Essentials of Social Psychology

Chapter 14: Group Controls

Emory S. Bogardus

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Individual initiative continually conflicts with group standards. As a consequence, the individual is subject to many types of social restraint. Although nearly all these social controls have arisen from past group experiences, they are not always adequate guides for limiting current individual action. Almost all the means for group regulation of individuals have evolved spontaneously, effectively, and slowly from human needs, and have been put into operation bunglingly. Social restraints have been exercised rarely to meet carefully ascertained group welfare. But nearly all possess snore merit than their haphazard manner of development would imply.

Social pressures are essential to progress. Every group exercises control over its members as a matter of group self-protection and in order that the energy of the members may not be dissipated in socially disintegrating ways. It is an encouraging sign when a group does not rely absolutely upon the automatic use of controls, but begins to determine for its constituents constructive, telic, and socialized methods of change. It is a socially hopeful day when a group undertakes to diagnose itself, and upon the basis of that diagnosis, to establish consciously and wisely de-

(262) - termined sets of social restraints and social encouragements.

Social controls are commonly too rigid in certain particulars, too lax in other ways, and too emotionally haphazard in nearly all regards. Since group pressures generally operate as objective instruments, the individual is occasionally misjudged, coerced unjustly, and inadvertently encouraged to foment social sedition. Often he is not properly stimulated to make his best contributions to his group and to society.

Consequently, from the standpoint of group welfare certain exceedingly vital questions must be faced. (1) In regard to any new movement, how much social control shall a group exercise? (2) What shall be the nature of this control ? (3) By what methods shall it be applied? If too much pressure is exerted by the group, individual initiative is stifled and progress halted. If too little restraint is employed, group cohesion is endangered, and social chaos may result. The problem is not only one of quantity of control, but also a matter of quality of control and of the time of application. For example, what kind of control shall a parent use over a child who objectively is telling "stories," but subjectively is giving his imagination free rein? Shall the teacher use the same variety of control in handling a mischievous boy who is bubbling over with energy as in dealing with one who is deceitful? Shall society use the same controls in prescribing treatment for an obstreperous fanatic as for a delinquent corporation? Also, shall controls be applied bluntly, arbitrarily, belatedly, or shall they be exercised through the persons who are to be controlled, indi-

(263) -rectly, and in proper season? And fundamentally, what are the main agencies of social control?

1. Agencies of Social Control. (1) Customs and conventions are powerful social controls. They begin to influence the child from birth, or even from before birth. An infant is born into a maze of inherited traditions which determine his general development during the years of his helplessness. Parental customs and conventions largely determine the nature of his food, his earlier habits, and the stimulation or nonstimulation of his thought-life. As soon as he ventures from parental care, he finds himself in a network of established rules of conduct—in school, on the playground, at church.

The prestige of custom affects the adolescent tremendously. Ceremony and ritual combine to mold his habits and his feeling-attitudes. When an individual is initiated into either a fraternal or a religious organization, he is impressed, by means of the ritual, with the importance of the given organization, of the ideals of the group, and often of his own insignificance. When individuals regularly join together in singing, they become united and perhaps permanently socialized. Thus consciously and unconsciously they feel the force of ritual and ceremony.

Taboo is another custom—negative in nature—that operates as a powerful social control. "Thou shalt not" has been pronounced in relation to a thousand phases of life, all the way from primitive Tierra del Fuego to sophisticated London, and from the historic tablets of 'Moses to the forceful warnings of a mod-

(264) -ern Roosevelt. The taboo is enforced through the assertion that evil consequences will follow its violation. Thus, sometimes, the primitive lad is kept out of the cocoanut tree, the modern boy from the watermelon patch, and the adult in all clinics from the broad road that leads to destruction.

(2) Practically every personal belief is a social control. From his family, play, school, and church life, the individual acquires personal beliefs Nvhich fundamentally affect his conduct. As a result of these beliefs he prides himself upon making his own decisions and upon being self-made, whereas the various groups of which he has been a member have in reality made many of his decisions for him—by their teachings and influence. He is not self-made to the extent that he believes and boasts. He is parent-made, school-made, playground-made, church-made to a degree which he little suspects or would cheerfully admit.

Personal religious beliefs, according to which the individual lives continually under the direction of an all-powerful Being whose eye "seeth in secret," function effectually.[1] Both law and public opinion can be evaded, but not a Judge who is all-seeing, all knowing, and all-powerful.

(3) Another potent social control is law, which is a phase of custom with present-day modifications. Since law is codified, it is especially commendable as a control. It is written with exactness, and hence is tangible, economical, and specific. It is highly pre-

(265) -ventive, because its provisions can be published succinctly, far and wide, and with due notice regarding its methods of operation. It acts with certainty.

Within general limits, given offences against society will be punished in specific ways, times, and places.

The weaknesses of law in exerting social pressure are many. It often acts with provoking slowness, allowing J offenders to escape due punishment. It does not search out the subjective phases of conduct, and hence its judgments are sometimes misplaced, in(] sometimes they fail to reach the real causes of group offense. Its action is frequently paralyzed by the financial, social, or political power of the offender.

(4) The government is a mighty agent of control. In the United States under war conditions the government provided for the compulsory service of all men between certain ages, dealt vigorously with open or secret disloyalty, and censored the news and hence partially regulated public opinion. In Germany in peace times the government through its control of the educational system brought up a generation according to its pre-conceived aristocratic, military ideas.

It is clear that to preserve the liberties of the individuals of the state, public educational institutions must be supplemented by equally powerful private educational institutions with freedom to criticize constructively the state itself and the social values. It is not so important to build a strong state control of citizens as it is to train strong individuals fundamentally imbued with a nation-state loyalty, and motivated by public interest more than by private advantage.


(5) Education represents a multitude of controls. Education through the schools, the press, and the platform, as well as through the other main social institutions, is the parent of all social controls. Unconscious and conscious imitation of ideas, beliefs, and feelings regulates the individual's conduct. The group, through education, can train its rising generation in any direction that it wills. Consequently, group education must not be determined by a small coterie of selfishly minded individuals but by the entire membership.

(6) Art yields an unconscious influence over individuals. The music of three centuries ago which sways multitudes today effectively molds current conduct. Through the feelings, music melts individuals and re-directs their energies. In hymns and songs people live over the joys, sorrows, and anticipations of past generations. Community singing and pageantry socialize individuals.

(7) Public opinion rules individuals.[2] Public opinion is the general background of the socially reflected self. The force of public opinion is so powerful that only the strongest minded persons can stand out against it. With the development of marvelous systems for the transmission of ideas, public opinion often gains cyclonic power.

Public opinion compels unpatriotic individuals to buy Liberty bonds, to respond cheerfully to special public service calls, to live better morally than their

(267) desires dictate, to meet regularly a minimum of group responsibilities. Public opinion functions immediately. Its siren voice of praise or blame sounds promptly after the individual acts. There is less delay than in the case of law.

Public opinion is an inexpensive method of regulating individuals. Public opinion requires no lawyer's fees; it works gratuitously. It is preventive, for people fear its onslaught and modify their conduct accordingly. It is more flexible than custom or law. It strikes ruthlessly into secret places and fearlessly ferrets out motives.

On the other hand, group opinion travels on the tongues of gossips and acquires greatly exaggerated forms tinder the influence of professional tale-bearers. It is not precise or codified. It muddles, distorts, and contradicts. It provokes people to violent rage and whimsical performances. It arouses people and sends them out with the hangman's noose in search of offenders. It produces vigorous denunciations that sometimes swiftly float away.

Public opinion rarely represents group unanimity. An offender can always find some group members in whose opinion his offense is condoned, excused, or even praised and applauded. When responsibility is shifted, as is done oftentimes in the case of corporate conduct, public opinion wavers, loses its force, and allows the guilty parties to escape its lash.

The agencies of social control are manifold, intricately related, and omnipresent. They operate continuously. They are in constant combat with individual initiative, invention, and freedom. They have

(268) functioned primarily as repressive agents; they are becoming forces of social encouragement.

2. Positive Versus Negative Social Control. Negative group control is suppression of the individual by the group. Historically, society has stressed social inhibition rather than social inspiration. It has utilized fear rather than hope. It has compelled rather than inspired. It has impinged rather than stimulated. It has carried the rôle of "Thou shalt not." It has featured repression, prohibition, negation. The Hebrew commandments were negative controls. The Puritans established a set of negative controls over recreation and amusements. Nearly everywhere society has been content to throw offenders into dark, repressive jails. Parents are noted for their negative injunctions to children—"Don't do this," "Don't do that."

Society has an elaborate protective philosophy which is fully developed as a negative instrument. It applies opprobrious names to any individual who varies from group standards. Heretic, shyster, quitter, boner, knocker, tom-boy, sissy, fraid-cat, renegade, traitor—these are a few of the epithets which the group uses in order to protect itself. In the navy, the following terms illustrate the protective philosophy which serves corrective purposes: white mouse, handshaker, scoffer, scupper, rookie, bucker, a boat, a kick out. The immigrant must bear the following contact with protective philosophy: Dago, Hunkie, Sheeny, or Chink. Protective philosophy serves useful purposes, but easily vitiates the cause it represents when it takes an. unjust form. Epithets when

(269) applied to incoming immigrants who have not had the time or the opportunity to become adjusted are deplorable. They greatly hinder the cause of Americanization.

Negation alone is insufficient; it must be accompanied by opportunities for expression. If a child is acting wrong, that action proves that he possesses energy which is seeking an outlet. If that energy is dammed up with a prohibition, and no outlet provided, it will presently either break through the dam or go over the banks at some unsuspected weak place, causing harm to the individual himself and probably to others. If an adult commits a crime, that act indicates the presence of misdirected energy. If society merely shuts up the criminal in a dark jail, feeds him poorly, and gives him a hard place where he can not sleep, his energy will express itself through brooding and automatically produce a sense of injustice if not bolshevistic desires.

Positive social control is society's method of encouraging the expression of individual energy constructively. The wise parents find that to the degree which they become play directors for their children, the need for formal discipline diminishes. Likewise, when a city establishes a recreation park in a congested district, delinquency in that neighborhood decreases. When a manufacturing concern gives its employees representation upon managerial boards, industrial unrest largely disappears.

The positive protective philosophy of groups has been inadequately developed. The "hero" classification of positive terms is much smaller than the

(270) "traitor" and "heretic" set of negative nomenclature. Further, the appeal to hope does not touch apparently as deep chords of human nature as does the fear of pain. Nevertheless, every group may well specialize upon its positive protective philosophy.

A primitive, emotional group must be ruled more or less arbitrarily—from above or from without—but an educated group can be controlled democratically by releasing the many self-controlled springs of socio-rational interests of individuals. Positive social control endeavors to secure "the least total suffering, and then proportional suffering," and finally, to further all the constructive processes of individual and social growth.

Groups have exercised social encouragement by awarding honors, degrees, and prizes. But these have made their appeal to the few. Society needs on a large scale to institute a program for inspiring every member. The masses need increased inspiration, not only to contribute to the welfare of their own groups, but to society. The masses need to be given constructive mass visions.

Positive social control is synonymous with the constructive phases of social telesis. It seeks to discover the underlying principles of progress. It works out programs of advance. It stimulates all individuals everywhere to subordinate standards of individual success and power to ideals of societary welfare. It strives constantly to change all anti-social into social attitudes and activities.

On the other hand, negative social control often exercises inadequate, misplaced influence upon indi

(271) -viduals. It has unintentionally made the need stand out strongly for positive social encouragement. It has caused social unrest. The underlying law of negative social control is that the more nearly social justice is obtained, the less the necessary quantity of negative social control.

Positive control will provide all individuals with a full opportunity for creative effort. It will stimulate initiative, invention, and leadership ability. It will transform imitators into inventors, enrich personalities with socialized desires, and crown society itself with new life and achievements.


1. What is social control?

2. In what way have you felt the effect of group coercion?

3. Is more social control needed in a dense or in a sparse population?

4. In a homogeneous or a heterogeneous population?

5. In time of war or of peace?

6. In a society stratified by classes or in a society not so divided?

7. Why is it sometimes necessary for teachers to use "polite coercion" in order to get students to work?

8. In what particulars is there a high degree of social control in the United States today?

9. In what ways is there very little control in our country?


10. In what ways in the United States is more control needed? In what regards is less control needed?

11. What are the dangers of too much group control?

12. What happens when there is too little group control ?

13. In what ways is public opinion the best method of control?

14. On what occasions does public opinion arise?

15. Is the sardonic newspaper cartoon more effective in moulding public opinion than the good-natured cartoon ?

16. Which is the more effective in forming public opinion, the cartoon or the editorial?

17. What is the chief advantage of law as an agent of control?

18. Why are the laws in the United States often easily broken?

19. What is the strongest point of custom as a type of control?

20. Does a religious institution or a business organization bind "its members more closely to custom"?

21. Define: The protective philosophy of a group.

22. Explain: The tyranny of the majority.

23. Distinguish between "the tyranny of the majority" and "the fatalism of the multitude."

24. Is it true that the members of a small minority, no matter how meritorious its side of the question may be, are always called "traitors" and other scurrilous names, by an overwhelming majority?

25. Why are infamous names applied to refractory members of a group?


26. How generally are individuals aware of being under group control?

27. Wherein would lie the heed fur social control if every member of society were completely socialized?

28. Explain : The state is more rapacious than it allows its citizens to be.

29. Who are the professionals whose business it is to maintain the social order?

30. Distinguish between caste control in India and class control in the United State.

31. Which standards do people think about the more : Those of their own group, those of the class above them, or those of the class below them?

32. What is the best way to estimate the volume of social control at any time in a given society?

33. Is there reason to believe that in years to come social control will be more necessary Ili the United States than now ?

34. Is persecution a good method of controlling individuals?

35. Is there a larger place for authority in settling public questions than in settling private questions?

36. Is it wrong to punish those who persist in fully that hurts only themselves?

37. Illustrate: "There never has been a society that did not tolerate or approve some conduct that was bad for it."

38. `Which has the greater influence in developing a student, a large university or a small college ?

39. Why is education "the most efficient form of social control in modern society" ?

40. What would he the effect oil progress of no

(274) social control?

41. Explain: " We who would like to love our neighbors as ourselves are maintaining systems of social control that actually prevent us from doing so."

42. Give an original illustration which distinguishes between positive and negative social control.


Blackmar and Gillin, Outlines of Sociology, Parts III, IV.

Bryce, James, The American Commonwealth, (1915 edition), Vol. II: Chs. LXXVI—LXXXVII.

Cooley, C. H., Social Organization.

Davis, Jr., M. M., Psychological Interpretations of Society, Ch. XIV.

Ellwood, C. A., Sociology in its Psychological Aspects, Chs. VIII, IX, XVIII.
——, An Introduction to Social Psychology, Ch. XII.

Foulke, W. D., "Public Opinion," Nat'l Munic. Rev., 111:245-55.

Hadley, A. T., "The Organization of Public Opinion," North Amer. Rev., 201: 191-96.

Hayes, E. C., Introduction to the Study of Sociology, Part IV.

Jenks, J. W., "The Guidance of Public Opinion," Amer. Jour. of Sociol., I: 158-69.

Patten, S. N., The New Basis of Civilization, Ch. VIII.

Ross, E. A., Social Control.
——, Social Psychology,
——, "The Principle of Balance," Amer. Jour. of Social., XXIII : 801-20.

Shepard, W. J., "Public Opinion," Amer. Jour. of Sociol., XV 32-60.

Sighele, Scipio, La foule criminelle, Part II, Ch. III.

Smith, W. R., An Introduction to Educational Sociology, Chs. III, XIII.

Social Control, Vol. XII, Publications of the American Sociological Society.


Todd, A. J., Theories of Social Progress, Ch. XXV.

Vincent, G. E., "The Rivalry of Social Groups," Amer. Jour. of Sociol., XVI: 469-84.

Ward, L. F., Dynamic Sociology.

Weyl, Walter, The New Democracy, Ch. IX.

Woolston, H. B., "The Urban Habit of Mind," Amer. Jour. of Sociol. XVII:602-14.

Yarros, V. S., "The Press and Public Opinion," Amer. Jour. of Sociol., V : 372-82.


  1. See the excellent chapters on the subject in A.E. Ross in his Social Control.
  2. The advantages and disadvantages of public opinion as a form of control have been comprehensively discussed by E. A. Ross, Social Control, Ch. X, Social Psychology, Ch. XXII; by Tarde, L'opinion et la foule; by Sighele, La foule criminelle.

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