Social Control: From Hunter-Gatherer Bands to the United Nations

17 Apr

Social control is a part of our lives at every level, from the family, to the local community, to the nation, to our global civilization.  Anthropologists define social control broadly as any means used to maintain behavioral norms and regulate conflict.  Conflict and the violation of cultural norms are problems faced by all human societies, small and large.  Sanctions are a common solution.  British social anthropologist A.R. Radcliffe-Brown (1881-1955) described sanctions as:

“…a reaction on the part of a society or of a considerable number of its members to a mode of behaviour which is thereby approved (positive sanctions) or disapproved (negative sanctions)” (1952:205).

Negative sanctions can be very informal, especially in smaller societies.  Author Nicholas Wade summarizes how something as simple as ostracism can be a powerful form of social control:

“People in a small community gossip all the time and maintain elaborate mental dossiers on one another’s behavior.  Any infraction of social norms may be remembered for years.  Guarding one’s reputation would have become critical.  Hunter-gatherer societies don’t run prisons or have a penal code.  You’re either in or you’re out, and if you are ostracized your prospects of surviving alone in the wilderness are unpromising.  Better learn quickly to fit in and conform” (2009:35).

Larger societies require more formal sanctions, codified in laws, because informal sanctions are not adequate to cover all of the potential conflicts of interest.   Laws are particularly important in a highly pluralistic society such as the United States.  Citizens are members of many different belief systems, sub-cultures, and peer groups.  Laws make sure that everyone must agree to the same overall set of rules – or face the consequences.  But what about international laws?

World reaction to North Korea’s firing of a long-range missile last week is a good reminder that, in our interconnected global world, social control extends across national boundaries.  The U.N. Security Council met yesterday and strongly condemned North Korea’s actions.  Their meeting included discussions of appropriate sanctions and continued ostracism of North Korea from the global community.  Apparently, elements of small-scale, informal social control still have a role to play in the world’s largest international organization.



Radcliffe-Brown, A.R.  1952.  Structure and Function in Primitive Society: Essays and Addresses.  Free Press, New York.

Wade, N.  2009  The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why it Endures.  Penguin Press, New York.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: