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Part 2c-Subculture, Roles and Control

Updated on November 20, 2009
Examples of youth subcultures
Examples of youth subcultures


While we belong to one large culture, of more interest is the way our culture is broken down into groups of more specific norms and values. While we share many overarching norms and values there are many which we do not. 

It is important to note that we can study individuals from the perspective of their general culture, or in more detail by seeing what subcultures they participate in and therefore at any particular norms and values associated with those subcultures. At the heart of this is the fact that every individual participates in not only a single sub cultural group but in numerous groups all of which may have different norms and values. For example, the family is a sub culture and so is your friendship group, both of which have different norms and values.

The problem here normative confusion; when the norms from one subculture become in conflict with those of another. As I wrote in Part 2b – Socialisation, Norms and Values, there are penalties when we fail to adhere to societal norms. In order to avoid such penalties individuals have to know how to behave in different social situations and they do this through the adoption of social roles.

A teacher and her students conforming to social roles
A teacher and her students conforming to social roles

Social Roles

Initially we must define what a role is. A role represents the way that someone is expected to behave in a particular social setting. Role, are the parts that we play in our relationships with others. To quote Shakespeare’s famous line: 

“All the world's a stage, And all the men and women merely players: They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts…” 

For example in the course of a day, we may play the role of son or daughter, brother or sister, employee or student. Each role has associated norms of behaviour that we are expected to follow. Furthermore, each role we play only exists because it is recognized by someone else playing another role. For example, we can only play the role student, because there is someone else playing the role of teacher. 

However, this gets more complicated as there are two types of role that we play. There are achieved roles, which exists because we have chosen to play them such as being a student or employee and then there are ascribed roles, those that are given to us by other people or by society itself. For example, between the ages of 5 and 16 in England you play the role of school child, whether you want to or not. 

As already noted each role we play has a set of prescribed behaviours or normative expectations that we must adopt when partaking in the role whether it be ascribed or achieved. A part of this role play is what we call role performance, which is quite literally how successfully we play our prescribed role.      

While this explanation of roles may seem long winded it is very important. For sociologists the fact that human beings have to develop a sense of how to behave towards each other by learning role play for different situations is evidence against genetic programming.          

A Sense of Order 

As each role has an associated set of norms this gives us a sense of routine. Once we have learnt the rules associated with a role, we can play the role more easily and successfully whatever situation we find ourselves in. For the same reason, when we find ourselves in a situation we have never been in before we often find ourselves at a loss. 

A Sense of Predictability 

Playing roles gives life a sense of predictability as we know roughly how people playing roles in relation to ours will behave. On the flip side when we know what role someone is playing relation to us, it gives us a set of guidelines for our own behaviour. 

Order and predictability in the social realm are of key importance to the stability of our lives. For example, if you couldn’t remember what relationship you had to everyone around you, you wouldn’t know how to act leading to confusion.  By playing roles, we organise our behaviour so that we can deal with other people in an appropriate fashion. In our role as someone’s lover you are expected to kiss them, but kissing everyone would lead to embarrassing or even dangerous situations. 

Effectively roles and there associated norms gives us a set of boundary markers against which we can judge whether behaviours are acceptable or unacceptable. In this way the roles we play are a form of social control. 

While there are clearly many advantages to roles there is one key issue; and this is found in role conflict. While two roles separately have there own set of associated norms and function well independently, issues develop when an individual takes on two roles that conflict. For example, being a student and part time work. Both have demands on your time and these may overlap. If you follow the norms of one role you may break the norms of the other role, this is role conflict.

Social Control

All of the ideas and concepts discussed in parts 2a, 2b and 2c have been implicitly concerned with how people create order, stability and predictability in their own, and other people’s behaviour. Indirectly, though we have been talking about how society seeks to control the behaviour of its individual members. Such controls affect not only how people behave but how they think about their social reality. 

This final section will bring together all of the preceding ideas and look further into the concept of social controls that exist in society. At its most basic, social control involves all of the things we do or have done to us that maintain or change people’s behaviour. 

A prime example of this is socialisation which shapes the way in which a child develops by teaching them certain values and having them adopt particular norms. This form of social control places limits on what a society considers acceptable or normal behaviour. Another example is that of the roles we play. We act in ways that are considered orderly and predictable. In this way social life can be seen as a lifelong process of learning rules. We may not always agree with, or obey these rules but the fact they exist means we cannot ignore there existence. 

These rules of behaviour created in general terms by society are the basis for social organisation. However, as individuals we always have the choice of whether or not we obey these rules and so they are supported by social sanctions in order to make people conform to expectations. Sanctions exist in two forms, as positive (rewards) or negative (punishment) sanctions. 

As I’ve already stated social controls are closely linked to norms and just as there are informal and formal norms, there are formal and informal social controls. 

Formal Social Controls 

Formal controls are those which govern formal or legal norms. They govern rules of behaviour which are written down and apply equally to everyone. Such formal and legal norms are for the most part enforced by law, and the agencies of law such as the police and judicial system. However, not all formal norms are laws such as the laws of institutions such as the workplace and schools. 

Formal rules and social controls exist to tell everyone within a society or social group what behaviours are and are not acceptable. Such formal controls generally exists where a group is very large and its members are not in day to day contact with each other. 

Informal Social Controls 

Like formal controls, informal controls exist to reward and punish. However, they have no basis in legality and control what we refer to as deviance. Deviance of social norms is controlled by society in a vast array of possible sanctions and differs from individual to individual, subculture to subculture, and society to society. Informal controls can include such things as sarcasm, disapproval and even violence.

For example, swearing at a Priest may result in a disapproving look, whereas telling a criminal gang you are involved in that you’re going to the inform the police of their actions will result in a much harsher sanction… 

In summary social controls are attempts successful or not to ensure that norms and values operating in both culture and subcultures are adhered to by members of the group.


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