Is the Family Still a Source of Social Control?
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Published: Fri, 29 Dec 2017
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. 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. To step outside these socialised expectations would be seen as transgressive and may lead to disapproval from others. Gender roles have been proven to be socially constructed rather than the result of any natural inclinations by studies that show men and women’s accepted gender roles to be very different in other cultures and tribes around the world (Browne, 2011, p. 20).
The family has always provided a strong means of social control. Parents provide children with direct guidelines to follow regarding acceptable behaviour. Social control through the family is achieved by both positive and negative means, with children keen to gain praise from their parents, while wanting to avoid punishment in any form for disobedience. According to social control theory, ‘those who are socially integrated … are more likely to engage in socially sanctioned behaviours and less likely to engage in risky behaviours’ (Baron, 2007, p. 9). In this way, social integration offered by the family unit helps to encourage socially accepted behaviour.
However, the role of the family has changed significantly over the years. There has been a reduction in economic functions due to an increase in government help; a reduction in activities performed by the family with an increase in baby sitters and nurseries; an increase in family recreation with the advent of television and radio; and most importantly, a change in the relationships between men and women (Sharma, 2007, p. 256), which has seen the dominance of the patriarchal head being replaced by a need for co-operation among equals (Sharma, 2007, p. 259).
The traditional idea of the nuclear family, consisting of the mother, father and two children, is no longer relevant in modern times. Today, there are many families made up of unmarried parents and single parents, while there are also many step-families and increasingly, homosexual partners with children. The traditional family is also being replaced by other modes of living, for example, single-person homes and house-shares of friends. The changing nature of the family unit means that today the word ‘family’ can suggest such a variety of situations that no typical ‘family’ now effectively exists. Bernardes suggests that ‘… family situations in contemporary society are so varied and diverse that it simply makes no sociological sense to speak of a single ideal-type model of “the family” at all’ (Bernardes, 1997, p. 209).
Indeed, the Office of National Statistics tells us that the number of unmarried parent families has increased significantly ‘from 2.2 million in 2003 to 2.9 million in 2013’ (Office for National Statistics, 2013). There has been a slow but steady rise in the number of single parent families, 1.9 million in 2013, up from 1.8 million in 2003. Out of 26.4 million households in the UK in 2013, 29% consisted of only one person, while ‘the fastest growing household type was households containing two or more families (Office for National Statistics, 2013).
It is clear that the family unit is constantly changing as society changes and so it seems natural to suggest that there are many elements of diversity within families that can affect their social control. Fogarty, Rapoport and Rapoport (1982) identify five main types of family diversity in modern Britain:a. organizational, b. cultural, c. class, d. life-cycle of family, and e. cohort. (Rapoport, Fogarty and Rapoport, 1982, p. 479) Organisational diversity speaks of the family structure, kinship patterns and division of labour within the home. For example, traditional nuclear families, consisting of husband, wife and two children; single-parent families; ‘dual-worker’ families where both parents work; and step-families. (Rapoport, Fogarty and Rapoport, 1982, p. 479)
Cultural diversity refers to the differences in lifestyles between families of different ethnic, religious, or political backgrounds. For example, Catholic societies do not allow abortion or contraception, so this would necessarily lead to larger families and thus, perhaps, a stronger social influence over younger members. Class diversity means the class divisions between different classes, which give different amounts of access to resources. This can be seen in relationships between men and women, parenting of children and connections with extended family. (Rapoport, Fogarty and Rapoport, 1982, p. 479)
Life-course refers to differences in family life that occur over time. For example, young parents living with their child have a different experience from an elderly couple with adult children. Cohort refers to generational links within families, which can be important when extended family members live close to the nuclear family (Rapoport, Fogarty and Rapoport, 1982, p. 479); this would generally increase the strength of familial social control.
The family unit has historically always been an important in shaping the characters and behaviour of its members, so that ‘the family is the first institution that helps in implementing social control mechanism’ (Pandit, 2009, p. 73). Children grow up within the moral framework laid down by the older family members. However, with the breakdown of the traditional nuclear family structure, there have been other modes of social control that have become increasingly important.
The mass media is actively engaged with virtually all people’s homes in the modern world. Mass media, such as television and newspapers, influences our attitudes and even our values can be skewed by the media as products and services are advertised as necessities. Advertising acts as an effective form of positive and negative social control by encouraging the consumer to confirm to social norms. For example, we are encouraged to buy deodorant to avoid body odour and thus the disapproval of others, while we are also encouraged to buy fashionable clothes to impress others (Batra, Myers and Aaker, 2006, p. 359). It is, in this way, that the media has become an important source of social control on a day to day basis because the more pressing influences on our daily behaviour are those influences that exist in our immediate vicinity. Indeed, ‘the proliferation of the media has altered the very nature of contemporary social order’ (Innes, 2003, p. 60). However, the most pressing influence of the media is not necessarily as a form of social control but as a form of ‘social ordering’ in that it determines not how we think but what issues we tend to think about (Innes, 2003, p. 60). The media directs public attention to certain issues and causes them to be the subject of public and private debate.
More specifically within the media, the rise of the internet has made social media an important element in social control and social ordering, particularly among young people. The rise in personal technology and popularity of social networks, such as Facebook and Twitter, has meant that informal social control has grown between young people and their peer group. Friends can share photos on social networks and record every event in detail, tagging each other in photos, thus appearing on other pages without explicit consent. There is less privacy than ever before and people are being pressured into social conformity in many different ways via social networks: ‘social media can enable teens to succumb to peer pressure en masse’ (Firger, 2015).
There is no other form of media that allows for greater recording and sharing of the smallest details of every interaction. These details can be projected around the world at the touch of a button. The social control exerted by social media is effective due to its wide reach and easy access. This kind of influence can be used for both good and bad (Herring, 2015, p. 50). The ability to connect with people so easily is a positive element of social media, strengthening bonds and encouraging greater understanding of other people’s cultures and viewpoints (Herring, 2015, p. 141).
However, other areas of negative social control have also arisen in the digital space. Not only can social media be a means to communicating the wrong information, it has also led to new forms of social control, such as cyber bullying; disturbingly, ‘twenty-five percent of teens have reported being bullied online via social media on their phones’ (Herring, 2015, p. 142). Social media has also been cited as a main cause for the marked increase in eating disorders among young people in recent years (Dugan, 2014). People are now being threatened in new ways, often from a great physical distance, to conform to their peer group. This kind of digital social control is distinct from other social control in that it can be wielded 24 hours a day, in a similar way to familial social control.
The family has always been an important part of social control due to its close proximity to us, especially as children. However, with the changing face of the family, this form of social control has become less obviously effective. The change in the family unit and the reduction in traditional nuclear families means that the social control of families is more diluted. At the same time, the development of personal technology combined with the rise in internet usage and social media has meant that people now have more media influence in their lives. Indeed, powerful modern ‘technology is making it more difficult for individuals to exert control over their personal worlds’ (Spring, 2013, p. 62), as they are effectively controlled by social influences entering their lives through their own mobiles and tablets. The media as a type of formal social control and social ordering has always been powerful but now that news and entertainment can be accessed 24 hours a day from a mobile phone, and social networks mean every moment can be shared, people are more influenced by the media than ever before.
Despite this surge in the social control and social ordering by the media through the internet and social networking sites, the family still remains a highly effective means of social control. Robert Chester points out that, although times have changed, most people do still tend to spend a part of their life at least, within a typical family structure. We are usually born into a family, experience some kind of relationship and develop awareness of what family means (Chester, 1985). Although the media has increased its influence due to greater access to technology and the development of the internet, the primary role of the media, certainly for adults, tends to be in the realm of social ordering rather than social control. The family unit, in all its modern wide variety of forms and its strong influence over our values and morals, still maintains an effective role as a means of social control through its physical and emotional proximity and its direct influence over our behaviour, especially in our earlier, most formative years.
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