Formal social control is one of two types of social control conceptualized in sociology. It refers to the ways in which control over society is exercised by a legitimate power using sanctions and standards.
There are two basic forms of social control:
- Informal: Most social behaviors are controlled informally, though socialization into a society and culture and internalization of its norms.
- Formal: Societies can codify social control by creating external sanctions enforced by a government or other legal body to prevent chaos and anomie.
The term “social control” was first introduced to sociology by Albion Woodbury Small and George Edgar Vincent in 1894, although their work built on ideas presented by philosophers like Thomas Hobbes and Cesare Beccaria, and sociologist Émile Durkheim in his work in The Division of Labor in Society.
Formal Social Control Definition and Overview
Formal social control refers to all the forms of control that are codified into authoritative legal mechanisms of a society (Spierenburg, 2004).
While informal social controls – that is, customs, norms, and mores we learn through childhood – tend to be sufficient to control most people’s behaviors, societies have deigned to put in place formal norms punishable through formal mechanisms for those who do not comply to social pressure to conform (Swader, 2017).
People who fall foul of formal social norms are defined as delinquents. They are often pulled into legal systems as a result of their deviance, and subject to punishments such as fines and prison time.
Formal social control is identifiable in a variety of areas of social life, including the education system, policing and law, psychiatry, social work, the welfare state, and the workplace.
Religion also historically provided formal social controls as well, but in modern secular societies, religious controls have increasingly become informal (Swader, 2017).
Do Formal Social Controls Works?
Studies for decades have suggested that cities with higher incarceration rates (i.e. more intense enforcement of formal social controls) tend to have lower crime rates (Heitkamp & Mowen, 2023). However, it can also have negative effects, such as curtailing chances for social mobility and over-policing of non-offenders (Martin, Wright & Steiner, 2016), leading to sustained social-class inequality.
Examples of Formal Social Control
- Laws: Laws are established by elected officials who have been given the power to create these rules by their constituents. Laws provide a broad framework that outlines what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior within a society. They are often written in broad terms, allowing for interpretation based on specific circumstances and societal changes over time. Governments may legislate to determine what is acceptable or unacceptable, like Germany’s ban on certain extremist propaganda and Hungary’s anti-antisemitism policy.
- Regulations: Regulations are created by governmental agencies tasked with enforcing laws, providing specific rules that clarify how the laws should be applied. They differ from laws. For instance, a law might declare theft to be illegal, while regulations might detail what constitutes theft, the procedures for reporting theft, the evidence required for a conviction, and the potential penalties.
- Police Force: Police forces are government institutions entrusted with the duty to maintain public order and safety. They serve as the primary enforcers of laws and regulations within a community, and their activities can range from traffic control to criminal investigation. Beyond just enforcement, their mere presence serves as a deterrent to potential lawbreakers.
- Court Systems: Courts serve as the formal judicial branch of government, interpreting and applying laws in disputes brought before them. They function as a neutral arbiter, determining guilt or innocence in criminal cases based on the evidence presented. Courts also handle civil disputes, resolving issues such as contract disagreements, property disputes, and family law matters.
- Incarceration: Prisons and jails are facilities used to confine people convicted of crimes, serving both to punish and rehabilitate offenders. This form of formal social control uses the deprivation of freedom as a deterrent to criminal behavior. It also provides a means of protecting society by physically removing those who pose a threat from general society for a defined period.
- Fines: Fines are monetary penalties that serve as another form of punishment for violating laws or regulations. They are typically used for less serious offenses, serving as a financial deterrent to unlawful behavior. The amount of a fine can vary widely, depending on the severity of the offense, the offender’s past record, and other circumstances.
- Probation and Parole: Probation is a period of supervision over an offender ordered by the court instead of serving time in prison. Parole is a conditional release from prison before the end of the maximum sentence term. Both are designed to integrate offenders back into society under monitoring and restriction.
- Censorship: Censorship is the practice of suppressing or restricting access to information deemed harmful, sensitive, or objectionable by a controlling body, often a government. This is usually justified on the grounds of protecting societal values, maintaining public order, or ensuring national security. It can be applied to a range of media, including books, films, news, and internet content.
- Military Force: Governments can resort to the use of military force in extreme situations to maintain order and control. This is often in cases of civil unrest, insurrection, or external threats. The military might be called upon to restore order, enforce curfews, secure borders, or suppress violent conflicts.
- Taxes: Taxes are a tool used by governments to both raise revenue and influence economic behavior. Through a system of progressive taxation, governments can redistribute wealth and mitigate economic inequality. By adjusting tax rates and offering tax breaks or economic incentives, governments can encourage or discourage certain behaviors.
- Licensing Requirements: Licenses are permissions granted by a governing body, allowing an individual or entity to carry out specific activities. This system controls who can participate in certain professions or activities by ensuring they meet a certain standard of competence or compliance. For example, drivers must pass a test to obtain a driving license, which ensures they understand the rules of the road and can operate a vehicle safely.
- Health and Safety Regulations: These are rules and standards set by governments to ensure the safety and well-being of workers and the public. They can cover a wide range of areas, such as food safety standards, building codes, workplace safety regulations, and product safety requirements. These regulations require businesses and organizations to maintain certain conditions, use specific safety equipment, or follow certain procedures to prevent accidents, injuries, and illnesses.
- Education Systems: Education systems play a role in social control by setting curriculum standards and enforcing codes of conduct. Through curriculum, governments and educational bodies can influence what knowledge and values are prioritized. Students learn not only academic content but also societal norms and expectations. Codes of conduct regulate behavior within educational settings, promoting a safe and conducive learning environment.
- Immigration Laws: Immigration laws are rules set by a country to control who can enter, how long they can stay, and what they can do within the country (like working or studying). These laws serve several purposes, including protecting national security, preserving jobs for citizens, maintaining social order, or managing population growth.
- Anti-discrimination Laws: Anti-discrimination laws exist to promote equality and prevent unfair treatment or bias based on certain protected characteristics such as race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability, or genetic information. These laws apply in many areas of public life, including employment, housing, education, and access to services. They work by setting out rights and obligations: individuals have the right to equal treatment, and organizations have an obligation not to discriminate.
- Environmental Laws: Environmental laws are a collection of statutes, regulations, and international agreements aimed at protecting the environment and conserving natural resources. These laws control pollution by setting limits on the emission of pollutants, require environmental impact assessments for major projects, and set out responsibilities for waste disposal and clean-up of contaminated land.
- Building Codes: Building codes are sets of regulations governing the design, construction, alteration, and maintenance of structures. They specify the minimum requirements to adequately safeguard the health, safety, and welfare of building occupants. For instance, building codes may prescribe specific types of materials for construction, mandate the installation of fire suppression systems, and set out guidelines for electrical wiring and plumbing to prevent accidents and failures.
- Expulsion: Expulsion is the act of forcing someone to leave a community or organization, often due to the violation of rules or norms. In an educational context, for example, a student may be expelled for repeated or serious misconduct, such as violence or academic dishonesty. The intent of expulsion is to protect the community and uphold its standards, and the threat of expulsion serves as a deterrent to rule-breaking.
Formal vs Informal Social Control
Informal social controls tend to be most effective within smaller communities, such as when people are policed and watched by their community members. In larger cities and contexts, formal controls may be necessary due to the perceived anonymity of perpetrators within busy social environments.
The main difference, then, is that informal social controls are outside of regulation by an authority figure, and are instead policed by socialization and maintenance of customs, norms and mores; while formal social controls are regulated and policed by an authority figure.
Note, however, that some social norms can be legally permitted but socially discouraged (i.e. it’s considered taboo, but not illegal), and others may be illegal but socially acceptable (which often occurs when norms change over time).
|Formal Social Controls
|Informal Social Controls
|Codified rules that can lead to tangible sanctions and punishments meted out by authority figures.
|Informal rules and norms that tend to be policed by social conventions and peer pressure.
|Type of Norm
|More, Folkway, Norm
|Social groups and communities through informal sanctions
|Authorities and governmental bodies through formal sanctions
|Laws, regulations, fines, taxes, censorships, incarceration
|Peer pressure, shame, ridicule, sarcasm, criticism, taboos
Case Study: The Broken Windows Theory
The Broken Windows Theory by. Wilson and George (1982) suggests that visible signs of disorder and neglect in a community (like broken windows, graffiti, or litter) can encourage further and more serious crimes. This is because these signs suggest a lack of social control – formal or informal – in a region. This theory demonstrates that informal social controls in a neighborhood, like mowing lawns and maintaining your home, can prevent crime. When informal social controls are absent, stricter formal social controls such as a strong police presence will be necessary(Spierenburg, 2004). The theory points to the importance of informal controls.
Limitations of Formal Social Control
Formal social controls have strengths and weaknesses, just like informal controls. Some weaknesses include:
- Unequal Enforcement: Sociologists point out that the enforcement of formal controls is not always equal across different societal sections, leading to social inequalities and injustices (Tittle, 2018). For example, sometimes racial minorities are over-policed based on stereotypical assumptions about ‘suspicious’ behavior. Here, formal social controls can lead to unfair outcomes and exacerbate social inequality.
- Punitive Focus: Critics argue that many forms of formal social control, such as incarceration, have a punitive focus that doesn’t necessarily address the root causes of criminal behavior, such as poverty, lack of education, or mental health issues (Mears et al., 2017). This critique suggests that a more rehabilitative or preventative approach might be more effective in the long term.
- Unintended Consequences: Some methods of formal social control may not be as effective as intended or may have unintended negative consequences. For example, harsh penalties for minor offenses, as proposed by the Broken Windows Theory, may contribute to a cycle of crime and incarceration without significantly improving community safety.
- Resource Intensive: Formal social control mechanisms such as policing, courts, and prisons can be much more costly and resource-intensive than informal mechanisms of control.
Formal social controls refer to all those controls in society that are regulated and enforced by governing or authoritative bodies, rather than through social norms, folkways, and mores alone. They are a necessity in a society where informal controls are insufficient, but can also have unintended consequences and can lead to abuse of power in a society.
Heitkamp, A., & Mowen, T. J. (2023). The Influence of Formal and Informal Sanctions on Offending: The Moderating Role of Legal Cynicism. Crime & Delinquency, 00111287231165214.
Martin, A., Wright, E. M., & Steiner, B. (2016). Formal controls, neighborhood disadvantage, and violent crime in US cities: Examining (un) intended consequences. Journal of Criminal Justice, 44, 58-65.
Mears, D. P., Stewart, E. A., Warren, P. Y., & Simons, R. L. (2017). Culture and formal social control: The effect of the code of the street on police and court decision-making. Justice Quarterly, 34(2), 217-247
Small, A. W., & Vincent, G. E. (1894). An introduction to the study of society. New York: American Book Company.
Spierenburg, P. (2004). Social control and history: an introduction. Social control in Europe, 1, 1500-1800.
Swader, C. S. (2017). Modernization, formal social control, and anomie: A 45-society multilevel analysis. International Journal of Comparative Sociology, 58(6), 494-514.
Tittle, C. R. (2018). The theoretical bases for inequality in formal social control. In Inequality, crime, and social control (pp. 21-52). Routledge.
Wilson, J. & Kelling, G. L. (1982). Broken Windows. www.theatlantic.com.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]