Social control refers to acts, rules, regulations and sanctions aiming to encourage socially acceptable behaviours and to discourage deviance (Chekroun, 2008).
There are two types of social control: formal and informal.
- Formal social control takes place through legal punishments and sanctions by a legitimate authority.
- Informal social control is enforced by members of a community or a society rather than by law (Chekroun, 2008).
Unlike formal social control, informal social control is enforced by regular individuals, and not necessarily legal or judicial authorities.
Examples of informal social control include verbal and written feedback received from one’s peers, praise, or an aggressive comment.
Informal Social Control Definition
“Informal social control is the sanctioning of an individual by a peer…or a group member, someone with the same or with a different social status…whose specific social role or social function is not to sanction the transgression of social norms” (Chekroun, 2008, p. 214).
Informal social control refers to the informal reactions against norms transgression and deviance.
It can be directed by one’s friends, family, peers, neighbors, community members or strangers.
The distinguishing feature of informal social control is that it is enforced by individuals who do not have a formal role or duty to maintain social order (Chekroun, 2008).
Examples of informal social control include shaming a peer for wearing very casual clothes in a professional setting, or to praise a student for their hard work.
Informal social control can be asserted through verbal or written feedback as well as the body language, such as an angry look or physical aggression.
Informal Social Control Examples
- Shaming: Shaming is an informal type of social control which is often applied by someone’s peers, social group or society to discourage their behaviors or attitudes that are seen as socially unacceptable.
- Praising: Praisal is an informal social control strategy which often takes place in interpersonal contexts to encourage the continuity of a behavior or a trend.
- Gossiping: Gossipping is a collective form of informal social control which can create social pressure on individuals. Talking about someone behind their back can lead to their stigmatization and/or social exclusion from a community.
- An Aggressive Comment: Making an aggressive comment can be an informal social control against unwanted or deviant social behavior or trends.
- A Personal Insult: Insulting is a negative form of informal social control which is a reaction to deviant or unwanted behavior.
- A Polite Comment: Making a polite comment can be an informal means of either encouraging or discouraging an attitude.
- An Angry Look: Looking to someone in an angry way is a non-verbal reaction which can be considered an informal social control mechanism as it shows discontent.
- A Loud Audible Sigh: Sighing loudly and audibly is a non-verbal way of reacting to an unwanted situation, which can be classified as a way of informal social control (Chekroun, 2008).
- Physical Aggression: In some communities, physical aggression against someone who behaves in an unwanted or deviant way can be an informal social control strategy. However in some other contexts, physical aggression itself can be considered a deviant behavior too.
- Informal Dress Codes: Informal dress codes are unwritten expectations about how to dress somewhere, which is asserted by how the majority dresses. These unwritten expectations can be considered as a type of informal social control.
- Ignoring: Ignoring someone who behaves in a socially unacceptable way is a form of informal social control which can be an effective way of discouraging certain behaviors or attitudes.
- Encouraging: Encouraging someone to engage in positive behaviors or attitudes is an informal social control strategy which can reinforce desirable behaviors or trends.
- Social Support: Social support is a form of informal social control which can be used to promote positive behaviors or attitudes, by providing encouragement and reinforcement.
- Nonverbal Cues: Nonverbal cues, such as shaking one’s head or rolling one’s eyes, can be an informal means of expressing disapproval or disagreement.
- Humor: Humor can be used as a form of informal social control to discourage unwanted or deviant behavior, by making light of the situation and defusing tension.
- Peer Feedback: When peers, rather than teachers or other authority figures, give each other negative or positive feedback about their actions or performance.
Types of Informal Social Control
According to sociologist Albert Hunter (1985) there are three types of informal social control which can be categorized as private, parochial and public.
These three types are classified according to the level of closeness in social relationships that correspond to different types of informal social control.
According to Hunter’s categorization (1985), they are as follows:
- Private social control is enforced by friends and family.
- Parochial social control is enforced by close contacts such as neighbors and colleagues.
- Public social control refers to those maintained by one’s fellow citizens. For example, gossiping about neighbors would be a case of parochial social control, while receiving angry looks by strangers in a crowded street for a deviant act would be public social control.
See Also: Hirschi’s Social Control Theory
Social Control and Enforcement of Social Norms
We can also explore how informal social control is perpetuated through social norms. In sociology, we tend to look at four types of norms that can affect our behaviors: taboos, mores, folkways, and laws.
Three of those four social norms (mores, folkways, and taboos) are enforced through informal social control rather than formal social control, as shown below.
|Type of Norm||Description||Mode of Enforcement||Examples|
|Folkways||Folkways are customs that we follow but are often not written down. We learn them through intuition as we grow up.||Informal Social Control: Social pressure, social inclusion, gossiping, praising, etc.||See: Folkways Examples|
|Mores||Mores are moral norms. If you break them, you would be seen as not just in poor taste, but immoral. They’re often linked to religious rules.||Informal Social Control: Ignoring, shunning, gossiping, etc.||See: Mores Examples|
|Taboos||Taboos are ‘negative norms’ – things that people find offensive and socially inappropriate if you are caught doing them.||Informal Social Control: Shock, gasps, group exclusion, avoidance, gossip, parental guidance.||See: Taboos Examples|
|Laws||Laws are norms that are actually defined as being legal or illegal. The government has decided these norms are so important that you could get in trouble for breaking them.||Formal Social Control: Fines, imprisonment, community service.|
Top 5 Means of Informal Social Control
Humiliating or ridiculing someone for a socially unwanted or deviant behavior can be defined as shaming.
When enforced, shaming often creates feelings of embarrassment, guilt, anxiety, and inferiority in an individual (Harris, 2009).
Shaming is used to maintain norms and social expectations. Therefore, it is a common means of informal social control.
Shaming can be enforced by one’s peers or community members, as well as those in official power positions (Harris, 2009).
In addition to interpersonal interactions, shaming can also occur in broader contexts, such as media narratives or political discourses.
While it can function as a means of discouraging crime and deviance, shaming can also create negative consequences by harming the mental health of the individuals who are subjected to it.
Praising refers to expressions of approval and positive feedback to encourage a socially desired behavior.
It can be used as an informal social control strategy to motivate the continuity of a trend or act, by positively reinforcing it.
Praising can occur in interpersonal settings through verbal or written forms and compliments. Similar to shaming, it can also occur in a broader setting such as media or politics.
An example of praise used as a social control mechanism is a peer complimenting another peer for their career achievements. In addition, praising is often used in parenting, to encourage desired behaviors in children, such as being respectful or doing chores.
Spreading rumors or information about an individual can be defined as gossiping. As an informal means of social control, gossiping is used to enforce social norms and expectations in a community or broader society.
Rumors and information distributed through gossiping can include authentic or alleged personal information, as well as opinions of those who spread the rumors.
In particular, negative rumors about an individual engaging in deviant or criminal behavior are often used to discourage these acts by excluding that individual. For example, in a society where sexual relationship before marriage is a taboo, spreading rumors about an individual’s relationships would reproduce this taboo and reinforce this norm.
4. Physical Aggression
Using physical force through hitting, pushing, kicking or enforcing any other kind of physical aggression against someone is also a form of informal social control.
While not all types of physical aggression is used to maintain social control, there are cases in which it is used to enforce social norms and values.
An example of the use of physical aggression as a means of informal social control is the case of vigilantes, or citizens who apply street justice (Cubellis et al., 2019).
Vigilantes can be defined as citizens who physically attack another individual who is thought to be both criminal and deviant, such as the cases of sexual offenders (Cubellis et al., 2019).
5. Informal Dress Codes
Enforcing unwritten rules and expectations about fashion styles and ways of dress can be classified as a means of informal social control.
For example, in many church communities it is socially expected from people to dress nicely and semi-formally during Sunday Masses, even if there is no formal rule banning them from wearing jeans or dressing casually.
Similarly, in some European or American towns with less diversity, wearing an Islamic hijab or a face veil (niqab) might not be a part of a socially acceptable dress code, despite the lack of any laws banning them.
Informal vs Formal Social Control
As defined above informal social control refers to strategies adopted in interpersonal relationships, such as shaming or praising an individual.
Informal social control often has significant consequences for people as it can lead to social exclusion and marginalization, despite not having legal implications.
In contrast, formal social control refers to laws, rules, and regulations enforced officially by social and political authorities. Examples can range from smoking bans to prison sentences and capital punishment.
Both forms of social control can be either positive or negative. Positive social control encourages socially desired behavior, in contrast with negative social control which discourages unacceptable social trends and behaviors.
Social control refers to acts, regulations and sanctions to discourage deviance and encourage conforming to norms. Informal social norms are enforced by peers, neighbors, community members and citizens, who are not officially expected or authorized to sanction deviance.
Positive informal social control refers to acts such as praising or complimenting, that encourage socially desired behavior. In contrast, negative informal social control is reactions such as an angry look or an aggressive comment to discourage deviance.
Other categories of informal social control include private, parochial and public, which are outlined by Hunter (1985) to classify social control based on social relationships.
Chekroun, P. (2008). Social control behavior: The effects of social situations and personal implication on informal social sanctions. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 2(6), 2141-2158.
Cubellis, M. A., Evans, D. N., & Fera, A. G. (2019). Sex offender stigma: An exploration of vigilantism against sex offenders. Deviant Behavior, 40(2), 225-239.
Harris, A. (2009). The role of power in shaming interactions: how social control is performed in a juvenile court. Contemporary Justice Review : CJR, 12(4), 379–399. https://doi.org/10.1080/10282580903342854
Hunter, A. J. (1985). Private, parochial and public social orders: The problem of crime and incivility in urban communities. In G. F. Suttles & M. N. Zald (Eds.), The challenge of social control:
Citizenship and institution building in modern society (pp. 230-242). Norwood, NJ: Ablex.