Formal Sanctions: Definition and 10 Examples (Sociology)

Formal Sanctions: Definition and 10 Examples (Sociology)Reviewed by Chris Drew (PhD)

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.

formal sanctions examples and definition

Formal sanctions are official punishments or penalties imposed by a social group via its authority figures to enforce social norms and values (Farley & Flota, 2017).

Examples of formal sanctions include legal penalties, fines, imprisonment, and other punishments codified in law or instituted by a recognized authority.

On the other hand, informal sanctions are unofficial mechanisms for enforcing social norms and values (Horne, 2001). These may include shunning transgressors, expressions of disapproval, overt criticism, and other forms of social pressure. Unlike formal sanctions, informal sanctions are not codified in law or formally instituted by an authority.

Sanctions in Sociology

In sociology, sanctions are a means by which social norms and values are enforced. Generally, we can use sanctions to both reward of conformity and punish deviation (Farley & Flota, 2017).

Sanctions have historically been seen as good things. They help to maintain social order, uphold the social contract, and socialize our young people.

Sanctions can be powerful forces in shaping social behavior as they motivate people to behave in socially desirable ways. 

The effective functioning of organizations, social groups, and society depends on social cohesion and cooperation, which in turn depend on social sanctions (Claridge, 2020).

These sanctions maintain social order and cohesion by promoting conformity to accepted norms and values and are thus essential for fostering cooperation and collaboration within social systems (Horne, 2001).

Formal Sanctions: Definition and Explanation

Let’s open with a scholarly definition of formal sanctions from William Little (2021):

“Formal sanctions, on the other hand, are ways to officially recognize and enforce norm violations. If a student is caught plagiarizing the work of others or cheating on an exam, for example, they might be expelled. Someone who speaks inappropriately to the boss could be fired. Someone who commits a crime may be arrested or imprisoned.”

(Little, 2021, pp. 298-299)

To put it simply, formal sanctions are based on laws and enforced by recognized authorities, such as legal penalties, fines, and imprisonment.

The threat of punishment works as a disincentive that prevents people from engaging in undesirable or harmful behaviors (Fehr & Fischbacher, 2004).

Additionally, formal sanctions uphold justice within a society by holding individuals accountable for their actions and ensuring that they are held responsible for any harm they may cause.

Without formal sanctions, we’d likely be living in an anarchical and rather dangerous society.

Examples of Formal Sanctions

1. Legal Penalties

By definition, legal penalties are formal sanctions. They are sanctions that are codified in law. Usually, the punishment is also written into the law, such as a minimum fine or even a recommended prison sentence.

Legal penalties fit along a very long spectrum, and the severity depends upon the nature of the offense. Examples of legal penalties include fines, community service, and imprisonment.

They may also vary depending on the legal system and society in which the transgression occurs. As any young backpacker knows, you have to know the law of the land in which you are: what seems normal in liberal USA might be against the law in Islamic Indonesia!

Legal penalties are not only used to prevent moral transgressions (i.e. social mores), but also to ensure people follow due diligence when doing taxes, behave amicably in public, and do not disrupt the social order.

2. Public reprimands

Public reprimands are formal sanctions, but they generally don’t result in fines or restrictions of liberty.

A public reprimand is simply a publicly available statement that misconduct was committed by an individual. It is used by governing bodies as a way to hold people accountable for their actions through social pressure.

For example, the governing body of a professional organization (such as the body that governs lawyers, teachers, or therapists) may submit a public reprimand if one of its members does not follow the official code of practice.

This might be one step toward suspension of a professional license, and if the transgression happens again, suspension might be put in place.

3. Suspension or revocation of professional licenses

Professional bodies are put in place to ensure practitioners follow the codes and standards of their profession. For example, the AMA is the professional body for doctors.

If a person fails to meet professional standards (for example, if they’re found to be exploiting their clients or not following best practices), then the professional body may suspend or revoke their license to practice.

The suspension of a professional license is short-term while revocation means the person cannot continue to practice the profession. If your license is suspended, then you’re likely going to have to do remedial training before being allowed to continue to practice.

4. Expulsion from educational institutions

Expulsion from an educational institution is a formal negative social sanction imposed on students who violate school rules or engage in misconduct.

Commonly, this takes place if a student has disrupted learning, is seen as a threat to fellow students or teachers or has engaged in substantial academic misconduct (e.g. plagiarism).

When a student is expelled, they are permanently banned from attending the school or educational program. When they are suspended, they will likely be readmitted once they can prove they will not transgress again.

Expulsion is a serious sanction, as it can have significant consequences for a student’s education and prospects. For example, you may end up with a lot of student debt and no degree to show for it!

5. Getting fired from a job

Termination of employment is the final formal sanction imposed on employees who violate company policies or engage in misconduct on the job.

Most countries have rules in place around how to go about formally sanctioning employees. For example, where I grew up in Australia, the employer has to give three written warnings before firing an employee.

The fact that the warnings have to be written down, and the termination of employment represents the shredding of an employment contract, means that this sanction is absolutely formal – in fact, informal sanctions such as a verbal reprimand do not mean much at all when it comes to whether or not an employer is allowed to terminate an employment contract.

6. Eviction from housing

Eviction from housing is a formal sanction that you’d receive if you broke a tenancy agreement or failed to pay your mortgage.

Generally, when you sign up to rent a house or apartment, you sign an agreement saying what you can or cannot do in the building. Furthermore, you agree to pay regular payments to the owner.

If you fail to make payments or break the rules of the lease, you may be subject to eviction. If you don’t leave, the owner may be able to approach the police and ask them to evict you.

Similarly, if you fail to pay a mortgage, you might be evicted from the home and it is repossessed by the bank who can then sell it to recover the money that you owe.

7. Community service

Community service is a negative formal sanction that will be put in place by a judge if you have committed a crime that is serious, but not serious enough for you to go to prison.

Community service refers to unpaid work that you will perform in order to repay the community for your transgression.

The goals of community service are multiple: it holds individuals accountable for their actions, lets them make up for any harm they might have caused, and even gives them training and social contacts that might help them get a job.

Community service may or may not be related to the committed offense. 

Community service is distinct from volunteering since it is typically court-ordered work that you cannot choose.

8. Restitution

Restitution involves requiring people to pay compensation to those who they have harmed. It’s used as a way to hold them accountable for their actions.

Commonly, restitution will take the form of financial compensation. However, it could also involve requiring people to repair or replace damaged property or pay them because you damaged their public reputation.

Restitution most commonly occurs in civil lawsuits, such as libel and slander cases. It may also occur when resolving issues like car crashes, where the person at fault has to pay to have the other person’s car fixed.

9. Probation

Probation is a form of formal social sanction that involves requiring individuals who have committed a crime to follow certain conditions for a set amount of time.

Examples of probation include regularly reporting to a probation officer, staying out of trouble, and complying with other restrictions, as a means of holding them accountable for their actions and rehabilitating them. 

Probation is typically imposed as an alternative to imprisonment and may be accompanied by other forms of formal social sanctions, such as community service or restitution.

10. Restraining orders

Restraining orders are a form of formal social sanction that orders people to stay away from others who they are a threat to.

A restraining order or protective order is an order used to protect a person in a situation that involves alleged domestic threats, harassment, assault, and so on.

Restraining orders are designed to protect the safety and well-being of the people who are covered by the order – particularly vulnerable female partners.

Violating a restraining order can result in fines or, in extreme cases, imprisonment.

Are there Positive Formal Sanctions?

Yes, there is also a term called “positive sanctions”, which often refer to government incentives for people to do certain things (Liu, 2003). In classrooms, it might be an official award for recognition of good deeds or good grades.

Examples of positive formal sanctions might include:

  • Tax incentives
  • Tax holidays
  • Awards and certificates of recognition
  • Certificates of merit
  • Subsidies
  • Direct payments
  • Government grants


Formal social sanctions are official or formally-instituted punishments or penalties imposed by a social group or society as a means of enforcing social norms and values. These sanctions can take many forms, including legal penalties, fines, imprisonment, and other forms of punishment codified in law or established by a recognized authority. 

Formal social sanctions maintain social order and cohesion by promoting conformity to accepted norms and values. They can be powerful forces in shaping social behavior by motivating individuals to behave in desirable or acceptable ways.


Farley, J., & Flota, M. (2017). Sociology. Routledge.

Fehr, E., & Fischbacher, U. (2004). Third-party punishment and social norms. Evolution and Human Behavior, 25(2), 63–87.

Gibbs, J. P. (1966). Sanctions. Social Problems, 14(2), 147-159.

Horne, C. (2001). Sociological perspectives on the emergence of norms. Social Norms.

Klotz, A. (1996). Norms and sanctions: lessons from the socialization of South Africa. Review of International Studies, 22(2), 173-190.

Liu, R. X. (2003). The moderating effects of internal and perceived external sanction threats on the relationship between deviant peer associations and criminal offending. Western Criminology Review, 4(3), 191-202.

Warren, D. E., & Smith-Crowe, K. (2008). Deciding what’s right: The role of external sanctions and embarrassment in shaping moral judgments in the workplace. Research in organizational behavior, 28, 81-105.

Tio Gabunia is an academic writer and architect based in Tbilisi. He has studied architecture, design, and urban planning at the Georgian Technical University and the University of Lisbon. He has worked in these fields in Georgia, Portugal, and France. Most of Tio’s writings concern philosophy. Other writings include architecture, sociology, urban planning, and economics.

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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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