Performing Social Control: Poverty Governance, Public Finance, and the Politics of Visibility

John N. Robinson, Spencer Headworth, Shai Karp

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The visibility of populations, policies, and the state matters greatly for questions of power, inequality, and democratic life. This article builds on existing scholarship by examining how visibility operates as a lever and effect of social control in a racially and economically stratified society. By doing so, the article identifies a paradox. Race- and class-empowered groups often pressure state actors to implement punitive policies or otherwise visibly contain and control disadvantaged populations. But they also tend to decry and disavow the necessary public costs of these disciplinary interventions. This creates a conundrum for authorities: how to satisfy popular demands for social control while concealing resource commitments. We use the term disciplinary tensions to describe the contradictory political desires that state actors must navigate to maintain legitimacy with privileged constituents. We examine two state projects that, in different ways, crystallize this dilemma: the expansion of low-income housing development in New York in the 1960s and 1970s and state prison construction in California in the 1980s and 1990s. In both episodes, officials responded to disciplinary tensions by turning to covert public finance options: specifically, revenue bonds, which seemingly detach policy from conventional tax-and-spend public finance. We argue that these cases shed light on the shifting nature of power as finance has come to pervade all aspects of government and covert governing tactics supplement and supplant society’s more direct practices of social control. Revenue bonds, in particular, allow governing actors to appease and placate the populace by reconfiguring the state’s disciplinary power so that social control appears to pay for itself.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)23-48
Number of pages26
JournalSociological Theory
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 2024

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Sociology and Political Science


  • inequality
  • poverty governance
  • public finance
  • race and racism
  • social policy


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