Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2001


Martin Innes (2001) 'Control Creep'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 6, no. 3, <>

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Received: 23/10/2001      Accepted: 20/11/2001      Published: 30/11/2001


Reacting to the attacks on September 11th and subsequently, governments in both the USA and UK have identified a need to enhance the social control apparatus in order to protect citizens from forms of 'asymmetric warfare' conducted by terrorist groups. These attempts to reform the provision of security and control cannot be understood in isolation. They are connected to a deeply entrenched process of 'control creep', whereby the social control apparatus progressively expands and penetrates (or 'creeps') into different social arenas, in response to a set of inchoate fears about a sense of security in late-modernity.

Control Creep; Crime; Media; Social Control; Terrorism


Reacting to the attacks on September 11th and subsequently, governments in both the USA and UK have identified a need to enhance the social control apparatus in order to protect citizens from forms of 'asymmetric warfare' conducted by terrorist groups. These attempts to reform the provision of security and control cannot be understood in isolation. They are connected to a deeply entrenched process of 'control creep', whereby the social control apparatus progressively expands and penetrates (or 'creeps') into different social arenas, in response to a set of inchoate fears about a sense of security in late- modernity.

In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in New York City and elsewhere, as the American and British governments have sought to establish and maintain a multi-lateral foreign policy designed to seek and destroy the 'terror networks', the so called 'war on terrorism' has also been turned inwards. In both the US and the UK, questions have been raised about why the vast array of resources at the disposal of the national security agencies did not establish any intelligence to detect the original attacks. Relatedly, political attention has become increasingly focused upon the capacity of the domestic security apparatus to identify and control the activities of practitioners of 'asymmetric warfare' in the future. These concerns have been particularly heightened by the bio-terrorism attacks in the USA.

In both the USA and Britain, governments are urgently considering what counter-measures can be taken to both prevent and react to such assaults, where the weapon of choice for the assailants is to convert embedded social technologies (i.e. airplanes and postal services) to carry out 'stealth attacks'. Senior politicians across the political spectrum have invested in 'control talk', setting out the case for a raft of new control measures, including enhanced legal powers and surveillance capacities for security and law enforcement agencies.[1] This is in spite of the fact that there is a tacit recognition that such schemes can probably provide only limited protection from these kinds of attacks. How then can such moves be explained?


In this essay, I argue that in order to make sense of the political and popular reactions to the terrorist attacks, we need to locate these events in a wider social context. Establishing such connections assists us in terms of understanding how and why the reaction to these events are likely to lead to various mechanisms of social control expanding in both intended and unintended ways.

Political support for enhanced anti-terrorism measures cannot be understood solely in terms of a new 'war on terror'. Rather it is symptomatic of and inflected by deeper socio-psychological concerns about security, risk and danger in late-modern societies.[2] There is already an established, ongoing process of 'control creep' in late-modernity, whereby the mechanisms of social control are being progressively expanded and refined. This control creep is an artefact of how we as a society construct and react to our collective and individual fears about the dangers that we believe assail us, and the problems we face in manufacturing a sense of security in relation to them. To date, the central social problem around which such concerns have gravitated is crime and the fear of being a victim of crime. The recent attacks are likely to embolden these existing processes.

Popular understandings of the terrorist attacks, and the reaction to them, have been socially constructed through an interpretative frame grounded in a discourse of war and the conduct of 'asymmetric warfare'. This has been produced and reproduced by a strategic coalition of politicians and journalists. However, we can contest such 'definitions of the situation'. Indeed, both the original attacks and the bio-terror assaults are arguably better understood as criminal acts, than acts of war. There are various ways in which these acts can be classified as crimes: as hate crimes; as mass murder; or as 'crimes of terror'. Re- framing the definition of the situation in the terms of a juridical discourse achieves two main things. Firstly, it makes clear that the response to the assault(s), albeit prosecuted by military personnel, should be concerned with issues of punishment, disciplining perpetrators and the effecting of justice, rather than the connotations of territorial conquest and imperial domination that are evoked by a discourse of war. Secondly, establishing such a link also makes explicit the ways in which the public reactions to the attacks connect to an existing sense of insecurity grounded in a more generalised and deeply entrenched fear of crime. The feelings of insecurity that the new attacks have generated, draw upon and reinforce the salience of these already existing fears. In addition though, it seems likely from the early responses made by government officials, that the domestic response to the attacks will be to bolster the resources of key social control institutions, such as law enforcement agencies.

Control creep[3] captures the sense in which the apparatus of social control, that is the combination of technologies and instruments designed to respond to and regulate deviant behaviour, are becoming increasingly dispersed and interspersed throughout many different arenas of late-modern social life. As Stan Cohen (1985) describes it, motivated largely by a need to try and control different forms of deviance, the 'social control net' has been undergoing processes where it is both 'widened' and 'deepened'. It is becoming de- centralized and dispersed throughout the routines and institutions of social life, so that the provision of control now routinely involves state agencies, private individuals and profit-making corporations. As a result, it is effectively becoming more systematic and intense. The primary stimulus for such developments has been the coalescence of a combination of political, social, economic and cultural causes. The attacks in America are likely to introduce new 'drivers' to further expansion.

Understanding how and why the ongoing processes of control 'creep' in this fashion, requires a broad overview of a number of key developments in the nature of governance and the attempts that have been made to effect a degree of control in relation to various kinds of deviance and disorder. Over the past twenty to thirty years there has been a gradual, but nonetheless marked increase in both the levels of social control present in society and the sources of this control. Diverse social institutions have been increasingly co-opted into the collective search for security, as people try to allay their often inchoate fears about the dangers that might assail them as they go about their everyday lives.

In part, this expansion of the social control net reflected the massive rises in recorded crime experienced in the latter decades of the twentieth century. But even now, when recorded crime is falling, the pressures to manufacture more control continue. This is because the expansion of the apparatus of control is not wholly explainable as a rationalised response to crime. It is also an emotional and symbolic response. Moreover, reforms of the social control apparatus frequently contain an unintended 'recursive' logic of expansion. This logic of expansion is based upon three inter-linked processes that effectively create the conditions where 'the control net' can be expanded.

'Signal Crimes' and the Politics of Public Problems

As David Garland (2001) identifies, over the past three decades we have seen the emergence of 'a late modern crime complex', where crime has emerged as a key issue for contemporary politics. Central to the production and reproduction of these conditions is media reportage. In particular, the tendency to focus upon 'signal crimes' reinforces and reproduces problems of deviance in the forefront of public consciousness. I use the concept of signal crimes to refer to the small number of crimes that occur, whose mediated coverage is constructed in such a way as to connotatively and denotatively signal to society that there is a 'public problem' that needs addressing.[4] Typically, these are high profile, unusual, violent events, often involving 'innocent' and 'morally pure' victims. These small number of incidents, become the focus for a concentrated version of otherwise more nebulous popular fears and concerns. Such crimes symbolically display the nature of a problem and establish a need in the popular psyche for something to be done. The attacks in America would, in this sense, be classifiable as 'signal crimes'.

The popular concern generated by the occurrence of signal crimes and the reactions to them can be used by 'moral entrepreneurs', who can then seek to make political capital by demanding reform of the law, or the introduction of new procedures and/or technologies to manufacture an enhanced sense of security (Becker, 1969).

The problem with this situation is that often what are originally established as limited measures tend to be subsequently expanded. This occurs because, when a further problem is identified, pressure quickly mounts to expand the remit of the initial measure in order to cope with the new problem. Over time this process of expansion continues, so that what was initially a limited reform, undergoes a series of progressive adjustments, and thus gradually develops into an important regulatory programme potentially affecting many different areas of social life. This process of expansion does not though rely exclusively on this kind of public politics outlined above. It is reinforced by the nature of organisational politics in the criminal justice system and related areas.

The Problem is Worse than we Thought!

Somewhat counter-intuitively, the fact that control agents frequently struggle to deal effectively with 'new' problems, creates the conditions for the expansion of social control. The difficulties they experience can easily be converted into seemingly legitimate demands of the need for more resources, laws and legal powers, if they are to be capable in responding to the matter at hand. These claims-making processes have occurred recently in relation to the control of paedophiles and the problems caused by anti- globalisation protests. More importantly, in respect of the current situation, there is already 'control talk' stressing that what is required is a large-scale expansion of the transnational policing bodies and/or the national security agencies.[5] In effect then, failure legitimates expansion.

A Gap in the Market

The struggles experienced by established organisational actors in dealing with new problems, creates conditions for the introduction of new professional discourses and new organisations to exploit the revealed 'gap in the market'. This logic has been noted by Cohen (1994), in his discussion of the discursive penetration of psychiatry and psychotherapy in the treatment of aberrant and deviant personalities. But it is also captured in Spitzer's (1987) discussion of the commodification of security. It is these processes that have contributed to the ongoing de-centralization of the sites of social control in society. The conduct of social control in late-modernity is no longer dominated by the state, rather there is a networked 'web of control', consisting of over-lapping and interspersed technologies, operated by a variety of public and private actors.[6]

Arguably the ongoing creeping of control has resulted in the very social and architectural landscape of Britain being re-designed in order to try and manufacture a sense of security by addressing problems of crime and disorder. Control mechanisms have been 'designed in' to new housing developments, the re-generation of urban areas and the very ways in which we are encouraged to view the world around us. The most obvious example of which, is the ways that the unblinking electronic eyes of CCTV surveillance systems have become a standard feature of many towns and cities (Norris and Armstrong, 1999;Lyon, 1994). At the same time though, similar technologies have been incorporated into many workplaces, to monitor productivity and restrict the opportunities for worker deviance. Corporate interests have also developed a 'gaze' that monitors our lives as consumers. When viewed in isolation, none of these developments is particularly troublesome. However, when understood collectively, they have fundamentally transformed our understandings of the environments where we work, rest and play.

Potentially less noticeable than the evolution of surveillance, has been the introduction of a succession of new laws to support the 'fight' against different types of crime. These have variously circumscribed the rights to political protest, allowed the police to 'freeze and seize' the assets of suspects, and gradually eroded a number of due process protections previously enjoyed by all citizens. Many of the reforms that have been introduced in the field of criminal justice, have been given added impetus by claims that they will encourage increased cost-effectiveness in efforts to deal with problems of crime and disorder. Indeed, the economic imagery of 'best value' in the provision of public services has acted as a principle 'driver' to many of the reforms that have been introduced. The argument frequently goes that if we just allow this small reform, look at how much money could be saved. Unfailingly though, these benefits never seem to materialise as anticipated.

What is particularly remarkable about this entire situation is that rather than seeing it as worrisome, the vast majority of people have seemed to support the introduction of increased controls for themselves and their fellow citizens. Why is this?


As previously noted, in his recent book David Garland (2001) discusses how and why the problem of crime has become central to the articulation of late-modern political culture. He argues that crime and the construction of meaningful responses to it, has emerged as a central problematic for both governors and the governed. The need to be seen to be trying to control crime is a political imperative where, reflecting the concerns of the electorate, being 'tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime', is now an unquestionable mantra for politicians across the political spectrum. Thus the cultural conditions for the 'war on terror' are already established by the extant 'fight against crime'.

The evolution of this late-modern crime complex that Garland describes, is tied to some of the significant changes that have occurred in the structures of advanced democratic capitalism in the latter part of the twentieth century. In fact, almost paradoxically, it is the freeing of Western societies from some of the traditional mechanisms of social order that has created the conditions for the development of control creep. Without making any normative judgements as to the desirability of such changes, it is the liberalization or what Anthony Giddens (1994) labels 'the de- traditionalization' of society, that has established a reactionary demand for enhanced controls and security.

Although people today enjoy the fact that 'the script' of their life is less determined by their class, race and gender than it was for their ancestors. At the same time, life, in some senses, feels less secure than it did previously. As Naomi Klein (2000) and Noreena Hertz (2001) have respectively documented, for many people the notion of a 'job for life' has evaporated, as trans-national corporations re- shape our economic and thus social identities in the pursuit of profit. Concerns about the risks to our sense of economic security are amplified by the presence of other perceived risks to our wellbeing, such as the risk of becoming a victim of crime (Young, 1999).[7] Indeed, the conduct of late-modern life is effectively an exercise in risk management. The knowledge that we are constantly exposed to a diverse array of risks that may harm us, is simply something we all have to try and deal with. However, the very ability to manage risks is predicated upon having some degree of awareness as to the nature and prevalence of the risks, which we are likely to encounter. As such, we are constantly aware of potential dangers in our environments, thus inducing ongoing feelings of insecurity.

Added to this general sense of insecurity, the high levels of crime experienced in the 1980s through into the early 1990s provided a further potent source of anxiety. The danger of being a victim of crime became a defining fear for the late-modern psyche. In order to reduce the risks of becoming a victim, people are repeatedly encouraged to think about what measures they can take to reduce the risks that they expose themselves to. These 'criminologies of everyday life' (Garland, 1996), became central components of the concerns and conduct of many people. Even though crime is now declining throughout Europe and in many cities in America, what is evident is that expunging this psychology of fear is far more difficult than it is to install it. High profile signal crimes, such as the murder of Sarah Payne in Sussex or James Bulger in Liverpool, symbolically and iconically encapsulate the otherwise inchoate fears that many people carry with them, and it is for this reason that they become vehicles for popular demands for the introduction of more control and more order.


People who are concerned about the longer term impacts of increasing the social control apparatus in the name of protecting the public from crimes of terror, are probably justified in being so. For the concept of control creep suggests that once such technologies are introduced, they establish a vital precedent, and that pressures rapidly develop to expand the scheme to address an array of further problems. When viewed in isolation none of the limited reforms will appear especially problematic, but taken together there will be a progressive expansion of the uses to which they are put. There is support for this pessimistic point of view, from past examples of 'technology transfer' in the field of social control and terrorism.

The best example of the operations of this recursive logic of expansion in practice is how new markets have been found for the use of 'algorithmic surveillance' technologies that were originally introduced to assist in the prevention of terrorist attacks in Britain.[8] Motivated by the IRA's bombing campaigns in London and other cities in Britain, the government installed a special CCTV system as part of the 'ring of steel' around the City of London. This CCTV system featured what was at that time 'leading-edge' technology that scanned number plates and compared them against data held on intelligence databases in order to track the movements into the vulnerable area of any suspect vehicles. More recently though this system has undergone a process of 'technology transfer', where the developers have sought to commodify the technology and make a profit, by selling it to local councils who want to charge motorists for entering city centres. It is also being routinely used to detect people who have not paid their car tax. Similarly, 'biometric' facial mapping software programs, which were originally developed to allow CCTV operators to identify suspected terrorists in and around potential target locations are being incorporated into CCTV systems around the country. Perhaps most troubling in this respect, is that a number of shopping malls in the South East England have purchased a similar system, and have created private computer databases including the names and images of 'undesirable' customers.

The desire and need to protect people from crimes committed by terrorists is obvious. However, the nature of the current attacks is particularly troublesome, because they are using technologies of communication and travel that have become central to the conduct of a 'globalised' lifestyle, where the criminal actions are disguised by their integration with apparently ordinary actions. One would imagine that to effect control over such crimes would require fairly systematic and invasive procedures of control. A way to justify such interventions is to establish techniques to neutralize and 'cool out' any opposition it might provoke.[9] One means of doing this is to deliberately encourage and allow for some form of technology transfer. That is, rather than arguing that the new measures only provide a 'prophylactic' against 'low occurrence/serious consequence' risks such as terrorist attacks, they are also used against 'high occurrence/less serious consequence' risks. That is the measures in question are made available to tackle more 'normal' kinds of crime and deviance.


"The day the world changed forever." This phrase has been used repeatedly by media commentators, as they have sought to identify a script through which to report and opine upon the events of September 11th and after. In this essay, I have challenged the assumptions embedded within such a phrase about the occurrence of a rupture in the fabric of history. My point has been to show how, by re- framing the discourse which we use to define and construct the recent events, what becomes evident is the ways in which the reaction to these crimes of terror is a continuation of, and easily assimilable within, existing currents and trends in the logics and practices of social control, already being worked through in society. Furthermore, I have suggested that the politics of reaction that have been played out by politicians and the media, tells us as much about media logic and politics in late-modernity as it does about the status of the events themselves. I would argue that much of the media coverage has been involved in the attempt to manufacture a shared collective memory that accounts for, rationalises and explains the almost unexplainable. In addition to which, this shared remembrance seeks to legitimate a particular mode and style of reaction.

The concept of control creep developed in the course of this essay, identifies how some deviancy regulation measures that are initially introduced with limited intentions and remits tend to be developed, refined and expanded as part of efforts to deal with new problems and situations. Such reforms frequently create the conditions for further subsequent expansions. Typically, when they engage with a new issue or problem, agencies of control find there is more of it going on than was originally anticipated, or the initial measure cannot deal with all the actual permutations that are encountered. As such, the argument can be made that more resources or powers are required to deal with it properly.

The control of crimes committed by terrorists or criminals is a necessary activity. They cause real harm to victims and their families, and my argument should not be understood as seeking to challenge such orthodoxy. Rather what I have sought to do, is to place the reaction to the recent events acts in a broader social context, to show that the war on terror, draws upon and recursively amplifies discourses associated with the established fight against crime. This allows us to map the connections that exist with a number of other social problems, and thereby understand the very nature of the reaction itself. Furthermore, I have shown that in responding to these events and seeking to establish control over them, we need to proceed with caution, and to be aware of the potential longer-term consequences of our immediate reactions.


1 On control talk see Cohen (1985).

2 There are various treatments of this issue, a particularly insightful one is Richard Sennett's (1992) discussion of the 'fear of exposure' and the consequences this has for social life.

3 The notion of 'surveillance creep' was coined by Gary Marx (1988). My appropriation of it is intended to capture something more profound, than just an expansion in the monitoring of social life.

4 On the conversion of private troubles into public problems see C. Wright Mills (1959).

5 For a discussion of which see the essays in Sheptycki (2000).

6 An interesting discussion of this arrangement and the consequences that flow from it is provided by Haggerty and Ericson (2001).

7 Including crimes committed by terrorists.

8 For a more detailed discussion of these issues see Norris and Armstrong (1999).

9 Here I deliberately echo Sykes and Matza's (1957) and Goffman's (1952) famous papers.


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Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2001