Social Control

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Social control, in its simplest and most direct sense, describes the practice of controlling the thinking, behavior, and belief systems of populations. As international truth movement TruthMove states, “control can be simply built-in and institutional to a given system as well as specifically conspiratorial and conscious.”


Means of social control

There are various methods of imposing or encouraging social conformity and compliance through laws, norms, rules, myths, standards, and mores. These methods are parsed into:

  • direct and indirect
  • internal and external
  • informal and formal
  • semiformal
  • needs-based

Each can be used individually or in concert with any combination of other methods. For example, it is understood in both a formal (e.g. legal) and an informal (e.g. cultural) sense that murder is wrong. Those who commit it suffer removal from society in a direct manner, through prison and possibly execution, and in an indirect manner, though excommunication and social death.

Sociologist Ivan Nye defines four types of social control:

  • Direct: by which punishment is threatened or applied for anti-social behavior, and compliance is rewarded by authority figures. Examples include laws, statues, and regulations.
  • Internal: by which a person refrains from anti-social behavior through the conscience or superego. This would include a person's moral and spiritual education and understanding.
  • Indirect: by identification with those who influence behavior, because an anti-social act might cause pain, disappointment, or disapproval to those with whom the person has close relationships. This relates to a person's overall socialization. Examples are peer pressure, group think, conventional wisdom, and inclusion through cultural conformity.
  • Control through needs satisfaction: believes that if all an individual's needs are met, there is no point in anti-social activity. Examples include consumerism--which also includes unnecessary or manufactured need--distraction and occupation, and chemical pacification.

Evolution of social control

Historically, social control was mostly an informal and internalized mechanism existing in tribal structures. Order was necessarily based around constant survival, and behavior was shaped through the use of traditions, rituals, and the specific mores that were the foundation of tribal culture. It has been historically easier to maintain continuity and conformity of behavior in these smaller, generally homogeneous societies, where the line between acceptable and unacceptable behavior was generally understood and enforced by either inclusion or exclusion from the tribe.

As the human population grew and began to form more complex societies built around city-states, kingdoms, nation-states and empires, there was a perceived need on the part of the ruling classes for greater and greater forms of controlling the underclasses. Many of these practices grew out of the need to regulate commerce and property, as well as the necessity of the ruling class to protect their ruling order.

There was also a strong motivation on the part of the ruling classes, as Emile Durkheim writes, to "prevent the spread of chaos and anomie,” to keep populations engaged in the collective outcome of their society and keep them from revolting, or from becoming disillusioned and dropping out to pursue their own interests. The three traditional, pre-industrial mechanisms for control of the masses were the church, the family, and the monarchy.

Laws, statutes, and regulations, enforced by central governments, came along later as the means by which more complex societies were directly controlled through the modern era. Violation of these formal social constructs results in direct sanctions such as fines, restrictions, disenfranchisement, or imprisonment. Sociologist Erich Goode writes that a great deal of social control is "coercive and repressive, as it relies on punishment and force." This is particularly true in authoritarian or martial societies, where the population has a natural tendency to resist such draconian measures of direct control.

Mass communications and consumerism

Informally, particularly in the technological era, mass media and consumerism are used to mold and constrain behavior and establish belief systems. Much of the modern approach to social control grew out of the field of psychoanalysis, and is specifically attributed to the work of Sigmund Freud, who developed whole new theories about the unconscious. Freud believed that the existentially bleak barbarism of the two World Wars were unleashed by the dangerous and irrational fears and desires that lay deep within the unconscious, a "hidden enemy within the human mind." In response, elites of the time theorized that if an individual's needs were to be satisfied, there would be no point in anti-social, or more importantly, revolutionary, activity. This was the foundation of "needs-based" social control.

Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays invented a form of mass-messaging and communication referred to today as public relations. Bernays showed American corporations how to make people buy material goods they didn't need by connecting those products to their unconscious desires and unmet needs. Through this practice, in partnership with the advertising and media establishment, consumerism was born. Bernays used his influence to propose that the same principles be used politically to control the masses. Examples of this form of control include political propaganda, and the "permanent state of emergency" and "permanent enemy" paradigms employed by nearly all Imperial powers throughout history. However, as Bernays showed, in an era of immediate mass communication the ability to manipulate the truth to serve political ends becomes an awesome power.

This use of mass communication was later taken to a higher form through the use of entertainment media and pop culture to distract and occupy the populace, a modern-day bread and circuses. Propaganda is in almost universal practice today by nations and corporations alike in the form of media alerts, public service announcements, privately owned and unregulated news sources like most cable news networks, along with advertising and public relations, which shape public opinion on collective issues.

Other forms of social control


In the United States, United Kingdom, and other purportedly “free” societies, social control is predicated on the idea of perceived freedom. If a citizen believes—through a combination of language, myth and propaganda—that they are free to do or choose whatever they want, even if untrue, it creates a prima facie state of compliance. Often this comes with a quid pro quo: because you live in this free nation, you are obligated to fight and die for it. When the reason for fighting and dying is questioned, those who question are labeled unpatriotic or some other form of designation that alienates them from the mainstream of society.

Chemical pacification

More nefarious forms of social control exist through what’s known as chemical pacification. This includes the ready availability of both legal and illicit stimulants, depressants, and intoxicants, as well as myriad pharmaceutical medications geared specifically towards affecting behavior. The opposite of this practice occurs with the banning of certain substances that are credited with promoting free thinking (i.e. - in America marijuana is still illegal in large part because of its identification with the counter culture).


Perhaps the most successful form of social control in a capitalist society has been economic. The threat of losing one’s income, or ability to generate income, or borrow money, or have credit, is the primary competitive organizing principle and motivational force of capitalism. This can be exacerbated through the addition of dependents, the isolation of extended families into nuclear family units and the accompanying threat of the loss of income to that nuclear family unit.

Police state tactics

When all other forms of control fail, complex societies resort to explicitly martial, or police state, tactics including the rescinding of legal protections and civil liberties, constant surveillance and monitoring--including the panopticon effect where any given citizen internalizes the belief that they are always being watched--restriction of movement, imprisonment/internment, and the imposition of a perpetual state of emergency and fear.

There is a strong counter argument that humans are self-regulating, and that all direct and external forms of social control are oligarchic in nature, explicitly geared to keep one small yet powerful group in control over the rest.



Author: Charles Shaw