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INFORMAL SOCIAL CONTROL

Methods of informal social control are best exemplified by folkways (established norms of common practices such as those that specify modes of dress, etiquette, and language use) and mores (societal norms associated with intense feelings of right or wrong and definite rules of conduct that are simply not to be violated—for example, incest). These informal controls consist of “techniques whereby individuals who know each other on a personal basis accord praise to those who comply with their expectations and show displeasure to those who do not” (Shibutani, 1961:426). These techniques may be observed in expressions of opinion and specific behaviors, such as ridicule, gossip, praise, reprimands, criticisms, ostracism, and verbal rationalizations. Gossip, or the fear of gossip, is one of the more effective devices members of a society can use to have individuals conform to norms. Unlike formal social controls, these informal controls are not exercised through official group mechanisms, and there are no specially designated persons in charge of enforcement.

Informal mechanisms of social control tend to be more effective in groups and societies where relations are face-to-face and intimate and where the division of labor is relatively simple. For example, Emile Durkheim argued that in simple societies, such as tribal villages or small towns, legal norms more closely accord with social norms than in larger and more complex societies. Moral disapproval of deviance is nearly unanimous in such communities (Shilling and Mellor, 1998). In simple societies, laws are often unwritten, necessitating the direct teaching of social norms to children. Socialization in such simple societies does not present children with contradictory norms that create confusion or inner conflict. Intense face-to-face interaction in such societies produces a moral consensus that is well known to all members; it also brings deviant acts to everyone’s attention quickly

There is substantial evidence in the sociological literature to support the contention that informal social control is stronger in smaller, traditional, more homogeneous communities than in larger, more modern, heterogeneous communities (Hanawalt, 1998). In a classic study of deviance in the seventeenth-century Massachusetts Bay Colony, Kai T. Erikson (1966:169-170) found that the small size and the cultural homogeneity of the community helped control behavior, because everyone in the community pressured potential deviants to conform to dominant norms, neighbors watched out for acts of deviance, and these acts met with moral censure.

Informal social controls in modern societies operate more effectively in smaller communities where people know each other and regularly interact. In such communities, law enforcement agents can probably expect better cooperation. As the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice (1967a:6) pointed out in the male-oriented nouns and pronouns commonly used at the time of its writing:

A man who lives in the country or in a small town is likely to be conspicuous, under surveillance by his community so to speak, and therefore under its control. A city man is often almost invisible, socially isolated from his neighborhood and therefore incapable of being controlled by it. He has more opportunities for crime.

An example of this dynamic is found in Sarah L. Boggs’s (1971) early study of formal and informal social controls in central cities, suburbs, and small towns in Missouri. Boggs found that residents of large cities were more apt than suburban or small-town residents to feel that crime was likely to occur in their community. City residents were also more likely to think that their neighbors would not report a burglary that they observed. Most people in all areas felt that their own neighborhood was safe, but fewer felt that way in the cities. When they were asked what it was that made their neighborhood safe, 83% of those in rural areas and small towns said that it was informal controls; 70% in suburbs and 68% of those in the cities attributed safety to informal controls. When they said that their neighborhood was kept safe by informal social controls, the people meant that they felt secure because of the character of the community and its residents—“good, decent, law-abiding, middle-class citizens” (Boggs, 1971:323). Safety in a neighborhood was also attributed to the social network in the community that might lead to bystander intervention in a crime. Respondents who lived in suburbs and large cities were more likely than those who lived in rural areas and small towns to attribute safety to such formal control agents as the police (Boggs, 1971:324). Boggs concluded that people in cities were most inclined to expect crime but least likely to feel that they could rely on their neighbors rather than the police to protect their community. As a result, they were more likely to take precautions, such as purchasing weapons or a watchdog, than their counterparts who lived in suburbs, small towns, and rural areas.

Similar conclusions about the role of informal social-control mechanisms come from studies of developing nations. For example, in comparing a low crime-rate community and a high-crime-rate community in Kampala, Uganda, Marshall B. Clinard and Daniel J. Abbott (1973) found that the community with less crime showed greater social solidarity, more social interaction among neighbors, more participation in local organizations, less geographical mobility, and more stability in family relationships. There was also greater cultural homogeneity and more emphasis on tribal and kinship ties in the low- crime community. The stronger primary group ties among residents of the low-crime community made it more difficult for strangers in the community to escape public notice. This and other studies (e.g. Garofalo and McLeod, 1989) show that informal social control will be most effective in a community (thus making legal or formal controls less necessary) if the community features intense social interaction on an intimate face-to-face basis, a normative consensus, and surveillance of community members’ behavior.

A troubling example of informal social control comes from China and involves some 1 million neighborhood committees composed of more than 6 million older citizens, virtually all of them women. The primary task of these committees to seek out and resolve squabbles among neighbors. They report everything they see to higher-ups, investigate disturbances, routinely stop strangers, and pry into couples’ plans for having children. This technique of community-based surveillance is modeled after the one introduced in the former Soviet Union in the 1920s, which was based on the principle of denouncement. People were encouraged and rewarded to report on friends and relatives who were suspected of engaging in activities contrary to the interests of the government. Various versions of this technique were subsequently used in Nazi Germany and other totalitarian regimes.

 
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