The Problem of Social Control in Europe: Learnings from Communication and Law, and other Fields

By Wagner Piassaroli Mantovaneli

*This blog post is part of the Jean Monnet Chair of European Media Governance and Integration series


Social control is a sociological and American-defined concept (see Ross, 1901). In Europe, the idea of control is not central, but revolves around the philosophical idea of the State (Melossi, 1990). Following Melossi, the issues linked to the European integration process will determine the concept of social control that is going to prevail in Europe (Melossi, 57:1998). Media and Communication studies and its subfields (as Communication and Law) will help to constitute the concept of social control regarding the role of media and communication in the process of social control, which will continue covertly by a strong sense of a state-centered concept, or will follow the tendency that, for Melossi (1998), is a “withering away” of the concept of state.

What the subfield of Communication and Law in Europe have discussed shows general patterns according to Azurmendi (2008), with emphasis on the policies created by each individual country. The EU, on the other side, has to create policies which respect this diversity, while facing conflicts of norms at the same time. So, here is a problem of integration that reveals the double contingency of the unity (EU) in the diversity (state-members) and vice-versa. The main question turns out to be: how do we manage that?

Photo by Open Grid Scheduler

In the subfield of Communication and Law, a big part of the concerns seems to be mainly on regulatory issues of the media, like we see in The International Encyclopedia of Communication (Donsbach, 2008), with examples of intellectual property, copyright, cross-ownership, PSB, Satellite, Telecommunications. There is a lack in considering communication in general and its relation to society, and an abundance specifically regarding the media, excluding human behavior, interactions and moral conduct from the same reality. Social control, as an ascendency (Ross, 1901) that reveals the capacity of society to regulate itself through many means according to values and principles (Janowitz, 1991), in a very broad sense, finds it difficult to flourish in this kind of work in the subfield of Communication and Law.

In the context of a “New Europe”, regarding the pattern of emphasizing the different experiences of the state members in the subfield of Communication and Law, for Melossi, “we should move from thinking of social control as an articulation of the many experiences of different European “States”, to imagining social control as pertaining to a self-contained European unity” (Melossi, 1998:52).

It is important to remember, though, that communication issues are not only addressed by communication scholars in Europe and everywhere. The construction of the concept will depend, surely, on an interdisciplinary work. It is important, therefore, that Communication and Law get informed from other fields, in order to find new approaches that may enrich theory. Ioannou, Leblond, and Niemann (2015), for example, are not communication scholars, but they are informing us about European integration in an economic, political and institutional broad sense. In this case, they are trying to show us through a variety of approaches why, besides the crises, the European Union has not imploded. If we actually follow some analyses that derive from media alarmism, we would surely not be able to understand why the unity and diversity continues in one unique order. The answer the authors provided for that question is that basically the strong interdependencies between the member states generated from institutional arrangements and also the general public opinion established the right situation for decision-making, creating also new mechanism to bypass the crisis.

The authors provide various approaches to explain the order of the EU as we can see in other authors, like David Ramiro Troitino (2013), but they emphasize the complementarity of those approaches, not too much the conflicts. Between the approaches to understand the order of the European Union and its continual process of integration we have: 1) Federalism, 2) Functionalism, 3) Neo-functionalism, 4) Intergovernmentalism, 5) New Institutionalism, 6) Policy Networks, 7) Social Constructivism.

Social constructivism, for example, is an approach very valuable to understanding European Integration regarding the research on the subfield of Communication and Law. Social constructivism considers communication and norms as important parts to understand the process of order and integration of Europe, and is a good way to help understand the broad idea of social control in that subfield and also in the whole field of communication and media research in Europe.

Social constructivism (Risse, 2004) is an epistemological approach that considers reality is produced and reproduced by human agency in their daily practices. As a consequence, human agents do not exist independently from their social environment and its collectively shared systems of meanings (culture in a broad sense). In sum, Risse (2004:151) writes that there are at least three ways in which social constructivism contributes to a better understanding of the European Union: “1. Accepting the mutual constitution of agency and structure allows for a deeper understanding of Europeanization including its impact on statehood in Europe; 2. Social constructivism emphasizes the constitutive effects of European law, rules, and policies, which enables us to study how European integration shapes social identities and interests of actors; 3. Social constructivism focus on communicative practices permits us to examine more closely how Europe and the EU are constructed discursively, how actors try to come to grips with the meaning of European integration and how they develop a European public sphere.”

 Based on this, we may infer that Constructivism helps in understanding the European territory as a self-sustaining unity (Melossi, 1998) on the basis of mutual constitution of agency and structures, norms and communication, what consequently might inform the field of Communication and Law towards a broader sense of reality and towards a wide understanding of social control. If we understand social control as the capacity of society to regulate itself (Janowitz, 1991), this capacity will be directly associated to the performance of its means to regulate itself, and those are basically norms (Law in a broad sense) and communication (in a broad sense, including media), both objects of this subfield of Communication and Media Research

The broad sense of norms and communication provided by the constructivist thought, on the other side, cannot hide the different social control mechanisms that derive from them and deserve special separate attention: religion, art, custom, personality, enlightenment, everything that may represent stimuli to humans’ feelings and their constitutive moral building (Ross, 1901). These are also part of the problem of social control in Europe and need special attention, specifically in the relatively new area of Communication and Media research and its subfields.


Azurmendi, Ana. (2008). Communication Law and Policy: Europe. The International Encyclopedia of Communication. Donsbach, Wolfgang (ed). Blackwell Publishing, 2008. Blackwell Reference Online. 10 April 2017. <http://www.communicationencyclo

Donsbach, Wolfgang (ed). (2008). The International Encyclopedia of Communication. Blackwell Publishing, 2008. Blackwell Reference Online. 10 April 2017. <http://www.>

Ioannou, D; Leblond, P.; Niemann, A. (2015). European Integration and the crisis: practice and theory. Journal of European Public Policy, 22:2, 155-176.

Janowitz, Morris. (1991). The Concept of Social Control. Burk, James. (Ed.). On Social Organization and Social Control. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Melossi, Dario. (1998). Remarks on Social Control, State Sovereignty and Citizenship in the New Europe. Eds. Ruggiero, Vincenzo; South, Nigel; Taylor, Ian. The new European criminology: crime and social order in Europe. London, New York: Routledge.

Melossi, Dario. (1990). The State of Social Control: a Sociological Study of Concepts of State and Social Control in the Making of Democracy. New York: St. Martin´s Press.

Risse, T. (2004). Social Constructivism and European Integration. In: Wiener, Antje (Ed.) (2004): European Integration Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 159-176

Ross, Edward Alsworth. (2015) [1901]. Social Control: a Survey of the Foundations of Order. London: Forgotten Books.

Troitino, D. (2013). European Integration: Building Europe. Hauppauge, N.Y., Nova Science Publishers, Inc.


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