Social Control The Imposition of Order

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There are many different kinds of social groups in the United States:

clubs, fraternities, gangs, counterculture groups, online communities,

etc. Identify a social group that you are part of, and then discuss

which of the social control mechanisms (mentioned in section 8.4 of the

textbook) are applied in your group. Why do you think these forms of

social control are effective?

Your initial post should be at

least 250 words in length. Support your claims with examples from the

required materials and/or other scholarly sources. Cite your sources in

the body of your post and provide a complete reference for each source

used at the end of it.

8.4 Social Control: The Imposition of Order

All societies have a variety of mechanisms by which the social behavior of people is controlled to maintain order or to re-establish order once rules have been broken. Social efforts to create orderly behavior begin at birth and continue throughout life. Some mechanisms for bringing about and maintaining conformity with acceptable behavior include early teaching of accepted customs and instilling values that motivate people to conform. Other mechanisms are punishments for rule violations and rewards for conformity. Malinowski (1926) pointed out that rules may be obeyed for a number of reasons: They may be followed because violating them brings public ridicule; because playing by the rules brings more rewarding interaction with others; because they are sacred, and supernatural punishment will result from breaking them; or because they are matters of law enforced by the machinery of society. They may also be self-enforcing due to their practical utility.


The basic way we learn to fit into a social order is through our childhood socialization or enculturation (see Chapter 2). We learn about our culture, and we come to see the common expectations that others have about our behavior. Those habits learned early in life set the pattern for later relationships outside our home and community. Effective socialization can head off problems by establishing patterns of behavior that others find acceptable.

Part of enculturation is learning to feel that some ways of behaving are better than others. As explained in Chapter 2, values are part of the feeling subsystem of a culture and may be defined as our attitudes or feelings about right and wrong behavior. This broad category may then be divided into various types such as moral, spiritual, or environmental values. Moral values are the attitudes or rules that govern our relationships with our fellow human beings. Piety or spiritual values define our relationship to the supernatural and may be reflected in the following of specific religious rules of behavior such as the Jewish kosher laws, rules against blasphemy, or rules about working on a sacred day. Environmental values deal with our relationship to our physical environment so that concerns would include pollution and the protection of endangered species. Although morality and environmental values may be understood in purely practical terms, such as the need for an orderly social life or an awareness that needed resources are limited, people may accept them because they are supported by religious teaching or simply because they are traditional. Note, for instance, that the Judeo-Christian Ten Commandments begin with rules of piety such as “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” but also include moral rules such as “Thou shalt not steal.”

Religion and Social Control

In fact, another major force for the maintenance of social order is religion. The rites of passage that symbolize stages in the life of the individual as a member of society are typically religious rituals. Myths and legends also contribute an aura of sanctity to a way of life and increase people’s respect for the social order. Taboos and ceremonial obligations further structure life in ways that demand predictable conformity from members of a community. Finally, in some societies, religious ideology directly mandates a moral life with the promise of supernatural rewards for proper social conduct and punishments for wrong living.

The role of religion in maintaining social order is illustrated by the Hopi Indians of the southwestern United States. As embodiments of evil among the Hopi, witches were called Two Hearts. They loved darkness, death, and other things that humans despise. Witches were put to death if they did not confess their evil deeds. So the accusation of witchcraft was a powerful force in bringing people into line with acceptable behavior.

Traditionally, the Hopi were a communally oriented society in which support of common values was prized over individual prowess. The person who excelled too much or too often might be suspected of being a witch. Thus, a child who won more races than others would be advised to run more slowly in other races so that others would not feel envy. In a society in which generosity and sharing were valued, the accumulation of too much personal wealth might also lead to suspicion of witchcraft. In this case, a suspect might sponsor a communal festival in which he or she distributed goods to others, an act that eliminated the surplus wealth and curried the favor of others simultaneously. Essentially any deviance was an invitation for suspicious gossip, and this suspicion helped pressure people into conforming behavior, much as the legal system in state societies is intended to do.

In many societies, sorcery has also functioned to maintain social order. This is possible because where people believe in the effectiveness of sorcery, the fear of sorcery makes it possible to use threats of sorcery as punishments for behavior that is socially unacceptable to a community. The practice of sorcery by aggrieved individuals against those they feel have wronged them can also give victims the feeling that they have some ability to strike back against wrongdoers. For both reasons, sorcery tends to be more common in societies that do not have other effective means for enforcing the legal rights of individuals. As noted in Chapter 7, Beatrice Whiting (1950) showed that sorcery was most likely to be practiced in societies that lack “individuals or groups of individuals with delegated authority to settle disputes” (p. 90). Yet sorcery is not only employed in dispute resolution; it is also a powerful explanation for misfortune in parts of Africa, Haiti, and elsewhere. For example, Paul Farmer (1992) examined how local narratives of sorcery serve as one (among several) explanation for the HIV/AIDS epidemic.


Societies do not rely on punishments alone to maintain social order. Rewarding acceptable behavior also encourages conformity. The praise and esteem of other members of the community is one such reward. Promotions and salary increases provide incentives to support corporate goals. Similarly, various forms of public recognition reward contributions to the social group. In addition to money, honor, and respect, people may be rewarded with greater power within the military, police, or judicial system.

Gossip and Social Pressure

As Max Gluckman pointed out, tensions between individuals or groups “are built into the larger social order through cultural techniques of gossip and scandal” (1963, 313). Most people value the esteem of others, so gossip and community pressure can be a powerful force in keeping people in line. The key to the effectiveness of gossip is that word eventually gets back to the person being criticized. The nonconformist then has the opportunity to try to regain the respect of others by changing the behavior that others have found unacceptable. Direct confrontation is another form of community pressure that is sometimes resorted to when gossip has failed. Yet anthropologists have also emphasized that gossip is not always functional; it is also a way in which people explain and experience their social world (White, 2000).


Police in riot gear and holding wooden batons walk together in a small town.


Modern state societies have a monopoly on the use of legal force to protect and control their populations.

Order is also maintained through law, the cultural rules that regulate behavior through the threat of punishment (Hoebel, 1954). Legal rules are rules of society that are formally defined and codified into a recognized body of laws. Pospisil (1972) has demonstrated that law in all societies has four characteristics: legal authority, universal application, legal rights and duties, and sanction. Legal authority is the right to compel others to obey the law by the use of force, by the threat of force, or by punishment. All societies that have a formal system of laws vest legal authority in one or more individuals who are charged with the responsibility of maintaining order. They may be political specialists, heads of voluntary associations, designated members of a community, or heads of families. Universal application is the principle that the legal authority should apply the same laws uniformly in similar situations. It is this expectation of consistency that invests legal systems with tradition. Of course, legal authorities may violate this principle, but the inconsistent application of law, or favoritism, is regarded as an abuse of power in all societies. Legal rights and duties are the formal rules that define relationships between persons by specifying what recompense an injured person is entitled to receive and that legal authorities are expected to follow in enforcing contracts between persons when one or both believe their rights have been violated. Finally, sanction is the action taken by legal authorities when the law has been violated. Sanctions may be negative or positive. Negative sanctions are punishments and the loss of privileges or benefit to which a person was entitled before breaking a law. They may include such things as ridicule, ostracism, corporal punishment, or fines. Positive sanctions are rewards for supporting the social order that is defined by law. They include such things as monetary rewards for providing the government with information about law violations, reduced penalties for previous violations of law based on later “good behavior,” and the reduction of charges in return for providing evidence against someone else who is accused of violating the law.

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