As society continues to shift and changes beyond modernity there can be no doubt that the forms of social control change as well. Though social control is imposed by a multitude of cultural functions there is much discussion over the importance and nature of its influence on family and childhood. Though the social control is a common aspect of every society there are a number of different ways in which it is expressed within contemporary society. This essay seeks to explain what social control is and provide a basic understanding of how this control relates to the welfare state and family life. Though the functions of social control share some basic premises they are inherently different in relation to how they operate and relate in contemporary culture.

This essay question is based on the premise that there exists one single, arbitrary meaning for the concept of ‘social control’. However, this cannot be further from the truth. The concept of social control is one that is constantly changing and is therefore incredibly difficult to attribute just one explanation to this concept. One definition of social control lies in the response to ‘socially problematic behaviour which are actually conceived of as such, whether in the reactive sense…or in the proactive sense.’ For him these responses may be sponsored directly by the state or by autonomous professional agents (Cohen in Mulvany, 1989: 223). This definition is by no means complete as the focus lies in the control of ‘problematic behaviour’. Cohen does not take into account the manipulation and control of those who are not socially problematic.

Joan Higgins provides a more varied and comprehensive explanation regarding social control. For Higgins social control is not just about repression or conformity. Higgins argues that there are a variety of mechanisms of control that exist in varying degrees and focus. For Higgins there are seven (7) mains forms of control which can be grouped thusly:

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1. control as repression;

2. control as exploitation;

3. control as co-optation;

4. control as integration;

5. control as paternalism;

6. control as conformity;

7. control as self-determination (Higgins, 1980:15).

These forms of control as explained by Higgins offer a more complete explanation of the concept of social control. Control as integration is particularly important when discussing social control and the family. Richard Titmuss argues that social services need to be seen in ‘stabilizing, preventive and protective roles’ rather than as an ‘enemy.’ For Titmuss, these services exist to minimise the disruptive effects of industrialisation and modernisation on family life (Titmuss, 1976: 117-118).

In the nineteenth century workers in the health sector believed it to be their mission to eradicate debauchery and create a unity within the family unit. According to Lasch, they saw the family as an asylum in which by ‘segregating the patient in a professionally supervised environment devoted to his care, they hoped to mold the child’s character in the home’ (Lasch, 1977: 170). Child-savers stressed the value of redemption and prevention through early identification of deviance and intervention in the form of education and training. Their focus lay in the areas in which they considered to be the source of family breakdown and moral degeneration (Roach Anleu, 1995: 23). However, humanism and altruism were not the only motivating factors for the child-savers, for Platt the child-saving movement was of much greater significance, he explained is as ‘part of a much larger movement to readjust institutions of corporate capitalism’ (Platt, 1977: xix). It is clear that Platt viewed the child-saving movement as a way of allowing middle and upper classes to establish new forms of social control.

For Nikolas Rose the ‘family reform’ projects which emerged in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and centred on the reform of morality, the elimination of crime and the maximisation of efficiency through promoting hygiene of body and mind lies in the realm of ‘socialisation’ rather than social control (Rose, 1987: 70). For him the concept of social control is a ‘meagre explanatory device’ in that explanations unify a variety of mechanisms, techniques and objectives. He argues that it must ”explain away’ not only the varied ethical, political and technical motives of social reformers, but also the subjective commitments of the individuals involved to the values and practices which ‘control’ them’ (Rose, 1987: 72). Rose puts forward the article that parental conduct in relation to their children is regulated not by obedience ‘compelled by threat of sanction’ but through the ‘activation of individual guilt, personal anxiety and private disappointment’ (Rose, 1987: 73). It is clear that for Rose the relationship between welfare and the family cannot be evaluated in terms of state regulation or social control.

As society has moved through modernity the relationship between parents and their children has changed dramatically. There is dissolution in the authoritarian parental relationship; instead parents shift the responsibilities of discipline to the school and other authority figures. This mode of social control impacts significantly on family life and childhood because the parent is no longer the primary educator and teacher of values and morals. Parents increasingly rely on peer groups and the education system to monitor and discipline the child (Lasch, 1977: 173). This type of social control has heavily impacted on childhood and family life. Shifting responsibility of regulation to the peer group means that a different version of ‘ideal family life’ is put forward. This gives the child an important advantage over the parents and not only creates an effective gap between discipline and affection, but also, makes parental authority obsolete (Lasch, 1977: 173-4).

It can be seen that Higgins and Rose both offer complete, yet differing accounts of social control. It is clear that the varieties of control which are described should be viewed as a continuum of meanings of the concept of control, rather than as discrete categories. It can be seen that with this variety of meanings it is insufficient to argue that social policy and welfare are the means of, and social workers are agents of, social control. However, there is a great lack in empirical data on social control and its impacts upon childhood and families. It can be argued that the sociological theories put forward while have extreme validity in a theoretical focus may be inherently flawed because they have not been tested. Mulvany argues that the inadequate treatment at the empirical level of ‘specific processes of social control has resulted in a reified conceptualisation of social control in which the phenomenon of control is treated by theorists as monolithic’ (Mulvany, 1989: 223). Furthermore, the failure to engage in conceptual clarification and empirical investigation results in unsophisticated and highly simplistic models of social control and reaction (Mulvany, 1989: 223).

What has evolved in this essay is an increasingly complex image of social control. There exist a variety of social control theories and each one has a great impact on the understanding of modern youth, childhood and family life. However, as an explanatory concept, unless the problem of semantics is solved, the term ‘social control’ is inherently flawed. It is clear that many theories on social control fall to rhetoric and vague terminology rather than explaining and defining important terms. Terminology such as ‘the System’ or the ‘poor’ need to be adequately explained, and methodology needs to be improved before any theories on social control can be used as a source of explanation.


Higgins, J. (1980) ‘Social control theories of social policy’ Journal of Social Policy 9(1): 1-23.

Lasch, C. (1977) Haven in a Heartless World. New York: Basic Books, pp. 167-89.

Mulvany, J. (1989) ‘Social control processes, activities and ideologies – the case of school non-attendance in Melbourne’ Australian ; New Zealand Journal of Sociology 25(2): 222-38.

Platt, A. (1977) The Child Savers. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Roach Anleu, S.L. (1995) ‘Lifting the lid: Perspectives on social control, youth crime and juvenile justice’ in Ways of Resistance Cheryl Simpson ; Richard Hil (eds). Sydney : Hale ; Iremonger pp. 22-50.

Rose, N. (1987) ‘Beyond the public/private division: law, power and the family’ Journal of Law ; Society 14(1): 61-76.


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