2. Social Control in Early Modern England: The Need for a Broad Perspective
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chapter 2 Social Control in Early Modern England: The Need for a Broad Perspective James A. Sharpe n 1985, toward the beginning of a book entitled Visions of Social Control: Crime, Punishment and Classification, the British sociologist of deviance Stanley Cohen made the following comments: The term “social control” has lately become something of a Mickey Mouse concept. In sociology textbooks, it appears as a neutral term to cover all social processes to induce conformity ranging from infant socialization through to public execution. In radical theory and rhetoric, it has become a negative term to cover not just the obviously coercive apparatus of the state, but also the putative hidden element in all state-sponsored social policy, whether called health, education or welfare. Historians and political scientists restrict the concept to the repression of political opposition, while sociologists , psychologists and anthropologists invariably talk in broader and non-political terms. In everyday language, that concept has no resonant or clear meaning at all. It is therefore not surprising that Cohen should comment “all this creates some terrible muddles.”1 Yet the various contributions gathered here in this volume are dedicated to discussing historical aspects of this “Mickey Mouse concept” and, it is to be hoped, creating some sort of cosmos from the chaos of the “terrible confusion.” If I may state my own position, the term “social control” is one which I have not used much in works I have written, largely because of an awareness of its imprecision: I have generally found the term “social discipline” a more useful one, although I accept that this term too entails a fair degree of confusion , while I am aware that the term enjoys little currency among historians of early modern England. I have, more particularly, been anxious not to employ the term “social control” when discussing law enforcement and the punishment 37 I Spierenburg_Vol_1_Ch_2_2nd.qxd 6/22/2004 2:38 PM Page 37 of crime, despite the tendency for historians to use the concept when discussing such matters, simply because of my awareness of the breadth of its connotations. Indeed, historians’ usage of this term has frequently reflected a distressing tendency for practitioners of history to borrow and apply concepts from another social science without sufficient precision and without proper awareness of the resonances of those concepts.2 What I would like to do in this essay is to explore some of the complexities of what social control in some of its broader ramifications might involve in the historical context I know best, early modern England. The term seems to have entered sociological discourse largely through the writings of Edward Alsworth Ross, one of the founding fathers of American sociology (see introduction to this volume). His book Social Control: A Survey of the Foundations of Order, published in 1901, gave a broad definition to the concept and delineated both the formal and the informal ways in which society constrains the individual, bringing together the influence of both external norms and internalized processes. His objective in writing the book, it has been claimed, was “to synthesise the old and the new, to infuse an impersonal industrial society with the idealized virtues of the face-to-face community in which he grew up.”3 Raised in the moralistic and agrarian Midwest, Ross’s sociology seems to have been the outcome of a personal transition that he made from Gemeinschaft to Gesellschaft as United States society became more urban, more sophisticated, and more overtly racially and culturally complex. Thus the concept of social control, in its original form, places Ross’s work firmly in the context of the major concern of the classic sociology: namely, attempting to understand and explain the workings of that allegedly new and complex industrial and urban society of the nineteenth century that had apparently replaced the pre-existing traditional forms of social organization. Indeed, the concept of social control for Ross seems to have performed roughly the same function as did the conscience collective for Durkheim as an explanation of social cohesion. The concept whose usage had become so loose by the time Cohen wrote as to render it, in his opinion, almost useless, was in fact central to the United States’ sociological tradition.4 Thus, social control was a concept of major importance to the Chicago School of the 1920s, not least for Robert E. Park, one of the major figures in that school. In the weighty Introduction to the Science of Sociology, which Park published with E. W...


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