Priests, Police and Psychiatrists

A Primer on Organizations of Social Control

An institution of social control is a set of organizations that have the specific societal purpose of ensuring that people obey the rules and regulations and customs of a society or some institution within it. The umpires are the social control agency in a baseball game though baseball itself is a leisure activity, with all that entails in the way of allowing people of different social classes to share the same experience, even if, metaphorically, we can say that baseball contributes to the social order of society because it gives people an escape valve so that they can root for the underdog without that sentiment having any consequences. Institutions of social control exist as part of most modern, complex bureaucracies, and go under a variety of names: Internal Affairs, Human Resources, Inspector General. These adjuncts make it possible for the larger organization to go about pursuing their main purposes. In this light, it is only by way of metaphor that we can treat the IRS as an institution of social control, even if it does supervise economic activity, because its main goal is to collect revenue. Similarly, the main goal of education as an institution is to help children fit into adult roles by improving their ability to make use of whatever cognitive capacities they may have, not to serve as a boot camp for adult servility.

What, then, are the institutions of social control that work for social life as a whole rather than for some institution within society? The usual answer is that we are bound by the values and sentiments that characterize our society. So we are beholden to Mom and apple pie and to the doctrine of individualism, which is taken to mean economic self-reliance when it more accurately covers whatever gives to each of us our distinctive internality. But Mom and apple pie, even these images seriously outdated, are only symbols of unity, not the substance of what is our unity as a people, and people, clearly, can disagree about what the fundamental emotion or emotions of a people may be, and there is no way to assess whether these indeed are the emotions which prevail, though Robert Bellah and his students tried to do that in Habits of the Heart. I think a better answer to the problem lies in using Max Weber’s approach and so looking for the actual organizations that overtly take on the task of managing the moral life of a population.

I would say that there are three main kinds of institutions of social control that have developed in Western society. These are the Church, the criminal law, and the psychological helping professions--or, in short, priests, police, and psychiatrists. Each of these institutions is suited to the socio-economic system in which it became predominant. The priesthood became the main way to insure order in the lives of peasants; police became the main way to order the lives of the urban poor; and psychologists and psychiatrists became the main way to order the lives of the white collar class. The problems that each of these forms of social control face in the contemporary world stem from the problems that arise in adapting institutions developed for one social class to a world inhabited or dominated by other social classes.

A priest is a person who is in charge of a sacred place or thing that connects the ordinary world to the supernatural world and who also knows the rituals by which the supernatural world can be accessed, whether for bad spells or good ones. As Max Weber observed, a priest may not have a congregation of regular adherents, but simply attend to the desires of any who show up for the services he or she has to offer, and he or she may have gone through special training or have some special status, such as being a virgin or a celibate, that allows he or she to perform the rituals he is capable of performing. When priest do have regular congregations, their duties both expand and contract. They give comfort to those who grieve and they offer moral advice whereas, on the other hand, the administration of cultic rites becomes more ceremonial and symbolic even if the theology still attests to the efficacy of what Catholics call the sacraments. Priests, in that they conduct the liturgies that surround the cultic object, also serve as the interpreters of those objects. Oracles predicted wars and personal tragedies; Eli told Saul what God had said; Catholic priests are authorized to say to whom the sacraments are permitted. Rabbis, for their part, have no cultic standing, simply being teachers of the great texts, though the wisdom of such study allows for pastoral counselling, and Protestant ministers have as their primary duty the preaching of the Gospels.  The social controls available in all religions, however, are both internal and external in that they combine the awe that commands respect with the fears that are prompted by a display of the pains of Hell or a moment of disapproval by a prelate.

A religion vested in priests is suitable for a peasant society because it provides a social order which applies to everyone who lives within the social world reached by the priests, whether rich or poor, male or female, saved or sinful. There are appropriate images and sanctions to motivate all parties. Medieval churches wove the history of their local areas into the great Biblical stories that were told in the friezes above their entryways. It is meaningful, therefore, to think of priestly religion as serving the community, as that becomes conceptualized by Durkheim: a super-organic entity which itself becomes the object of worship and allegiance and so its customs becoming a moral guide for everyone. But it is also true that this community is nothing else but the universal church spoken of by Troeltsch: it contains everyone from all ranks of life and so makes its accommodations accordingly-- always mindful, however, not to bend too far what it regards as the basic principles which make a community of the faithful possible, which is that every member is expected to be as faithful to the Church as God has given the person the grace to be, some more morally weak; some more spiritually inclined; some more knowledgeable than others. Each person is judged for falling away from the standards appropriate for that person but all members have some sort of allegiance to those standards except for those few excepted from them, such as licentious nobles who abuse the local peasant girls even as they make contributions of statues to the church. A church, as the organizational expression of a priesthood, accepts that there are multiple social classes and that different behaviors are suitable to each person. There may be pious noblemen, but for the most part the moral scruples of the church are applied to a gullible peasant class. Such a multiple dispensation becomes harder to maintain when the parishioners are no longer a peasantry, not so settled into their occupational roles that they will not challenge the moral leadership of the priesthood. So a priesthood faced with a bourgeois laity living in a secular society finds it hard to appeal to the drama inherent in superstition (Orsi, The Madonna of 115th Street) or to maintain for very long--more than a generation or two--an urban community as an enclave of lay people who are educated in the same schools, work in the same businesses, and follow the same morals as others within the enclave (Morris, American Catholic).

The police are introduced as an institution in the early Nineteenth Century to tame those who have wandered beyond the community to become an anonymous urban proletariat. Indeed the draconian legislation which police came to enforce preceded in England by a century the police themselves (E. P. Thompson,The Black Codes) and that originated because the poor had been known since the time of the Black Plague of the Fourteenth Century to be wanderers who would not accept the wages offered them and who got on with various other kinds of mischief. The police are less interested in stimulating rectitude than in keeping behavior under control by making criminal or unruly behavior dangerous to the perpetrator’s life and liberty. That makes sense when there is a replenishable unskilled labor pool. The concern is not to preserve the criminal as it is to deter crime and put the criminal class out of the way by executing, exiling, or imprisoning them. This allows safe neighborhoods to be preserved from the epidemic of crime, which will be allowed to continue in quarantined areas. This approach, common to early industrial society, runs into problems when its measures seem too harsh. The Progressive Era sought to alleviate the harshness of punishment for juveniles and modern penologists and criminologists are concerned about the consequences of incarceration. The professionalization of crime in the graduate school of prison hinders the attempt to control the underclass, even as the major victims of that criminal class are the respectable poor rather than the middle class.

The early Twentieth Century formulated mental health as the way people might become morally trustworthy. Freud had proposed therapy as a way to unleash people from the social controls that had come to bind up their entire lives, and not just their sexual lives. He believed that the truth would make his patients free if they were brave enough to relive the truths about themselves by reexperiencing them. But Freud inspired a doctrine that made adaptation to rather than release from society the main goal. People learn the morality of becoming healthy both in one’s sexual life and in one adaptation to the work life, and that is very different from Freud’s morality, which is to become non-judgmental about sexual matters. The white collar classes learn to treat themselves and their loved ones in a more humane matter not in church or out of fear of the night stick, but by watching the tough love Dr. Phil offers on television or reading the cookie cutter wisdom of a pop psychologist or preacher, such as was classically offered by Norman Vincent Peale in The Power of Positive Thinking. This is an appropriate form of social control for a literate population devoted, as middle class people tend to be, to self- improvement, as well as required by white collar work which expects controls from within to replace the discipline of the sign in and sign out clock at the factory because middle class work requires taking initiative and so people need a sense that they are in control of their own lives.

Whether the propounding and enforcement of morality can be widely pursued without the benefit of an actual rather than a virtual community, and without the benefit of a response other than a guilt-laden “I told you so”, remains to be seen. Those who promoted the culturally Conservative view in the last quarter of the last century that secular society is going to hell in a handbasket, such as Bill Bennett and William Buckley, Jr., spoke of the need for religious values. Those who believe that a morality of respect does not require either community nor violence are likely to look to the political sphere, as that is embedded in a reading of the Bill of Rights, to provide a humane model of a guilt-free personal and societal rectitude, thus reflecting their secular and/or Marxist roots. Both sides have their problems, but each side is deeply indebted to the premises established by the kind of organization of social control they take to be essential.

The need for a system of social control appropriate to the occupational and social structure of the time is clear during this first part of the Twenty-First Century. Modern work includes women now working in high executive positions and also free to pursue their sexual lives as they see fit. This means people can be licentious and negotiate their hook-ups when they show up for work at their corporate campuses. That, in turn, means that people will trade sex for occupational favors. But social control, at the moment, applies only in the most egregious cases, and largely only with celebrities and politicians. It takes the form of accusations made without corroboration or indictment. How to go beyond that is unclear, even as freedom remains just another name for one or another form of social control: religious salvation the condition for peasants accepting their earthly fate; a free labor market the condition for creating a police force; “clean” work the compensation for psychological adjustment.

It is interesting that Cy Vance, Jr., the District Attorney in Manhattan, could not come up with any criminal charges against Harvey Weinstein. The State Attorney General, Eric Schneiderman, did not bring a civil action against Weinstein but only against his corporation for civil rights violation. Sexual abuse seems to fall somewhat short of legal controls, and to be more a matter of evolving customs about the interaction between the sexes, these interactions apparently not subject to a psychology mediated mellowness. Rather, what has been brought forward is the mean side of sex, which Freud thought civilization had brought under control.