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Egypt, Social Control, & Social Cohesion

What happens when people realize the police aren’t coming? What happens when people decide that their political leaders are unjust and must be removed from power? What happens when you realize that there is no formal authority that you can count on to keep you safe? In this piece Nathan Palmer uses the current crisis in Egypt to try and answer these questions and discuss the concepts of social control and social cohesion.

Damietta Protests
Protests on July 5th in Egypt

As I write this Egypt is in conflict. On July 3rd the democratically elected president of Egypt, Mohamed Morsi, was removed from power and jailed by the Egyptian military. Since then Morsi’s supporters and supporters of the military’s forced change in leadership have been having fighting. Hundreds of Egyptians who support Morsi have been killed in clashes with the military and much of the rest of the country is in disarray. There are multiple reports of bands of vigilantes turning violent across the country and multiple Coptic Christian churches have been destroyed.

Egypt gives us a window into what happens when a nation-state partially loses it’s formal authoritative control. While it would be wrong to use one anecdotal case to make a broad generalization about all societies, this one case does suggest that in the absence of rock solid formalized authority violence, death and destruction can emerge. The crisis in Egypt brings up many sociological questions, but I’d like to focus on just one of them today: What are the social structures that keep a society from falling into violence and chaos? To answer this question, we will need to discuss the concepts of social control and social cohesion.

We live in a world of rules. Hands to yourself. Don’t steal others’ belongings. No texting and driving. Alcohol is for adults and cocaine is for no one. If you tried to write down all of the rules that govern your day-to-day life on paper your hand would give out before you could finish and yet somehow we all know them. Sociologists suggest that there are mechanisms in every society to communicate the rules of behavior to everyone and enforce consequences if anyone violates them. Some of these mechanisms are formalized (e.g. the police, courts, and prison system) and some of the mechanisms are informal (e.g. parents teaching a child to behave appropriately). A society is said to have greater Social Control when the expectations of behavior are clearly communicated and the consequences for violating these expectations are widely enforced.

But what happens when there is little to no social control in a society? Does the society devolve into chaos or do things remain roughly the same? The answer to this question may hinge on the level of Social Cohesion within a community. The easiest way to understand social cohesion is to breakdown the second word, cohesion. Co means shared as in coexist or cooperate and ’hesion means to stick together as in adhesion, adhesive, etc. So when you hear the word social cohesion think of people (social) sticking together (cohesion). Now lets apply this term to the world we live in.

When law enforcement disappears communities that have a high level of social cohesion may be more likely to remain peaceful. Put another way, if the informal social controls of a community are strong enough, then things may stay relatively the same even in the absence of formalized social control.

I don’t know enough about what is happening on the ground in Egypt to speak intelligently about the level of social cohesion amongst the many communities that make up the country. However, the crisis does give us a case study on social control and the absence of it. With that said, I sincerely hope that this crisis can be resolved quickly and without any more loss of life.

Dig Deeper:

  1. There are many situations where there is little to no formalized social control. Write down 2–3 examples not discussed in the article.
  2. What are 3 examples of formalized social control on your campus?
  3. What are 3 examples of informal social control in your community?
  4. This summer much has been made about the fact that people living in Detroit have to wait 58 minutes after calling 911 for the police to arrive. While we should note that some have argued this number is unreliable, do you think this would have an impact on the level of social control in the communities of Detroit? Explain your view and incorporate both social control and social cohesion in your answer.