

The roots of social control theory can be traced to the book titled Social Control by E.A. Ross first published in 1901. This theory was firs applied to study of criminal activities in late 1950's. Since then this theory has played an important role in understanding criminal behaviors.

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