Informal & Formal Social Control Research Paper Starter

Informal & Formal Social Control

(Research Starters)

This article focuses on the existence of social control, or the various methods that society employs in order to ensure faithful adherence toward order and restraint. The article launches into two theories that provide clarity toward social control: Labeling theory, which asserts that society creates criminals by branding them with an iniquitous label that subsequently limits their prospective opportunities, and Minority-threat hypothesis, which claims that mainstream America increases punitive admonition toward minorities in order to prevent them from flourishing. Examples of formal demonstrations of social control, or laws and policies that serve as the starting point on which behaviors and attitudes follow, are provided. The refusal to follow such legislation results in legal and illegal punishment (i.e., warnings, fines, threats, persecution, and imprisonment). Outside the dictates of the law, formal social control strategies exist in both educational and workplace institutions. Finally, informal social control influences include nonverbal communication at the micro-level, and on a larger scale, a community's willingness to contest the spread of crime.

Keywords Formal Social Control; Informal Social Control; Labeling Theory; Minority-Threat Hypothesis; Recidivism; Retribution; Theoretical Considerations Surrounding Social Control


Labeling Theory

Labeling theory is a framework that most frequently functions as a mechanism for conceptualizing the derivation of deviance and amoral behavior, and was spearheaded by a sociologist named Frank Tannenbaum (Maier, 1974; Davis, 1972; Goode, 1994; Meade, 1974). Understanding Tannenbaum's life story is pertinent to the comprehension of his subsequent theory; his formative years were tumultuous and relationships with parental figures were strained due to his willful opposition toward authority. Also, early in his development, Tannenbaum demonstrated a desire to fight on behalf of the "underdog," and in 1912 at age 19, he organized a rally that encouraged the homeless men of New York City to rally together in contempt of their lifelong plights that had disabled them from meeting basic financial, nutritional, and residential needs. His insurgent methods were highly opposed, and he received a one-year prison sentence. During his detention, he befriended a prison warden who believed in his intellectual abilities and recommended his eventual admission into college, thus spurring his eventual academic route (Maier, 1974).

The basic principles of Labeling theory, as outlined by Tannenbaum, can be captured in the following scenario: Bob and Jon are 15 years of age and neighborhood companions who, as an expression of boredom and adolescent angst, often engage in minor infractions such as throwing bricks through the windows of vacant buildings on forsaken lots or spray-painting profane extractions against the side of bridges and other communal property. Bob has been able to "fly under the radar," and executes such acts of desecration anonymously. Jon, on the other hand, is significantly less circumspect in his exploits and consistently receives verbal reproach from police officials for his unlawful behavior.

Over the course of a year, Bob and Jon continue their illegitimate activities, for which only Jon gets caught, and at the compilation of several warnings he is labeled a criminal and hauled off to jail and sentenced a severe penalty. The future outlook for Jon, according to Labeling Theory, is that he will endure a tattered self-image and will identify with the criminal label with which he had been bequeathed, thus leading him toward lifelong pursuits that are unsavory and illegal in nature. Bob never received any reprimand for his actions, and thus never received a criminal label. Hence, he was able to effortlessly forfeit his immature deeds for that which was more responsible and socially revered, and forged a successful and productive existence. As such, Labeling Theory does not focus on the preemptive, adverse behavior that eventually transpires into hardened criminality, for both Bob and Jon participated in identical mishaps. Nor does Labeling Theory discount the fact that criminals are, in many cases, guilty and should be punished accordingly. While such theorists do not disregard faulty actions, they do pinpoint a maladaptive screening process. Goode (1994) describes such shortcomings metaphorically by using the familiar movie line, "round up the usual suspects :"

Individuals, or categories of individuals, were being "rounded up" not because they did anything wrong or caused any harm, but simply because they were convenient or acceptable targets of social control. The individuals who were "rounded up": didn't do it; or did it, but so did other individuals; or they did it a little—while others got away—but having gotten caught, they end up doing a lot more; or didn't cause any harm; or they caused some harm, but others caused more. In short, targets of social control didn't deserve to become so targeted (p. 92).

The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

Most importantly, Labeling Theory professes that it is the system that creates criminals. In the process of vilifying individuals for their transgressions, immoral traits akin to the "criminal" classification become enmeshed with one's sense of self, and the reinforcement of stereotypes surrounding such a label abound, all of which help the individuals enact their newly developed criminal persona via the self-fulfilling prophecy. Thus, society is at the helm of a corrupt manufacturing system that provides a rigorous training ground for which the "criminal" may cultivate his cunning proclivity for amoralities, and which consequently increases society's overall patterns of delinquency. This process exists when trivial legalities are maximized under the harshest of legal sanctions.

An illustration of this can be seen in the 1997 arrest of four German tourists who were caught defacing the corridors of New York's subway system. These vandals were prosecuted and sentenced to serve a one-week term at the notorious Riker's Island Correctional Institution ("Invasion," 1997) which has a reputation of housing unruly acts of violence between inmates (Lorch, 1996), gang involvement (Purdy, 1994), access to drugs and contraband, and the mistreatment of prisoners by dishonorable guards (Fahim, 2008). Surely the intention for imprisoning the vandals at such an infamous site was to curb their propensity for future acts of property destruction. However, a frightful alternative surrounds the prospect that the aggression and mayhem to which the vandals were exposed desensitized their sense of moral standards, so that their ultimate threshold for wrongdoings actually increased.

Minority-Threat Hypothesis

One might rightfully question society's incentives for proactively sculpting a system that contributes toward the creation of criminals, as the logical assumption would surround a social order that reigns in acts of fraudulence and misconduct. The answer to such a query can be found in the Minority-threat hypothesis (Jacobs & Tope, 2007; Ruddell & Urbina, 2004; Stults & Baumer, 2007), a theory surrounding the inequitable treatment that is administered to minority groups by the dominant majority presiding within each culture. In particular, the Minority-threat hypothesis claims that society is not only oppressive and discriminatory in its treatment of various ethnic or religious groups, but that the mere presence of non-majority members is daunting and jeopardizes the status quo. As the growth of such minority populations expand, the threat they pose to the larger society increases due to the viable competition they bring to the job market, the fact that they add more entrants who vie for limited resources, as well as that they contend for sacred positions of financial and political power. Thus, as group membership among minorities broadens, intolerance and prejudicial behavior concurrently grows in magnitude.

According to the Minority-threat hypothesis, society utilizes nefarious social-control techniques that diminish the likelihood that promising, up-and-coming minority groups will prevail, including the perpetuation of fear and blame, as well as the dispensation of harsher punitive consequences. The coalition between racial profiling and crime has been extensively documented (Vito & Walsh, 2008; Welch, 2007) and substantiates preexisting stereotypes that people hold. It is difficult for people to shed their biased assumptions that African American and Latin communities are more violent and geared toward dereliction, when every time they open the morning newspaper or turn on the evening news they are infiltrated with images that point to the contrary. Golub, Johnson, & Dunlap (2007) present statistical evidence that compared the penalties Blacks and Hispanics received for smoking marijuana in public with their White counterparts. Cases that were dismissed include the following: 77.8% for both Blacks and Hispanics, whereas 88.9% for White conspirators. Also, 4% of African Americans were incarcerated for such a violation, whereas 3% of Latinos and .9% of Caucasians were detained.

More appalling data is demonstrated through research by Moore & Elkavich (2008) who indicate that while White and Black drug usage is relatively similar (7.2% and 7.4% respectively), 60% of American jails are crowded with African Americans, 62.6% of whom are imprisoned on drug charges. Stuntz (2006) asserts that such biased disproportion is headed by underhanded politicians who operate with prescribed agendas, which causes and results in a corroded system filled with "overcriminalization, excessive punishment, racially skewed drug enforcement, overfunding of prisons and underfunding of everything else" (Stuntz, 2006, pp. 781-782).


Formal Demonstrations of Social Control


The foundation of formal social control lies within the legislative forces that establish societal guidelines, such as laws and policies, which therefore possess the most significant form of power and behavioral manipulation. Lawfully endorsed injunctions shape many aspects of social conventions such as to whom one may marry, i.e., heterosexual marital unions (Eleveld, 2007), and who has the ability to exercise their right to vote, a political responsibility that women were banned from voicing until 1920 (Wetter, 2008). In examining alcohol consumption, Pittman, Staudenmeier & Kaplan (1991) highlight the fact that governmental decrees determine the following criteria, all of which may vary between regions:

  • Who may purchase and drink alcohol;
  • What may be purchased and consumed;
  • Where it may be purchased and consumed;
  • When it may be purchased and consumed;
  • The cost and form of payment;
  • The unacceptable consequences of drinking (p. 970)....

(The entire section is 4874 words.)