Informal sanctions refer to all the tacit, informal, subtle, and unofficial ways social norms and values are enforced in society.
Examples of informal sanctions include giving someone social disapproval, criticism, shunning, shaming, ignoring, and mocking.
There are also positive informal sanctions such as providing social approval, praise, and support.
The other type of sanction is formal sanctions. They include all the formal penalties imposed by society in order to uphold social norms.
Examples of formal sanctions include fines, imprisonment, court-ordered community service and any other penalties imposed by the authorities.
Informal sanctions can be even more powerful than formal sanctions because they often relate to people’s acceptance – their inclusion and exclusion – from social groups (Claridge, 2020).
Informal Sanctions Definition
Informal sanctions can be simply defined as those social or psychological penalties (and sometimes rewards) used to regulate the social behaviors of a group or society.
An informal sanction is unique from a formal sanction in that it is not enforced by an authority. Rather, it occurs in everyday interactions.
Anybody group can apply an informal sanction through a simple act like ridicule or shunning (Kendall, 2006, p. 56).
Informal sanctions can be both positive and negative. A positive sanction would be considered, for example, praise or approval.
Informal sanctions can heavily influence behavior effectively because they relate to a person’s sense of identity and belonging within a group. Additionally, they can adapt to changing values and norms more easily than formal sanctions.
See Also: The Six Types of Sanctions
Informal Sanctions Examples
1. Peer pressure
Peer pressure refers to the influence that groups place on their members in order to conform to the group’s norms.
This pressure can be positive or negative and may be conveyed through verbal or nonverbal cues.
Adolescence is often associated with peer pressure, as young people tend to be particularly influenced by their peers’ opinions and behaviors during this time of life. Most adolescents rate social approval as a very important part of their life.
But peer pressure can also occur among adult social groups, such as in the workplace.
Peer pressure can be effective in shaping behavior because we tend to highly value our relationships with others and our position in the social hierarchy.
Shaming is an informal sanction that involves publicly making someone feel as if they, or their actions, are taboo and worthy of criticism or ridicule.
The point of shaming is twofold: the person doing the shaming may achieve social status for doing it (although this may backfire); and the person being shamed loses social status.
The effect of this behavior is that it places pressure on the person being hsamed to conform to certain standards or norms.
This type of informal sanction can take various forms, such as verbal or written statements, being refused an invite, or social media posts.
Shaming can often be used to prevent people from speaking up, achieving social change, or being their true self.
3. Physical gestures
Physical gestures are nonverbal expressions such as hand movements and body language. They have culturally-defined meanings that can be used to convey meaning.
Physical gestures are informal sanctions because they’re not something created and controlled by an authority. They are subtle signals.
One situation where a physical gesture may be considered a formal sanction is in sports when the referee uses formal hand movements to signify a penalty, such as in football.
4. Social ostracism
Social ostracism involves intentionally excluding someone from a social group.
It may be as simple as intentionally overlooking someone when giving out invites, or as overt as telling someone they are not welcome somewhere anymore.
This can be a powerful means of shaping behavior because it threatens an individual’s sense of belonging and acceptance within a group.
This is often used in social groups as a punishment for violating group norms, a sign that the group no longer considers you to be an ‘in-group member’ or expectations or as a way of signaling to others that certain behaviors or beliefs are unacceptable within the group.
5. Social support
Social support is a positive informal sanction. It could take the form of provision of emotional or practical support to someone in need.
Social support can be more subtle in shaping behaviors than other negative informal sanctions. Generally, it can shape someone’s behavior because it can convey approval and thereby encourage desired behavior.
For example, giving social support to someone who has achieved a milestone on the path to their goals may encourage them and others to keep striving. We may see, for example, coaches using this method regularly.
6. Ignoring someone
Ignoring someone, or withholding attention or interaction from them, can also serve as an informal sanction.
This can be a form of social punishment dished out to someone who has offended you in some way. Or, it may be a simple way of communicating disinterest in that person.
Ignoring someone sends them a message that their behavior doesn’t fit your norms and, therefore, can help to direct them toward normative behavior. However, it of course has emotional consequences and may harm the person’s self-esteem and confidence.
7. Tone of voice
Modifying your tone of voice can serve as an informal sanction. We see this regularly, for example, with teachers!
A teacher who lowers their tone of voice – or puts on their ‘teacher voice’ – is sending an informal sanction to a student to watch their behavior. This may take place as a warning shot before the teacher starts employing more severe formal sanctions.
Conversely, the pitch and volume of voice can be used to give someone encouragement. A coach may use a higher-pitched voice during moments of congratulation, for example.
Gossiping is a form of informal sanction because people don’t want to be gossiped about behind their backs.
In order to avoid gossip, people may avoid offensive or socially inappropriate behaviors.
Gossips may also create misinformation and rumors in order to sanction someone they dislike. This can be a way of sending signals to the person that they are unwelcome in the social group.
Gossip can be a powerful means of influence because it can spread quickly and reach a wide audience, and it can also be difficult to control or contain once it starts.
Expressions of admiration or envy are forms of emotional reactions that can serve as informal sanctions.
Expressions of admiration can be a means of shaping behavior because it sends messages to people about what a good role model looks like. It conveys approval or disapproval of particular normative behaviors or actions.
An example is the use of words of admiration in the workplace. Simple mentions of admiration from a boss or person in leadership can entirely affect the group dynamic and set the tone for normative behaviors and high expectations in the workplace.
Humorous statements intended to create embarrassment can be a form of overt informal sanction. But jokes may also be used to show people you like them, in which case they are a positive informal sanction.
Interestingly, humor can be used as an informal sanction one imposes on oneself. You may notice you did something wrong and use self-depreciating humor as a way of processing the information or teaching yourself not to do it again.
Humor may also, however, have a significant effect on mocking social groups and letting them know they or their behaviors are unwelcome. It is a big part of the cancel culture movement.
In sociology, sanctions can be divided into two types: formal and informal. Formal sanctions are formal penalties or penalties imposed by social groups or societies to enforce social norms and values. This may include statutory penalties, fines, imprisonment, and other penalties provided by law or imposed by recognized authorities.
Informal sanctions, on the other hand, are unofficial or informal means of enforcing social norms and values. Informal sanctions are social or psychological rewards or punishments used to shape behavior within a group or society. They are not formally enforced but imposed informally through social norms, cultural values, and expectations. Informal sanctions can be positive or negative and can take many forms, including approval, disapproval, social ostracism, peer pressure, or social support.
Informal sanctions can shape individual behavior because they are tied to a person’s sense of identity and belonging within a group. They can be more flexible and adaptable than formal sanctions.
Claridge, T. (2020, February 11). Social sanctions—Overview, meaning, examples, types and importance. Institute for Social Capital. https://www.socialcapitalresearch.com/social-sanctions/
Horne, C. (2001). Sociological perspectives on the emergence of norms. Social Norms.
Kendall, D. E. (2006). Sociology in our times: The essentials (5th ed). Thomson/Wadsworth.