Fundamentals of Social Psychology

Chapter 30: Group Control Agencies

Emory S. Bogardus

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CONTROL is exercised by a group over individuals only to the extent that individuals are able to respond. Since personality is always developed under the influence of social stimuli, it is partly a group control product. The common social spirit or responsiveness of human nature, gregariousness, sympathetic emotion, consciousness of kind, the desires for response and recognition, suggestibility and imitativeness, all of these participate in social self control. Without these, persons could not be group controlled, and moreover, there would be no groups to exercise control. Social control agencies, although brought into existence for a purpose, could not function were it not for basic human urges and mechanisms.


Public opinion is one of the most common objective influences to which personality is subject. Laws are the most specific and tangible of the objective control agencies. Ceremony and ritual are the most rigid. Of all the agencies of control art is the most pleasing; it is also the subtlest, because of its indirect appeals. Personal beliefs would popularly be classed as subjective controls; they are such in the sense that they have become habit mechanisms, but not so, when their origin is considered. Personal ideals, likewise, are both subjective and objective but are chiefly to be viewed as the latter because they so much originate in group heritages and teachings. Social religion also is subjective on its habit side, but social and objective in many of its results. The education of the young is carried forward through teachers and other environmental forces.


Public opinion as a control agency is to be viewed in two ways. There is (I) the control by group opinion of individual conduct, and (2) the control of government by citizen opinion. Often these two phases of public opinion control are too closely related to be separated. Since

( 350) governments historically have so often represented a minority, citizen control of government is a significant development.

Public opinion is perhaps the most important social control. Since it has already been discussed [1] the attempt here will be simply to relate group opinion to social control. Without easy and quick means of spreading personal opinions, a public opinion cannot be formed; and without its formation democracy cannot function. Hence, there is a definite interrelation between publicity and democracy.

Before the use of the press and the telegraph, in particular, public control was in the hands of self-constituted authorities. Whatever authority the "chiefs," "lords," kings wished to exercise was done by fiat, messengers carried the orders, a council was addressed and "influenced." Behind the fiat and the "orders" was the executioner's block, exile, or ostracism. "Groups" were confined to those characterized by physical presence where as occasion demanded the "potentate" appeared in royal splendor or military prowess and spoke "authoritatively."

Then by a slow process occurred the invention of publicity agencies. The printing press existed for several centuries before it became a dominant social agent. The railroad and telegraph belatedly came into common use, and augmented "news" as a social factor. When publicity agents began to spread news and create opinions among the masses the struggle for the mastery of these control factors became bitter. It waxes strong today, so strong in fact, that the main fight in connection with public opinion as a social control agent rages around the control of the means of publicity. Some metropolitan newspapers give evidence of being "bought and kept," of being "propagandist," of representing property interests against human welfare interests, of using misrepresentation and insinuation in support of "party" interests. The chief hindrance today to the rise of democracy is often found in a press which is itself secretly controlled—by private interests.

When the strength and subtlety of this "control" is considered', one marvels that democracy was ever able to make any advance at all. Although the press has been a powerful disseminating agency, it has at times disseminated more falsehood than truth and created false controls rather than true ones. The ease with which public opinion can be controlled is its chief weakness, for it is thereby exploited by designing persons.

This ease of control of public opinion is found in the preponderance of feeling elements in opinion itself. People in the by and large are governed in their daily lives by "opinion" rather than by "facts." That which

( 351) appeals to the feelings is quickly accepted, while facts must be sought diligently and when found are often "uninteresting," "highbrow," or technical. They are often offset by pertinent facts on the opposite side of the specific question, and thus require discrimination and reflection. Hence, before public opinion can become a scientific agent of social control, personal opinion itself must be made scientific and personal habits must be governed by scientific controls. Deliberation must rule hot-temper ; people must seek the discussion group and be doubly wary of "crowds," crowd emotion, and hysteria.

Public opinion deeply influences socially reflected behavior. It is such a powerful control that only the strongest minded persons can stand out against it. It compels unpatriotic citizens to buy Liberty bonds, to respond cheerfully to special public service calls, to live better morally than their desires and lower feelings dictate, to meet regularly a minimum of group responsibilities. It functions without delay; it shouts praise or blame hastily after the individual acts. It is prompter than law.

Public opinion is an inexpensive method of regulating individuals. It requires no courts, no lawyer's fees ; it works gratuitously. As in the case of law it is preventive, for people anticipate its onslaught and modify their conduct accordingly. It is more flexible than customs or law. It strikes ruthlessly into secret places and fearlessly ferrets out motives. When it becomes accurate in content and scientific in method it will make a better control agency.

Opinion travels on the tongues of gossip and acquires greatly exaggerated forms under 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.

Public opinion is faulty as a control because it rarely represents group unanimity. An offender can usually find some group members in whose opinion his acts are condoned, excused, or even praised and applauded. When responsibility is vague, as it is oftentimes in the case of corporate misconduct, public opinion wavers, loses its force, and allows the guilty parties to escape its lash; but again, when it approaches unanimity it displays cyclonic social power.


Law as an agency of social control is crystallized opinion. In a democracy it is crystallized public opinion or majority opinion. It is made, however, by representative bodies and hence becomes subject to

( 352) review in the light of past group principles and occasionally but too rarely in relation to current welfare needs. Since law is crytallized opinion it represents the errors of judgment involved in public opinion as well as the merits. It is hardly scientific in its content, and rarely so in its method of creation.

Any reference to a legislature or a congress at work in passing a law brings to mind sinister legislative influences, log-rolling, sectional trading of voting, buying of votes, secret "pulls," until one stands amazed that certain legislative practices can lay claim to being democratic. Legislators have not as a rule been trained in social welfare principles but rather individual success principles or in legal principles. When they meet they are at once subjected to every conceivable type of "influence," with the less worthy influence operating in the most subtle, unseen ways. Law that is a perfect control agency comes from peoples' experiences and allows freedom and justice to all.

Another related problem arises from the fact that those to whom the enforcement of law is entrusted are often incompetent. The traditional policeman, for example, has been a sturdy man able to speak gruffly and to wield a club, but unversed in the technique of social control. Jail and prison officials have often been autocratic exponents of law enforcement; they may have been notorious in permitting political graft to govern their activities. In the minor courts, especially, the magistrates have often been arbitrary. In coming into our minor courts large numbers of immigrants have complained bitterly of injustice.[2]

The administration of law is often belated. By its nature law cannot be formulated and put into execution until time has elapsed for its advocates to determine the facts and deliberate upon them, to formulate rules, and secure majority action. In this interim, which may easily become extended when the facts are difficult to gather or where reactionism holds progressive legislation back, law is entirely inadequate, and evil interests may easily take advantage of a whole group, even a nation. It is in this connection that the "criminaloid," as portrayed by E. A. Ross, flourishes.[3]

Legal administration easily becomes inflexible. In the first place its exponents received their academic education years before they became public agents. Their "ethics" is not based on current welfare needs but rather on past academic teachings. Law has stressed form and precedent

( 353) until it has become dangerously subject to manipulation. Its eyes are directed backward rather than forward. Its very nature compels it to conserve, which naturally makes it conservative. It often acts with provoking- slowness, allowing offenders to escape due punishment, and encouraging outraged citizens to condone lynching.

Law looks to overt acts, and hence its judgments may become misplaced, especially where the overt action is limited to a short space of time. Behavior is a scientific criterion, providing it can be considered in a sequence of acts. Where the time element is abbreviated, the real causes of misconduct are often hard to locate.

Law, however, has many commendable features as an agent of social control. Since law is codified it is tangible, economical, and specific. It is highly preventive, because its provisions can be published succinctly, far and wide, and with due notice regarding its methods of operation. It acts with reasonable certainty and force. Within general limits, given offences against society will be punished in specific ways, times, and places.


Primitive man, modern fraternal organizations, churches, governments all make a great deal of ceremony as a control. To a large degree it is a survival of autocracy. On it originally primitive leaders relied for prestige. Where a leader does not command respect or does not wield power delegated by the group members he must resort to force or fictitious prestige in order to maintain control. Ceremony as a tool of the autocratic leader puts the average individual into a more or less helpless situation. If he challenges the leader's ability to control, he is at once accused of taking the group's symbols in vain, and punished. Ceremony is the group visualized and magnified. Within this halo the autocratic leader is prone to frame himself.

Ceremony becomes enshrined in mystery and for this reason creates respect and awe. Autocracy deliberately manufactures ceremonial mystery to protect itself from attack or even from being openly questioned. This mystery baffles the individual, making him even worshipful; it defies investigation and thus may hide a multitude of false controls.

Ceremony is inflexible and thus no matter how wisely planned fails to meet all of a person's needs. For the sake of the good, inadequate or repressive controls must also be accepted. Not being regularly subject to review and reform by legislative or judicial bodies ceremony easily becomes

( 354) far more rigid than law. It is imbedded in the customs of primary groups and thus reaches individuals while they are yet young and becomes engrained in habit formations. Hence, ceremony is doubly inflexible.

Ceremony begets servility. It often consists in the propitiation of the strong by the weak until a slavish attitude becomes habitual. The guardians of ceremony tend to appropriate homage to themselves. Ceremony custodians insist on being followed blindly and uncomplainingly.

It is in ritual that ceremony crystallizes. Ritual often represents the best and most fundamental principles and ideals of the group. It is generally emphasized at the individual's initiation to group membership, when the individual is made to feel helpless. On this occasion the group's achievements and members are magnified in every reasonable way. A person, perhaps blindfolded, is led defenselessly into the presence of the "august" assembly. Moreover, he is in a state of gratitude for having been honored. The impressiveness, dignity, and conventions of the occasion require an appreciative acceptance of all the rules of the order including a solemn promise to obey the ritual injunctions.

Ceremony carries all the force of convention and ordinarily of custom. Further, it is usually personified in certain dignitaries who are masters of the occasion. It is the specific symbol of all that the group has fought for, and it carries the group's haloes of the past. Hence, the force of ceremony is ordinarily irresistible when measured against the strength of a single individual.


Art controls by gentle, indirect means. It sets patterns of behavior in such pleasing ways that onlookers find themselves unthinkingly responding. Its realm is the feelings, emotions, and sentiments. It is non-didactic, non-moralizing. It thrives in the pleasurable tones of life; it "polarizes the feelings."

Control by art is universal. Since all races and classes have similar feeling reactions, art knows no human limits. Millet's interpretation of the peasant is understood the world around. "Madonna" patterns are recognized, appreciated, and responded to everywhere at a glance. Music touches a responsive chord in every soul and sends soldiers forward into battle. At its best it arouses other-worldly elements, energizes tired hearts and brains, and turns human attention from sordid to broadly spiritual goals.

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Art controls through its appeal to order, rhythm, and symmetry, which operate universally. Human beings are susceptible to and partially controlled by "the influence of that which pervades and rules in the heavens and the earth, and in the mind and body." It is structurally and functionally easy to respond to art patterns, and hence groups through designing representatives, by manipulating these patterns may control a whole people even harmfully.

Controlling art patterns such as personal decoration, ornamentation, architecture, painting, and sculpture, are static; in the dance, song, poetry, music, and public speech the pattern forms possess a moving element. The music of three centuries ago which sways multitudes today effectively molds current conduct. Through the feelings music melts individuals and redirects their energies. In hymns and songs people live over the joys, sorrows, and anticipations of past generations. Community singing and pageantry socialize individuals.

Art as a control agency needs censorship for special reasons. Its basic rhythmic appeals are easily sensualized. Its use of indirect suggestion is all-powerful. Its moral passivity permits it to fall helplessly into the hands of designing individuals.


Many personal beliefs are instruments in social control. From his family, play, school, and church life, a person acquires beliefs which fundamentally affect his conduct. 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. As noted in an earlier chapter, he is parent-made, school-made, playground-made, church-made to a degree which he little suspects or would cheerfully admit.

Religious beliefs according to which the individual lives continually under the direction of an all-powerful Being whose eye "seeth in secret,"function effectually.[4] Both law and public opinion can be evaded, but not a Judge who is all-seeing, all-knowing, and all-powerful. Religious as well as other ideals are often implanted in childhood when critical ability is undeveloped ; hence they constitute effective controls.

Social religion is especially helpful in setting helpful pattern ideas of control. A widespread belief in the brotherhood of man softens

( 355) antagonistic responses toward societary members and fosters desires for justice. Ancestor worship carries forward the ideals of the past.

Government, inclusive of legal machinery, is a mighty engine of control. National governments are especially omnipotent. 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, censored the news, promoted world-safe-for-democracy propaganda, and directed the course of public opinion. In Germany in peace times the government, through its control of education, brought up a generation according to its preconceived aristocratic, military ideas. It is clear that to preserve the liberties of individuals, public educational institutions must be supplemented by equally powerful private institutions with freedom to criticize constructively the state itself and prevailing standards of control. It is not so important to build a strong state control of citizens as it is to rear persons filled with a sense of responsibility which puts public interests ahead of private advantage.


Education represents a sheaf 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 adoption of suggested ideas, beliefs, and feelings regulates the individual's conduct. Through education the group can train its young in almost any direction that it wills. Consequently, group education must not be determined by a small coterie of narrow-minded individuals but by representatives of the entire group personnel.

The primary groups are the basic educational agencies of control. Through the contacts and stimuli in the family and the play group particularly, individuals are controlled in ways that are educationally more subtle and effective than in a semi-military and compulsory educational system as such. The highest type of educational control is that which trains individuals unthinkingly to act in line with the welfare of others.


1. Social control is the influence that the group exercises over its members.

2. Control is possible because of the inherited response-mechanisms of individuals.

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3. Public opinion is a powerful agency of control that is universal, immediate, and often ruthless.

4. Law is a system of codified controls supported specifically by group force.

5. Ceremony and ritual are controls from the past.

6. Art exercises wide influence by its natural appeals to rhythm, color, and symmetry.

7. Personal ideals are rarely original ; they are socially engendered and constitute subtle forms of social control.

8. To the extent that social religion holds back selfishness and multiplies good will, it is an important control agency.

9. Education is inclusive of all social controls.


1. Distinguish between group control that acts subjectively and that which operates objectively.

2. In what ways is public opinion an excellent method of control?

3. On what occasions is public opinion most apt to function?

4. What are the chief advantages of law as an agent of control?

5. What is the strongest point in custom as a means of control?

6. Why is ritual an effective control?

7. Why does art as a form of control need censorship?

8. Why are personal beliefs often largely social controls?

9. Why is education the supreme form of control?


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

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

3. Why are laws in our democracy lightly broken?

4. Which binds "its members more closely to custom," a religious institution or a business organization?

5. Explain: "The tyranny of the majority."

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

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

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

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

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


Dewey, John, Democracy and Education (Macmillan, 1916), Chs. II, III, VI, VIII.

Foulke, W. D., "Public Opinion," National Municipal Review, III : 245-55.

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

Hirn, Yrjo, The Origins of Art (Macmillan, 1900), Chs. XVIII-XX.

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

Ross, E. A., Social Control (Macmillan, 1901).

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

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

Todd, A. J., Theories of Social Progress (Macmillan, 1918), Chs. XXIV, XXV, XXXII.

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


  1. See Chapter XXV.
  2. See The Immigrant's Day in Court by Kate Holladay Claghorn (Harper & Bros., 1923).
  3. Sin and Society (Houghton Mifflin, 1907).
  4. See the excellent chapters on this subject by E. A. Ross in his Social Control.

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