Coercive Organizations: Definition and 10 Examples (Sociology)

coercive organization definition and example

A coercive organization is an organization that uses intimidation, threats, and/or punishment to force its members to comply with strict rules and regulations.

It is a type of organization where both obedience and compliance to rules are highly valued and enforced.

Economists and sociologists have supported the idea that all bureaucracy (organizations or governments in which power is divided among various departments or levels with a hierarchical structure) in many ways can only be coercive.

Adler & Borys (1996) support this idea by stating:

“organization entails an abrogation of individual autonomy….capitalist firms inevitably turn formalization into a coercive mechanism”(p. 1).

Coercive Organization Definition

The sociological concept of the coercive organization was most notably developed by sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920).

In his example sets, he specifically refers to organizations that use physical or psychological force to control their members.

This can include restricting members’ freedom of movement, surveilling their day-to-day life, or harshly punishing them for non-compliance.

Although coercive organizations are often seen as oppressive systems, they can also be beneficial in certain circumstances.

Weber embraced both the positive and negative implications for society, and advocated that bureaucracies have a dual purpose; one purpose of administering and organizing, and the other of punishing and maintaining order in society (Adler, 2012, p. 246-247).

10 Coercive Organization Examples

  1. Totalitarian and Authoritarian Governments: Totalitarian and Authoritarian governments maintain extreme control over their citizens, providing little to no civil liberties, and overtly oppressive government policies.
  2. New Age Cults: This type of coercive organization is often involving an influential leader who demands obedience and blind loyalty from his/her followers.
  3. Mental Health Facilities: Mental health and rehabilitation facilities have historically been designed to coerce their patients. In the 19th and early 20th Centuries, mental health facilities often imprisoned their ‘patients’ and did not let them go.
  4. Gangs or the Mafia: Typically composed of a hierarchical structure, members are expected to adhere to the gang’s or mafia group’s rules and regulations with total loyalty.
  5. Corporate Workplaces: Employees are expected to follow the company’s policies, procedures, and work culture. This can especially be found in big tech companies like Microsoft, Apple, and Google.
  6. Prisons: In prisons a strict code of conduct is imposed as a form of punishment for specific crimes. Inmates are expected to comply with the prison’s rules and regulations, or they face harsh consequences during their confinement period. Weber called prisons a “total institution” to summarize these sorts of spaces.
  7. Major Religious Organizations: Followers must adhere to the organization’s (Catholic church, Islam, Judaism, etc.) beliefs and values.
  8. Political Parties: Many political parties demand that their members vote along party lines and only speak according to the approved message or else they may be excommunicated.
  9. Educational Institutions: Often billed as ‘for the good of the children’, educational institutions are given unique powers of coercion over children.
  10. Intelligence Agencies: Characterized by an extremely secretive culture, employees are  expected to remain silent about their activities and operations. Examples of intelligence agencies include the CIA, MI6, and Mossad.

Coercive Vs Formal Organizations

Coercive organizations are one of three sub-types of formal organizations.

Max Weber defined formal organizations as highly structured organizations that are characterized by a “clear division of labor, a hierarchy of authority, and a system of rules and regulations” (1947).

They rely on rational decision-making and accomplish tasks efficiently, which is why they play a major role in modern societies. 

Sociologist Amitai Etzioni argued that there were three kinds of formal organizations: 

  • Coercive organizations: (such as prisons and rehabilitation centers) are groups that people are forced to join because they have committed a crime or are judged to be mentally ill. Goffman calls these total institutions, as they control all aspects of their members’ lives (1961).
  • Utilitarian organizations: are joined to gain a specific material reward, which is why they are also called remunerative organizations. Examples include workplaces (the reward here being a salary) and educational institutions (where students are rewarded with certifications/degrees). 
  • Normative organizations: (also known as voluntary organizations) are those that people join voluntarily due to shared goals without getting any tangible returns. These include groups like a local ski club, scouts groups, charitable organizations, etc.

Coercive Organization Case Studies

1. Totalitarian and Authoritarian Governments

Totalitarian and Authoritarian governments maintain extreme control over their citizens, providing little to no civil liberties, and overtly oppressive government policies.

Examples of totalitarian regimes include Nazi Germany(German Reich 1933-1943), Stalinist  Russia(Communist Party of the Soviet Union 1922-1953), and present-day North Korea. Some examples of countries with authoritarian regimes include China, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt.

The Chinese government and the China Communist Party regulate many aspects of people’s everyday lives.

This includes free access to the internet and the media they’re allowed to consume, and many of the activities that can participate in. Mass surveillance to monitor citizens behavior are used to ensure citizens are abiding by the laws and regulations.

This has led to a climate of fear and repression, where people are afraid to speak out or express opinions that are different from those of the government. Chin & Lin (2022) state:

Over the Communist Party’s seven decades in power, Xinjiang has been China’s most fractious region, riven by ethnic tensions between Uyghurs and Han Chinese migrants that have periodically exploded into deadly violence. Against the odds, the Party has brought the territory under total control using a combination of internment camps, brainwashing, and mass surveillance…… the campaign is one part of a radical experiment to reinvent social control through technology that is forcing democracies around the world to confront the growing power of digital surveillance and to wrestle with new questions about the relationship between information, security, and individual liberty” (pp. 16-17).

2. Religious or New Age Cults

This type of coercive organization is characterized by an influential leader who demands obedience and blind loyalty from his/her followers.

Some of the more renowned cults included the People’s Temple, Heaven’s Gate, and Aum Shinrikyo.

Aum Shinrikyo is a cult based in Japan that made headlines around the world. Founded by Shoko Asahara in 1987, the cult has been linked to numerous controversial incidents over the years, including the 1995 sarin gas attacks in Tokyo subway.

The cult is known for its eclectic mix of beliefs, which include various elements of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Christianity.

However, it also embraces conspiratorial apocalyptic ideologies. Aum Shinrikyo has been designated as a terrorist organization by multiple countries and is classified as a criminal cult by the Japanese government.

Despite this status, its members still number in the thousands and it continues to have a minor presence in Japan.

As Metraux (1995) expresses in his article about cult terrorism:

“Aum displays a considerable degree of totalism of dominating the lives of its membership…Aum followers, mostly in their 20’s and 30’s, donate all of their assets to the cult and move into Aum communes as adherents who completely cut off their association with the outside world for a communal life of little sleep and meager meals” (p. 1142).

3. Mental Hospitals

Mental hospitals can be seen as coercive organizations, in which control of patients is used to ensure compliance.

These facilities do this through a variety of methods, such as medication, restraints, and solitary confinement. Patients may also be subjected to involuntary treatment or forced to take medications against their will.

The use of coercive practices has been criticized for its potential to lead to feelings of powerlessness, humiliation, and even psychological trauma.

It has also been argued that the use of such practices could lead to a lack of autonomy, increasing feelings of isolation, and ultimately, feelings of hopelessness.

While some coercive practices may be necessary for the protection of both patients and staff members, it is also important to recognize the potential for their misuse.

In a quantitative study conducted by Mann et al. (2021) four psychiatric hospitals, all of which had similar mental health care systems, were observed for a period of 2 years.

All patients admitted over this period of two years who experienced mechanical restraint, seclusion, or compulsory medication were documented.

They conclude that:

“there is a tremendous need to examine the inconsistencies in the use of coercion aimed at reducing the total number of coercive measures and, for cases in which coercion is unavoidable, choosing the most effective yet safe and humane method as possible” (p. 2).

4. Gangs or the Mafia

Organized groups that actively commit crimes like murder, racketeering, illegal gambling, theft, fraud, or other unlawful activities.

The mafia often uses money, influence, and violence to successfully subvert the law. Many families and groups also tend to recruit members based on the criteria of family ties and ethnic bloodlines.

As Dickie (2005) explains,

“…the Cosa Nostra is an exclusive secret society because it needs to select its affiliates very carefully and impose restrictions on their behaviour in return for the benefits of membership. The chief demands that Cosa Nostra makes of its members are that they be discreet, obedient, and ruthlessly violent “(p. 22).

As a coercive organization, the mafia are both simultaneously internally and externally coercive.

Within the organization, members are sworn into unquestionable loyalty and hierarchal obedience, while efforts are made across numerous niches of society to apply external pressure through criminality for financial gain.

A good portion of the money acquired from their extortion is reinvested and used to bribe lawyers, judges, policemen, journalists, politicians, and corporate employees, creating as many allies as possible for exploitation.

As a general rule, the more dangerous, violent, and profitable a sector is – like drug trafficking and sales – the more a mafia group benefits, and achieves both intimidation power and status (pp. 21-23). 

More Sociology Ideas From Max Weber


Adler, P. S., & Borys, B. (1996). Two types of bureaucracy: Enabling and coercive. Administrative Science Quarterly, 41(1), 61.

Adler, P. S. (2012). Perspective: The sociological ambivalence of bureaucracy: from Weber via Gouldner to Marx. Organization Science23(1), 244-266. Doi:

Chin, J., & Lin, L. (2022). Surveillance State: Inside China’s Quest to Launch a New Era of Social Control. St. Martin’s Press.

Dickie, J. (2005). Cosa Nostra: A History of the Sicilian Mafia (First). St. Martin’s Griffin.

Mann, K., Gröschel, S., Singer, S., Breitmaier, J., Claus, S., Fani, M., Rambach, S., Salize, H. J., & Lieb, K. (2021). Evaluation of coercive measures in different psychiatric hospitals: the impact of institutional characteristics. BMC Psychiatry, 21(1). Doi:

Metraux, D. A. (1995). Religious terrorism in Japan: The fatal appeal of Aum Shinrikyo. Asian Survey35(12), 1140–1154.


Gregory Paul C. (MA)

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Gregory Paul C. is a licensed social studies educator, and has been teaching the social sciences in some capacity for 13 years. He currently works at university in an international liberal arts department teaching cross-cultural studies in the Chuugoku Region of Japan. Additionally, he manages semester study abroad programs for Japanese students, and prepares them for the challenges they may face living in various countries short term.

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This article was peer-reviewed and edited by Chris Drew (PhD). The review process on Helpful Professor involves having a PhD level expert fact check, edit, and contribute to articles. Reviewers ensure all content reflects expert academic consensus and is backed up with reference to academic studies. Dr. Drew has published over 20 academic articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education and holds a PhD in Education from ACU.

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