Armed, and Dangerous (?): Motivating Rule Adherence among Agents of Social Control

By Tyler, Tom R.; Callahan, Patrick E. et al. | Law & Society Review, June 2007 | Go to article overview

Armed, and Dangerous (?): Motivating Rule Adherence among Agents of Social Control


Tyler, Tom R., Callahan, Patrick E., Frost, Jeffrey, Law & Society Review


A key concern within democracies is effectively regulating the behavior of societies' agents of social control, who have coercive power and considerable discretion over their use of that power. This can result in failures to adhere to the rules, policies, and laws dictating appropriate and lawful behavior. This article explores the effectiveness of motivating rule adherence among law enforcement officers and soldiers by focusing upon whether they believe that organizational authorities are legitimate or that rules and policies are morally right or wrong. The results suggest that both values have an important influence upon rule adherence. Further, aspects of organizational culture that encourage such values are identified and shown to be influential in this setting. Results show that the procedural justice of the organization is central to rule adherence. These findings support the argument that encouraging self-regulation via appeals to the values of law enforcement officers and soldiers is a viable strategy for minimizing misconduct, and they suggest how to effectively implement such approaches.

Recent evidence of prisoner mistreatment in Iraq and of human rights violations such as the burning of prisoner's bodies in Afghanistan reflect a new manifestation of recurrent problems of inappropriate conduct by agents of social control, in this case soldiers (Hartle 1989; Wakin 1979; Wasserstrom 1970). These examples point attention to the long-term question of how societies can effectively regulate the behavior of their agents of social control (Huntington 1957; Kelman & Hamilton 1989; Shapiro 1988). Rules, laws, and policies exist to prohibit inappropriate conduct by those engaged in order maintenance, and those identified as engaging in such conduct can be charged, tried, and punished for it. However, a preferable strategy would be to create a framework within which such conduct is minimized, or does not occur at all.

The issue of regulating agents of social control is not unique to the military. Research on policing similarly documents a wide variety of ways in which law enforcement officers sometimes abuse their power by engaging in unlawful activities (Brown 1981; Geller & Toch 1995; Goldstein 1977; Skogan & Frydl 2004; Skolnick & Fyfe 1993). Abuses of authority occur in street stops and arrests, in detentions, in interrogations, with searches and seizures, and in cases of the use of excessive nonlethal and lethal force. These practices, whether they involve soldiers or law enforcement agents, can reflect cases of the failure to effectively implement adherence to organizational rules and regulations. These failures illustrate why civilian and upper management control is needed to regulate the conduct of those involved in order maintenance.

An important reason for the persistence of problems in preventing misconduct among those responsible for order maintenance is the nature of the situation in which social control agents work, i.e., the nature of the tasks they perform and the institutional structure and dynamics that surround those engaged in these tasks (Fiske et al. 2004; Milgram 1974; Tyler 2006a; Tyler & Blader 2000).

As societies' primary formal instruments of social control, those responsible for order maintenance are given a great deal of power. They have the right to use coercion, even lethal force, for social control purposes. For example, in contrast to the elaborate legal procedures required before the state can impose the death penalty, law enforcement officers and members of the armed forces are authorized to make split-second life-and-death decisions. On a more mundane level, the police decide whether people are stopped and questioned, whether they are arrested, and whether they receive help with problems and in emergency situations, while the armed forces exercise widespread control over the everyday lives of civil populations during times of strife. Of course, in both groups such discretion is not total. …

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