Topic: How The Presence Of Others Affects Individual Behavior

Social control theory argues that relationships, commitments, values, and beliefs encourage conformity.

Social control theory describes internal means of social control. It argues that relationships, commitments, values, and beliefs encourage conformity—if moral codes are internalized, and individuals are tied into broader communities, individuals will voluntarily limit deviant acts. This interpretation suggests the power of internal means of control, such as one’s own conscience, ego, and sensibilities about right and wrong, are influential in mitigating the likelihood that one will deviate from social norms. This stands in contrast to external means of control, in which individuals conform because an authority figure (such as the state ) threatens sanctions should the individual disobey.

Social control theory seeks to understand how to reduce deviance. Ultimately, social control theory presupposes that social relations and contracts between parties constrain all choices. This extends to explain that morality is created within a social order by assigning costs and consequences to specific actions that are marked as evil, wrong, illegal, or deviant.

Jackson Toby

Jackson Toby published an article which discussed why adolescents were inclined or disinclined to engage in criminal activities. Toby argued that individuals involved in non-delinquent community activities felt as though they had too much to lose by joining delinquent groups and, hence, had a “stake in conformity.” The notion of an individual being shaped by his ties to his community, of having a “stake in conformity,” laid the groundwork for the idea of internalized norms that act as a method of social control.

F. Ivan Nye

Nye focused on the family unit as a source of control and specified three types of control: (1) direct control, or the use of punishments and rewards to incentivize particular behaviors; (2) indirect control, or the affectionate identification with individuals who adhere to social norms; and (3) internal control, or the manipulation of an individual’s conscience or sense of guilt to encourage conformity.

Michel Foucault

Foucault argues that the eighteenth century introduced a new form of power: discipline. Before this period, the government achieved social control by the mere regulation of bodies. Deviants were controlled by the threat and frequent use of the death penalty or indefinite incarceration.

Discipline, however, is a power relation in which the subject is complicit. Rather than the state only regulating bodies, the state began to achieve social control by molding the minds of its subjects such that individuals were educated to conform even when out of the direct gaze of the punishing authority.


Key Points

• Internal means of control, such as an individual’s own sense of right and wrong, decrease the likelihood that one will deviate from social norms.

• Through external means of control, individuals conform because an authority figure threatens sanctions if the individual disobeys.

• Jackson Toby argued that individuals engaged in non-delinquent community activities felt as though they had too much to lose by joining delinquent groups and, hence, had a “stake in conformity “.

• F. Ivan Nye argued that youth might be directly controlled through constraints imposed by parents, through limits on the opportunity for delinquency, and through parental rewards and punishments.

• Michel Foucault argues that the eighteenth century introduced a new form of power: discipline. Discipline is a power relation in which the subject is complicit. This is contrasted with the previous strategy of regulating bodies but not seeking complicity.

• Socialization refers to the lifelong process of inheriting, interpreting, and disseminating norms, customs, and ideologies.


Key Terms

socialization: The process of learning one’s culture and how to live within it.

social control theory: Social control theory proposes that people’s relationships, commitments, values, norms, and beliefs encourage them not to break the law. Thus, if moral codes are internalized and individuals haves ties to and a stake in their wider community, they will voluntarily limit their propensity to commit deviant acts.

deviant acts: behavior that violates social norms and expectations

conformity: behavior intended to match that of the majority

social norms: a rule that is enforced by members of a community or society



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