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Every culture and society has distinctive norms governing what is called appropriate behavior. Laws, dress codes, bylaws of organizations, course requirements and rules of sports and games all express social norms. The term social control refers to the techniques and strategies for regulating human behavior in any society.
Social control occurs on all levels of society. In the family we obey our parents. In peer groups we obey informal norms, such as dress codes, that govern the behavior of members. In organizations workers must cope with a formal system of rules and regulations. Finally, the government of every society legislates and enforces social norms.
Most of us respect and accept basic social norms and assume that others will do the same. Even without thinking we obey the instructions of police officers, follow the day-to-day rules at our jobs, and move to the rear of elevators, when people enter. If we fail to do so, we may face punishment through informal sanctions, such as fear of ridicule, or formal sanctions, such as jail sentences or fines.
Techniques for social control can be viewed on both the group and the society level. Conformity, obedience and deviance are human responses to real or imagined pressures from others. Conformity goes along with one's peers — individuals of a person's own status, who have no special right to direct that person's behavior. By contrast, obedience is defined as compliance with higher authorities in a hierarchical structure. Thus, a recruit entering military service will typically conform to the habits and language of other recruits and will obey the orders of superior officers.
The sanctions used to encourage conformity and obedience — and to discourage violation of social norms — are carried out through informal and formal social control. Informal social control is used by people casually; examples of such control include smiles, laughter, raising an eye-brow, and ridicule. Formal social control is carried out by authorized agents, such as police officers, judges, school administrators, employers, military officers and managers of organizations.
Some norms are considered so important by a society that they are formalized into laws controlling people's behavior. In a political sense, law is the body of rules made by government for society, interpreted by the courts and backed by the power of the state. Some laws, such as the prohibition against murder, are directed at all members of society. Others, such as fishing and hunting regulations, are aimed primarily at particular categories of persons. Still others govern the behavior or social institutions (corporation law).
Sociologists have become increasingly interested in the creation of laws as a social process. In their view, law is not merely a static body of rules handed down from generation to generation. Rather, it reflects continually changing standards of what is right and wrong.
The term opposite to conformity is deviance. For sociologists this term does not mean perversion or depravity. Deviance is behavior that violates the standards of conduct or expectations of a group or society. Alcoholics, gamblers, persons with mental illnesses are all classified as deviants. Being late for class is categorized as a deviant act; the same is true of dressing casually for a formal wedding. On the basis of the sociological definition, we are all deviant from time to time. Each of us violates common social norms in certain situations.
Deviance involves the violation of group norms including not only criminal behavior but also many actions not subject to prosecution. The public official who takes a bribe has defied social norms, but so has the high school student who refuses to sit in an assigned seat or cuts class. Therefore, deviation from norms is not always negative, let alone criminal.
Deviance can be understood only within its social context. A photograph of a nude woman or man may be perfectly appropriate in an art museum but would be regarded as out of place in an elementary school classroom.
Standards of deviance vary from one group, society or culture to another. In our society it is generally acceptable to sing along at a rock or folk concert, but not at the opera. Just as deviance is defined by the social institution, so too is it relative to time. For instance, having an alcoholic drink at 6 p.m. is a common practice in our culture, but engaging in the same behavior immediately upon arising at 6 a.m. is viewed as a deviant act and as symptomatic of a drinking problem.
Deviance, then, is a highly relative matter. Russians and Americans may consider it strange for a person to fight a bull in an arena, before an audience of screaming fans. Yet, we are not nearly so shocked by the practice of two humans fighting each other with boxing gloves in front of a similar audience.
The highest form of deviation from formal social norms is represented by crime which is a violation of criminal law for which formal penalties are applied by governmental authority. Crimes are divided by law into various categories, depending on the severity of the offense, the age of the offender, the potential punishment and the court which decides this case.
Sociologists distinguish between types of crime on a somewhat different basis and classify crimes in terms of how they are committed and how the offenses are viewed by society. Thus, viewed from the sociological perspective, there are five types of crimes:
1. Index crimes. This category of criminal behavior generally consists of those serious offenses that people think of when they express concern about the nation's crime problems. Index crime includes murder, rape, robbery and assault — all of which are violent crimes committed against people — as well as the property crimes of burglary, theft, and arson.
2. Professional crime. Many people make a career of illegal activities. A professional criminal is a person who makes crime as a day-by-day occupation, developing skilled techniques and enjoying a certain degree of status among other criminals. Some professional criminals specialize in burglary, safecracking, pick-pocketing, and shoplifting.
3. Organized crime. This term refers to the work of a group that regulates relations between various criminal enterprises involved in narcotics wholesaling, prostitution, gambling, and other activities. Organized crime dominates the world of illegal business, allocates territory, sets prices for illegal goods and services, and acts as an arbitrator in internal disputes.
4. White-collar crime. Certain crimes are committed by «respectable» people in the course of their daily business activities, and include offenses by businesses or corporations as well as by individuals. A wide variety of offenses, classified as white-collar crimes, are income tax evasion, stock manipulation, consumer fraud, bribery, embezzlement, misrepresentation in advertising, computer crime or electronic fraud.
5. Victimless crimes. In white-collar or index crimes, people's economic or personal well-being is endangered against their will or without their knowledge. By contrast, sociologists use the term victimless crimes to describe the willing exchange among adults of widely desired but illegal goods and services: gambling, prostitution, public drunkenness, and use of drugs.
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