April 27, 2020

Stay at Home and Formal Social Control

author photoBy Karen Sternheimer

The COVID-19 crisis has led to an unprecedented experience for many people around the world: formal orders to stay at home and the closure of businesses deemed non-essential. The closure of businesses has created an economic crisis too, as more than 25 million Americans filed for unemployment benefits between mid-March and mid-April.

Protesters have held rallies to end these orders, arguing, among other things, that the orders are an overreach of government and that their individual rights are being taken away. This post is not about whether the stay at home orders or the protesters are right or wrong—it is about reactions to formal social control.

Back in 2010 I wrote about formal social control, particularly about a then-new law that banned the sale of toys in food marketed to children within San Francisco. Formal social control is the creation and/or enforcement of rules and laws by authorities, be they within government or other social institutions.

Violation of such rules may lead to fines, citations, or arrest when imposed by government; penalties within other institutions, such as schools, might mean detention, suspension, or expulsion. A violation of a workplace policy might lead to dismissal. But probably the most common outcome of violating rules formal social control are informal, like a supervisor speaking with an employee about the violation, a student being reprimanded, or in the current crisis, people gathering being asked to practice social distancing.

Back in 2010, San Francisco created a city ordinance to try and address the public health issue of childhood obesity. While many people might not have liked the idea of such a law, it arguably only affected a small proportion of the population in one city, and thus reactions were largely limited to criticism and debate. (McDonald’s responded in 2011 by charging 10 cents extra for the toy in its Happy Meals to comply with the ordinance.)

Americans have a complicated relationship with formal social control. We often really like the idea of creating new laws and enhancing penalties, particularly when we are sure that such laws won’t affect us. January 1 isn’t just celebrated as New Year’s Day; it is often day one for a myriad of new laws that take effect each year, many of which go into effect without much response.

Unless you were around for the 1918 pandemic, the current crisis is like nothing we have experienced in our lifetimes. Crises produce unprecedented uses of formal social control, ranging from the imposition of martial law, requirements that businesses produce goods for wartime, curfews, and other orders that might in ordinary times be unthinkable in a free society.

The use of formal social control in these circumstances challenges the ideology of individualism, a core American value that encourages us to see ourselves primarily as individuals, rather than part of a larger society. The stay at home order and the now-popular phrase “we are all in this together” challenges us to view the world differently than many of us are accustomed to.

One marker of controlling the pandemic would be the ability to use contact tracing on a widespread basis. Contact tracing involves requiring infected people to be quarantined, and contacting everyone the infected person recently interacted with to try and stop the spread of disease. This process might seem like an invasion of privacy to those impacted.

Formal social control is both a necessary aspect of social life, and it can also be oppressive, particularly in totalitarian regimes. When is formal social control necessary? This is what is currently the subject of debate.

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