Social Control as a Variable


In this section of the course we get to the heart of why the course title emphasizes "social control" instead of "deviance." The conventional approach in sociology treats deviant behavior as the variable and seeks its cause. We saw in the first half of the course many different approaches to understanding "why they do it." But, all the while we set these ideas against the background of "crime is normal," suggesting that "even in a society of angels…." and that deviance can actually be functional for groups and that efforts at social control can actually be a cause of deviant behavior.

Where does this leave us qua sociologists qua social scientists?

In this section of the course we will turn the tables and look at social control as a variable — as something there can be more or less of or different kinds of. We'll ask how variations in social control are related to variations in other things. On the one side, we'll look at how variations in control are related to variations in rule breaking and on the other, how variations in control are related to the context in which rule breaking occurs.

We'll be looking, then, at social control as an independent variable — what effects are associated with different kinds/amounts of social control — and as a dependent variable — what causes are associated with different kinds/amounts of control.


  1. R Ellickson, "The System of Social Control," pp 123-36 in Order Without Law (DRL, also here (larger file))
  2. # D Black "Social Control as a Dependent Variable," pp. 1-26 (be sure to read the footnotes which contain lots of good examples) (DRL)
  3. Andenaes, J 1974. "General Prevention - Illusion or Reality?" from Punishment and Deterrence.
  4. Deterrence (legal) in Wikipedia
  5. Sherman, L and R Berk. 1984. <a href="The Specific Deterrent Effects of Arrest for Domestic Assault ASR :261-271 (JSTOR)

Homework 61 62


We begin with sociologist Donald Black's observation that much of what we call crime is "self-help" social control. We want to tease out the collective boundaries we draw and the choices/opportunities people have that give rise to this.

Next we combine elements drawn from Black's work and that of legal theorist Robert Ellickson to build a model with which we can represent the ways that social control can vary in kind and in quantity.

Finally we will zero in on a part of this taxonomy to talk about what research has suggested about what works in the areas of prevention and deterrence.

Donald Black: "Crime as Social Control" and "Social Control as a Dependent Variable"

Black maintains that when we think of social control — whether as researchers, students, or ordinary citizens — our thoughts are dominated by "social control as law." If we are broad minded thinkers then we admit another category, "informal control" for everything else.

The first takeaway from reading Black is to open up our social control imaginations.

As a hint of where we will go with this, we can take note of the fact that Black wrote a book called "The Behavior of Law" that tried to look at "law" as a variable — something that could appear in some places more than others, in different kinds and amounts — and tried to build a science that could predict how variable law is distributed in social space.

A moment, perhaps, on the idea of social space. It's not as foreign an idea as you'd think…

Back to Black. Takeaway #1: Law is but one type of social control. So, who uses law "where"? Let's imagine the universe of all disputes and complaints, all instances where one party feels wronged by another party. We'll call them A and B. Now imagine we know the social class of party A and party B. And then let's imagine we can construct the difference in social class: A-B. If party A is of higher social class then A-B is a positive number. If A is lower, then A-B is negative. If they are the same, then the difference is zero. And, the bigger the difference in their social class the farther from zero will be the difference. Now let's ask how likely we think it is that law will be used if A has a complaint about B.


Another example of where Black goes with this sort of thing is to think about two derived variables: access to law and being subject to law. Let's pause a moment to get motivated.

Listen to this short commentary, "Broken Windows" on Wall Street, by Jim Hightower (March 27, 2012)

What do we mean by access to law? How easy is it for someone to use the law to solve a dispute? This includes knowledge, capacity to hire a lawyer, the likelihood you will be taken seriously, whether there are laws that deal with the sort of problem you have, etc.

What do we mean by "subject to law"? Here we are thinking very much empirically not theoretically. To what degree does legal social control tend to have an impact on your behavior. We could think of this as the probability that an actual infraction is dealt with legally but we also have to include the probability that non-infractions draw legal attention.

Once again, let's think about a "space" where both of these dimensions can vary from low to high.



Old Lecture Notes
Crime as Social Control
Punishment and Deterrence
Social Control as Dependent Variable
Toward a Taxonomy of Control