According to the Sage Dictionary of Criminology, social control is "a poorly defined concept which has been used to describe all means through which conformity might be achieved -from infant socialization to incarceration" (McLaughlin, Muncie, 2001, p. 268).
I find this definition a successful one, precisely because it says all and nothing, revealing the difficulties of the task. It is well known the discourse and debate about and over the content of the concept which E. A. Ross coined at the very beginning of the 20th century, its usefulness or not in sociological thought, its function as a reactionary or a progressive tool of analysis and method of tackling social problems and social progress at the ideological and political level (Bergalli, Sumner, 1997).
However, when the issue at stake comes to formal social control, there is a consensus that a system for the delivery of justice must be among the basic institutions which maintain social order, necessary for every -in the broad sense- organized human community. At this point, a well -founded debate has been developed over questions such as: "Justice for whom?", "Justice by whom?" and "Justice for what?". As E. Pashukanis has stated eighty years ago : "We can not understand the real meaning of the penal practice of the class state if we do not start from its antagonistic nature... "society as a whole" exists only in the imagination of some jurists, while in reality exist only classes which have opposite, contradicting, interests" (Pashukanis, 1977, p. 177). "Informal justice", "popular justice", "community justice" are some synonyms which have been employed to solve the riddle and serve as alternative forms for dispute resolution in order to benefit the parties of the conflict as well as the wider community/society. Indeed, popular participation in the functions of the criminal justice system consists an important chapter in the evolution of and interaction between theory of law, sociology of law, sociology of deviance and critical criminology.
However, the issues regarding the notion of "community or popular justice" are often quite confusing or even contradictory, since we have witnessed such forms of popular participation in the justice system with entirely different aims, justification and direction. For example, the short-lived popular courts in Portugal, right after the overthrowing of the Salazar dictatorship in 1974, or the informal administration of justice by the Provisional IRA within the Protestant communities in Northern Ireland, have little to do with the various mediation schemes, arbitration agencies, or informal tribunals which were developed as supplementary or complementary agencies to the existing criminal justice system, especially in the Anglo-Saxon countries during the last
thirty years. Referring to the latter, R. Matthews discerns, at first place, an "era of optimism", where:
The apparent naturalness and universality of these different forms of informal dispute processing served important theoretical and political functions...The conservatives clearly saw in the literature a reaffirmation of the superiority of traditional values and their potential for establishing order within the community. For the radicals, on the other hand, the reports of post-revolutionary Comrades’ Courts and Peoples’ Courts conjured up visions of more collective, democratic and egalitarian modes of dispute resolution and the possibility of developing "prefigurative" reforms within advanced capitalism [Matthews, 1988, p. 3].
and then, a subsequent "wave of pessimism", since: "Apart from the general concerns about ‘community control’ the critiques of informal justice centred around a number of themes including a) double tracking, b) ineffectiveness, c) relegitimation of law and d) the expansion of social control" (ibid, p. 10) .
The pessimistic criticism considers the community schemes developed in order to deal informally with deviants and offenders as a "Trojan Horse" resulting at the net-widening of social control. On the other hand, optimists suggest that this kind of informal local popular controls consist useful nuclei of a necessary decentralization, helpful to the people facing problematic situations, which in the long run could alter the balance between central state authority and informal community institutions in favor of the latter, opening a new era of community relations (Henry, 1994).
This contradictory evaluation, but in a much stronger manner and even...