Social Service vs. Social Control

You can look at any part of the human services, housing, income support and benefits system, etc. within your community and ask yourself: is what we are doing an example of social service or is it an example of social control?

Let’s look at is another way: are you trying to meet the person’s needs, or are you trying to change who they are before (or in order) to meet their needs?

A social service response accepts the person/family for who they are. It does not come with judgment. It accepts that there are no time machines to travel to the past and rewrite a course of history that does not result in the current state of affairs. A social service response will appropriately address problematic behaviour. But there is never an implicit or explicit expectation of compliance. A social service does not use coercion or make threats. A social service does not seek ingratiation or bribe or bargain people to participate. A social service response starts with “What is the need?” and then solves the problem.

A social control response is almost never explicitly stated as a control measure. It fact, most rules and practices that exercise social control are veiled in supportive language, and started from a sincere place to try and do right by people. I would also argue that social control most often is a reactive measure that is permanently put in place because a small sample of people have – or are believed to have – participated in behaviour that was seen as problematic. For example, while the data shows a very small number of people on income entitlements and benefits use all of their money on drugs, that doesn’t stop some jurisdictions from drug testing all people seeking financial assistance.

Rules, regulations and legislation as it relates to the social sphere almost always is oriented towards control rather than support. This has the opposite of the intended effect when the measure was put in place, or at least has serious negative consequences. For example, as a result of the measures, some of the most vulnerable people in your community are living outside on the streets because shelter and housing rules tried to change who the person is before giving them what they actually need. It is exceptionally rare to find someone living outside and disconnected from services whose journey there did not, at some point in time, intersect with a service provider that did not provide service…that expected the person to change who they are and comply with those expectations in order to get service, even if doing so meant corrupting their own values, beliefs and world view.

We can do better. But it starts with critical thinking and awareness. Look at your rules for accessing, receiving, and maintaining services. Examine every instance where it seems there are unnecessary requirements for a person to change who they are before they get what they need. Then fix every one of those rules you can.



About Iain De Jong

Iain is a playful nerd, hellbent on ending homelessness, increasing affordable housing, creating vibrant communities, and expanding the knowledge amongst leaders that influence social issues. Having held senior management and professional positions in government, non-profits, and the private sector, Iain has a wealth of experience and has garnered dozens of awards for his work across Canada and internationally. His work has taken him across Canada, the United States, and to Australia. In 2009, Iain joined OrgCode as its President & CEO, and in 2014 assumed full ownership of the firm. In addition to his work with OrgCode, Iain holds a part-time faculty position in the Graduate Urban Planning Programme at York University.

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