The sensitive system of (social) control: a quick overview

I want to ask you the questions that were asked to me, and that after an elaboration comes to be some fresh material to reflect about. If I ask you ‘Who commits a crime?’ and ‘Why?’ or, more specifically, ‘Why don’t (some) people want to obey the law?’  you can either adopt the approach to indicate some all-embracing figures that represent a criminal, in its bad or good aspects, examples that come from our favorite cartoons, reading, films, blogs and even political cases that won the chance to maintain a place in our memory, murmur something aligned with your fuzzy idea, or show me the current newspaper.

I remember that when I was a little child, the french gentleman Lupin won a piece of my heart, not by mistake. However, you might agree with me, the answer we can give to these questions are biased by the fact that we, good guys, have been guided by the assumption that people are “good” by nature and would as natural expedient obey the law; their law.

Long-time ago, in the 1950s, a group of intellectuals began to write and look at criminal behavior very differently. They refuse to assume that humans are so to say “good” by nature, as they appear more often to be “bad” and therefore needed to receive an extra constraint, being controlled.

Diego Rivera, Man Controller of the Universe (or Man in the Time Machine), 1934; Palacio de Bellas Artes, Mexico City

Trying to understand the factors that could lead people – by nature perfectly law-abiding – to become criminals, theories focus on another perspective, underlying what kept people, tempted by nature to break the law, from the act to commit a crime.

These theories were developed around the notion of control, more in specific social control; the power that grow as a list of what, at the time, was conceived as necessary to control human beings starting from their personality, connecting with people internalization processes, their public status and even their conscience. 

Is interesting to notice that these control theories assume that nonconformity is somehow to be expected when there are no social controls, or when its mechanism are ineffective, looking on observed facts and human behavioral response. Everyone is free to silence moral.


Probably is for this specific reason they are also labelled as theories of conformity.

However, I’ve introduced you a step that must be properly processed: if the purpose is to label control theories as theories of compliance, control must be associated with social processes despite than formal deterrence. In other words, methods of social control should maintain a distinction from theories of deterrence, as the latter are based on precise controls and the fear of formal sanctions. The case of methods of social control is different: they are based on natural controlling forces that work through a process of socialization.

Yes, someone else understood that this is the only way to maintain order. Thank you, I must confess.

Natural controlling forces are not so different when they become material of analytical comparison, having as reference a benchmark of one control theories. Think about that, in our lives the process of socialization is the Arianna silver lining. It maintains these natural controlling forces stable, gliding gently through all control theories.

Avoiding to ask ‘Why don’t (some) people obey the law?’ control theories reply to the question ‘Why do (most) people obey the law?’ The simple fact that this sentence is structured to emphasize its final part, the existence of the law, present why and how we need its rules and obligations: if every one of us can accept without external constraints, how to rightly behave at all times, there would be no need for regulations. Right, especially as they are by constitution telling people how not to (re)act.

Trying to understand more about this topic, I needed to spend some time on questioning what could be the difference between what control theorists and criminologist were so worry to proclaim.

As some of you know, my philosophical background let me remember the theory of Lombroso, the father of modern criminology. His anthropological theory seemed to be the materialization of the criminal: he defined the genetic, biological factors capable of define him or her as a person chosen to deviate, sooner or later, as competent to commit criminal acts. In his first career years, he would say that these factors are therefore genetic, depicting criminals as “homo delinquents”.

While thinking on Lombroso’ s positivist psychiatric theories, I reflect on the core laws made to control the inner and natural impulses of all of us, but what if they were designed to suit the temperament of just minority of people guided by abnormal, wrong and uncontrollable impulses?

In other words, our behavior is subordinate to the law that attempts to control our natural response (expected, somehow, if not continuously controlled), or the law refers just to actions that could characterize (ab)normal individuals?   Despite that, one common assumption I was able to pick-up and maintain is that “the law” is something to be obeyed.

In other words, we need laws that have to be obeyed.

It is our social responsibility to obey them.

The apparent reply to this tautology is coming from the people that shed light on the principles, and the unacceptable conditions that make the same society label people as good citizens or criminals. 

Young people, through their way to discover hidden political and social clues, might ask ‘whose law is it?’ and ‘Why should it be obeyed?’  So, conflict theorists dedicate their studies focusing  on who has the right to make the laws, who gave them that right, for whose advantage the laws are made, and to whose advantage they are obeyed; while traditional (and control) theorists might assume that all actions which come to be labeled as “criminal” are deviant and unnatural (or “bad”) and that the laws are written simply in order to deal with (control) these few members of the society who behave as unnatural deviancy. Which is bad.

Moreover, traditional and control theorists seem to assume that the laws are written for the good of the society and that they are written by individuals, or groups of individuals, who have the society’s best interests at heart.  In trying to understand how a society controls its members (that is, keeps them from breaking the law) it becomes necessary to understand how that society justifies its laws to those individuals, who are inclined to disobey them.

In this case, when the individual is inclined to disobey a law decided by the society when she/he grow up, in order to understand why she/he might run after such an inclination, the question arises as to whether she/he does not believe the law should apply to her/ him, or indeed to any other member of the society. In other words, traditional criminologists are not so much interested in individuals who behave in a manner which they themselves assume to be lawful, though it may not be; they are interested in those individuals who knowingly break the laws of their society.

By the same token, control theorists are not interested in those natural – one might say instinctual – conduct of individuals completely aligned with the law. They are interested in how a society keeps its members from acting out their natural or instinctual actions when they would break the law.

So, as we try to better understand the historical and theoretical bases for theories of social control, we need to ask not only the questions ‘Who obeys (or does not obey) the law?’ and ‘Why?, now we also need to ask ‘Whose law is it?’ and ‘Why should it be obeyed?’

I am saying that as, according to traditional criminologists, the law is simply a formal extension of what the majority of people living or sharing something together, agree to respect the canon of a natural correct actions.

For people accepting to behave naturally follow the law is not a big deal; something very different from what a deviant could feel when he needs to face a voracious inner refusal of the law.

Control theorists do not believe that laws are just a simple, formal extension of what should be a natural human behavior. And this is evidently not helping us to try to give an answer to the questions of ´whose law it is? ´ and ´why it should be obeyed? ´ that became now not just more important but even more difficult to answer…

Right. I might be tempted to say that we should support the smooth running of our society when we can find just one reason to support, respect, understand or only maintain a dialogue with the political fraction that is running it.  In an attempt to come up with a more complete, plausible and defensible answer to these questions, another way is to make a historical and theoretical analysis able to scan actual and past theories of social control, underlying which aspect are still relevant for us.

I think that control theories cannot fully answer these questions as they seem to leave behind two fundamental factors that play a crucial role to maintain control: integration and regulation.

Reflecting on the sense of these two words, we can say that integration is the intimate bond that every human being might have the opportunity to develop with other members, either friend, family or just acquaintances. The ordinary activities, norms, values, challenges shared with the society we refer to are the qualitative sparkling able to develop like-minded solidarity and generate a natural subordination to the group. If you want a concrete example, think why you define someone a friend of you. Generally, you have with this person some mutual interests, maybe you shared some emotional and demanding periods of your life, or simply put the harmonic law of sympathy are infinite.

On the other side, we can define regulation as the inner power that society might exercise, making explicit its social values. How? Well, formal rules and laws seem to be a perfect answer.

In our society, almost everyone can have (following the principle of a democratic share of education and resources) a choice of free will to follow the law, be sensible and act according to the benefit of others, without need to be controlled as the presupposed balance of integration and regulation lead to a sort of – far from being perfect – progressive equilibrium and symbolic interactionism: our society.

I see ourselves as human beings constantly adjusting to the external complicate and mutant order, perceived solid enough to respond our morality needs, or just inner expectations on how things must develop. This is our true nature. This is how we apply, accept, and maintain autonomously control.

Today the systematic lapping of our society is leaking. The errors and horrors we face today could be explained by the rapidity of changes in the previous orders, that current and past generations fatigue to maintain as not everyone is able to understand the importance of moral principles. The cases when the reflectors of control theories gain the right to question the “true” nature of human beings.

The moral order is a function of the solidarity of individuals within the group, the only way for us as social animals to be moral is to emerge from our inner self and live within a collective group, share and open ourselves to mutual events. This symbolic interactionism focus on the individual’s sense of self and identity, which was, is and continue to be – at all times – relational, social, and placed within a context of interaction. My viewpoint is still leaving place to the clear evidence that our society is full of individuals that are not stable, not even totally moral, I guess. The funny thing is that some of them gained the first row of the most important Parliament of the world, and from their position of decision maker they are the one prophesizing control to normal beings, who desire just to emerge from a tunnel featured by “sustainable” anoxia.

I’ll see you in the next post.

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