Social control can be defined as a system of ‘measures, suggestion, persuasion, restraint and coercion’ by which society brings people into conformity with an accepted code of behaviour (Sharma, 2007, p. 220). There are many forms of direct and indirect social control.
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The family has always provided a strong means of social control in its direct influence on the behaviour of its members. However, with the changing nature of the family structure in modern Britain, the family’s ability to provide an effective means of social control has been called into question. This essay will explore the concept of social control in relation to the changing role of the family and the increasing influence of other areas, in particular the mass media and the internet.
Social control comes in two distinct forms: direct control and indirect control. Direct social control works when someone exerts influence on a person directly due to their close proximity, for example, the family. Indirect social control is provided by other factors removed physically from the person, such as institutions, traditions, customs and culture: these indirect means of social control are ‘invisible and subtle’ (Sharma, 2007, p. 221). There are also two forms of social control within these groupings: control by sanction, which rewards the compliant and punishes the miscreant, and control by socialisation and education (Sharma, 2007, p. 222).
Social control can be maintained by positive means and negative means. Positive means of social control make people want to conform to society in order to enjoy rewards, such as praise, social recognition or respect. Negative means of social control work in the opposite way, making people want to conform to society in order to avoid emotional or physical punishment, criticism, ridicule or shame (Sharma, 2007, p. 222).
Formal and informal types of social control are also recognised as mean of controlling people’s behaviour within society. Formal social control is ‘carried out by an agency specifically set up to ensure that people conform to a particular set of norms, especially the law’ (Browne, 2011, p. 17). Forms of formal social control include the control exerted by official institutions such as the government, education establishments, religion, the police and the army. Informal social control, in contrast, is ‘carried out by agencies whose primary purpose is not social control’ (Browne, 2011, p. 18), such as family and friends, who influence us by socialising us into certain customs, values, ideals and norms.
One example of socialised ‘norms’ is gender roles. Boys and girls are encouraged to behave in way which accords with what society accepts to be masculine (assertive and dominant) or feminine (passive and submissive) forms of behaviour.
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