A term widely used in sociology to refer to the social processes by which the behaviour of individuals or groups is regulated. Since all societies have norms and rules governing conduct (a society without some such norms is inconceivable) all equally have some mechanisms for ensuring conformity to those norms and for dealing with deviance. Social control is consequently a pervasive feature of society, of interest to a broad range of sociologists having differing theoretical persuasions and substantive interests, and not just to sociologists of deviance. The sociological issue is not the existence of social control, but determining its precise nature, and identifying the mechanisms at work in particular social contexts. By whom is control exercised? What techniques of control are employed? How far can and do individuals or groups resist processes of social control? In whose interests does control operate? The answers to such questions vary greatly. Normative functionalists tend to suggest that social control is of value to society as a whole, since it is essential to the maintenance of social order; others point to the sectional interests that are served in the process of social control, emphasizing the lack of normative consensus, the differences in power that are involved, and the close linkage between power and control.
Analyses of the main forms of social control differ. A common distinction is between repressive or coercive forms of control—so-called hard techniques, including direct physical constraint—and the softer ideological forms of control that operate through the shaping of ideas, values, and attitudes. The former techniques are particularly characteristic of institutions such as the police and the military, the latter of institutions such as the mass media. The best recent discussions of the topic are Stanley Cohen 's Visions of Social Control (1988) and Jack P. Gibbs 's Control: Sociology's Central Notion (1989). See also criminology; criminology, feminist; Foucault; sanction; trust and distrust.