Vol. 8 No. 8 (August 1998) pp. 313-315.

SOCIAL CONTROL AND POLITICAL ORDER: EUROPEAN PERSPECTIVES AT THE END OF THE CENTURY by Roberto Bergalli and Colin Sumner (Editors). London: Sage Publications, 1997. 180 pages. Paper $26.00. ISBN 0-8039-7559-7.

Reviewed by John Brigham, Department of Political Science, University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

This collection proclaims its European, translinguistic and interdisciplinary flavor while taking up the matter of social control. It serves as a fine introduction to contemporary criminology in a European context while still offering significant scholarly insight. This comprehensive achievement is perhaps due to the fortuitous contribution that the cosmopolitan enterprise of European scholarship brings to the potentially deadly and widely criticized concept of social control. I often thought, when reading the book in the United States, that I could smell the rich aromas of European intellectual life rising from the pages.

The British scholar and co-editor Colin Sumner introduces the volume and the concept of social control in the opening essay. He describes how "the most important concept in sociology" has lost vitality in recent years because, at least in part, so much of social life has been described as an instance of social control. There was more to the critique than overbreadth, and critical engagement with the concept occupied the last generation of criminologists. But this largely supportive revival of social control by some of the (nearly) old guard sounds alright to me. Whatever the excesses of the past, the contemporary tendency is to focus on lack of control in society and theorize about the equilibrium arising out of individual desire. Without a mechanism like social control, the market lacks a history and a context. Thus, in this book, we are offered an engagement on a traditional sociological battlefield by mature scholars, who provide some new angles to a number of important modern themes.

Social control in this volume is both the sociological concept that may or may not work and the complex mechanisms that may or may not hold societies together. The concept in its narrower sense suggests the production of "conformity through socialization and repression." Although the sociological concept has implications for society generally--indeed, it is a facet of the tendency in some circles and at some historical points to describe society as a self regulating system--social control is most central to the work of criminologists. The authors of SOCIAL CONTROL AND POLITICAL ORDER have all made distinguished contributions to the scholarly life of crime in Europe and to some extent in the Americas.

Initially tied to "deviance," the authors believe the concept of social control lost a good deal of intellectual authority as deviance theory fell out of favor. But the authors feel that there is also something in the global nature of contemporary social science which mitigates against traditional scholarship on control mechanisms that were usually based in particular countries. The European perspective in the volume is at odds with this kind of globalism and calls attention to cultural changes bringing pressure on the academy and political agendas that are responding to conservative times. The level of political engagement in this book suggests that some of the critique of social control to which it is responding was driven by more conservative times where a preference for market based explanations supersedes the historical and sociological.

In conjunction with the essay by Roberto Bergalli, the co-editor, which brings an Hispanic perspective to the question of social control, work on Italy by Massimo Pavarini, and on Europe in general by Dario Melossi, Sebastian Scheerer and Henner Hess, this small volume covers a lot of territory while remaining intellectually focused. Representing a territory from which many influential world cultures have sprung and a region of many languages that is itself developing new forms of control, the European perspective is instructive. The emerging unit of Europe clearly deserves attention as much for its past grace as its future prospects. In this regard, the scope of the volume makes a lot of sense. As an American writing at the end of a sabbatical in Australia, I'm drawn to comparisons that the book makes possible and the notion of European perspectives. For instance, Australia has resisted some of the more punitive responses to a law and order culture, such as "three strikes and you are out" and the death penalty which American crime policy embodies. Some of this resistance comes to Australia from Europe. Since Europe is something of a center for internationalism, the perspective offered in this volume quickly transcends the borders its participants represent.

Thus it is appropriate that Bergalli's treatment of social control begins with attention to the dependency of sociological thought in Latin America on developments in North America. He is an important thinker on this matter and as a former Director of the International Institute for the Sociology of Law, he has advocated less dependency on North America and contributed by building alternative institutions capable of international participation in the theory and practice of sociolegal science. The Institute itself, operating with the assistance of the Basque Government, has been that sort of institution. As an influential participant in the critical theory of social control in Latin America, Bergalli, who was born in Argentina, is highly capable by intellect and experience to contribute to resistance struggles against the various forms of enforced dependency.

Melossi, who has studied and taught in the United States, challenges the integrationist project in Europe from the perspective he outlined in his influential 1990 book, THE STATE OF SOCIAL CONTROL. Incorporating contemporary critical legal scholarship that advances the realist project by recognizing the social foundations of legal control, such as the feminist critique of disembodied free expression rights, Melossi risks perpetuating the new dependency where the latest scholarship, the forms and the intellectual agenda come from the United States. However right it seems to be to warn us against formalism in the European constitutional processes and call attention to the mutually constitutive role that culture plays in the success of legal mechanisms, this orientation appears to be driven by American perspectives at the moment. Similarly, Melossi is forthrightly prescriptive, as criminology often is, advocating democratic forms of social control that gain some of their authority from dominant Western conventions.

There can be little doubt that as the influence of European intellectuals has drawn attention to the role of cultural practices in politics, those of us interested in cultural practices have gotten more familiar with European intellectuals. They can, like this new view of the social subject, be both charming and exasperating. Melossi draws on the linguist George Lakoff and his work on metaphors in mass media to expand the analysis of social control beyond the traditional sphere of the criminologist. Bergalli draws on Lyotard and uses the language of a claimed post-modernity to make the point that the great narrations have lost some of their power recently. The work of Scheerer and Hess, which draws on Herbert Marcuse's 1964 book ONE DIMENSIONAL MAN, is a pleasant throw back to the critical thought of over thirty years ago. They employ Marcuse in order to link his notion of "repressive tolerance...the harmless and sometimes only illusionary satisfaction of real or artificially induced needs" with social control. Mentioned as well, David Garland's PUNISHMENT AND MODERN SOCIETY provides a fine source for further study of the contemporary European influences on theories of order and control.

While largely leaving out control as an aspect of life in Asian and Africa, the scholarship nonetheless, represents a satisfying effort in global scholarship. Unlike the imperial internationalism of American or British scholarship, there is a global reach to this work and a reciprocal character that should embarrass many Americans. The venues from which the work emerged, the International Institute for the Sociology of Law in the Basque Country of Spain and the Master's Program in Deviance at the University of Barcelona, are places where one keeps an eye on intellectual and social developments throughout the world in order to be a respectable member of a transnationally informed intellectual community. And the various native languages represented by the authors would generally be enough to thwart the construction of anything at all, much less something as delicate as a perspective on the way we ought to study social control.


Garland, David PUNISHMENT IN MODERN SOCIETY. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990.

Marcuse, Herbert ONE DIMENSIONAL MAN. London: Routledge, 1964.

Melossi, Dario THE STATE OF SOCIAL CONTROL. Cambridge: Polity, 1990.

Copyright 1998