Social and ecological control: Ross's early contribution

Date21 December 2010
Published date21 December 2010
AuthorMatthias Gross
Matthias Gross
This chapter revisits some of the early contributions of classical sociologist
Edward A. Ross (1866-1951) and his reflections on ecological influences
in the development and progress of modern societies. Ross, who is known
for his writings on social control, developed the notion that nature can
strike back and thus reveal vulnerabilities of modern society. This idea is
discussed to illustrate the tension between a purely sociological perspective
on the natural world and attempts at integrating environmental variables
into a social theory of interaction and causal influence. Building on Ross’s
insights, it is argued that 21st century sociological theories might consider
unexpected ecological influences as unavoidable and thus as a ‘‘normal’
control factor of modern society itself.
Ever since Edward A. Ross’s book Social Control (originally published in
1901, last reprint 2009), the notion of control has remained pivotal in the
social sciences, although its meanings have changed over time. In Ross’s
Social Control: Informal, Legal and Medical
Sociology of Crime, Law and Deviance, Volume 15, 91–107
Copyright r2010 by Emerald Group Publishing Limited
All rights of reproduction in any form reserved
ISSN: 1521-6136/doi:10.1108/S1521-6136(2010)0000015007
treatise, social control referred to regulation capacities that lead to certain
group compositions and, by so doing,certain types of social orderor disorder.
The general idea of ‘‘social’’ control as much as social facts (Durkheim) or its
North American counterpart, social forces, where invented and developed in
the late nineteenth century to point to the uniqueness of sociology as a
discipline dealing with something more than the individual (psychology) but
also aiming at something different than rational action (economy). In
particular, sociology understood itself as a social science discipline which,
because of its emphasis on the social, was thereby able to divest itself of the
naturalism inherent in environmental determinism. Consequently, sociologists
often viewed with some hostility explanations about human social phenom ena
that emphasized their biological or material bases.
Even so, in light of new ecological problems and the rise of the modern
environmental movement since the late 1960s, the newly emerging field of
environmental sociology is now claiming some of these long rejected and
neglected ecological studies as part of sociology. In this stream of thought,
modern environmental sociologists haveoften attacked the anthropocentrism
underlying classical mainstream sociology. The critique of the classical
tradition since the 1970s has been that it did not pay much attention to
the nonsocial, that is, the ecological basis of human society. As noted
by Frederick H. Buttel, reflecting on the past 25 years of environmental
sociology, ‘‘the assertion that the classical tradition was irrelevant to
environmental sociology remained an article of faith within North American
(and to a considerable, but lesser, extent in European) environmental-
sociological circles’’ (Buttel, 2002, p. 38; see also Dunlap, 2002).
It is thus interesting to note that Edward A. Ross (1866–1951), who
popularized the notion of social control as part of sociological studies, in
many of his writings also discussed the other side of the explanatory equation,
what in this essay I call ecological control – although Ross never explicitly
used the term himself. Much has been written about Ross’s ubiquitous usage
of the term social control (cf. Bernard, 1939;Chriss, 2007;Gibbs, 1989), but
only recently have a few environmental sociologists rediscovered Ross’s
writings on the importance of the natural world for understanding social
development (cf. Alexandrescu, 2009). However, the conceptual relation
between social and ecological control in the way outlined by Ross has not
been adequately addressed. Hence, the aimof this chapter is to bring together
Ross’s two notions of environmental and social control factors in the
development of modern society. In the following I discuss the historical
specificities of sociology in dealing with natural and ecological issues.
Subsequently I discuss how Ross focused on ecological issues in relation to

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