In sociology and economic theory, negative sanctions are a means of enforcing social norms and values by punishing deviation from the norm or established rules (Little, 2016).
Sanctions can be divided into two types: positive and negative. Positive sanctions provide rewards to encourage desired behaviors, while negative sanctions are the punishment to discourage undesirable behavior.
Examples of positive sanctions include shaming people publicly, imprisonment, fines for infringements, and even a disapproving look from a parent.
Sanctions maintain social order and cohesion by encouraging conformity to accepted norms and values. They can be powerful forces in shaping social behavior, as they motivate individuals to behave in desirable or acceptable ways.
Definition of Negative Sanctions
Negative sanctions are consequences or punishments assigned to a person or entity when they have engaged in undesirable behavior or behavior that contravenes social norms (Little, 2016).
They are most commonly studied in:
- Sanctions in Sociology: The study of how social groups sanction other groups and individuals for contravening established norms within a society or culture.
- Sanctions in Economics: The study of how entities use market interventions designed to punish or reward market behaviors.
- Sanctions in Geopolitics: The study of how nations impose sanctions on one another to achieve political and economic advantage or coerce others into adhering to geopolitical norms.
Negative sanctions are effective in socializing people and entities into following the norms and rules of society.
They help to shape behaviors, from small everyday actions like talking out of turn or speaking too loudly in the library, through to bigger deviance issues like cheating or stealing.
The effective functioning of organizations, social groups, and society depends on social cohesion and cooperation, which in turn depend on social sanctions – both negative and positive.
Negative sanctions help to maintain social order and cohesion by promoting conformity to accepted norms and values (Horne, 2001). However, they are also believed to be instrumental in maintaining social hierarchies and oppressing non-normative people.
Thus, negative sanctions should be used sparingly, fairly, and appropriately.
Negative Sanctions Examples
Imprisonment is one of the most extreme examples of a negative social sanction.
It is often used as a means of punishment, rehabilitation, or to remove someone dangerous from society for others’ protection.
The downside of this negative sanction is that it often catches people into a cycle of imprisonment because it takes people’s social, cultural, and economic capital away from them – meaning once they get out, they often go back to a life of crime.
2. Community service
Community service is often used as an alternative to imprisonment. It is unpaid work performed by the offender in order to repay a debt to society.
As the work is unpaid and often very unenjoyable, it acts as a deterrent for future reoffending. Furthermore, it holds individuals accountable for their actions and gives them a chance to make amends for any harm they might have caused to society in general.
Community service is distinct from volunteering, since it is typically compulsory, and you do not get to choose the sort of service you end up doing.
3. Social ostracism
More often than not, we come across negative sanctions through subtle social interactions rather than interaction with the government.
For example, if you break an informal norm of society, you won’t be punished by the police. However, you may face backlash from people within your social circles. This is what we call an informal sanction.
Social ostracism involves excluding someone from a social situation, marginalizing them, or otherwise making it known that they are social outsiders.
This can be a powerful means of shaping behavior, especially among children in the playground, who often face ostracism for breaking schoolyard norms.
This type of negative sanction threatens a person’s sense of belonging within their community and can make them feel very uncomfortable.
4. Tariffs and Taxes
Negative sanctions are also often used in the realm of geopolitics. When a country does something that other countries think contravenes geopolitical norms, tariffs, taxes, or embargoes may be put in place.
This is done to attempt to cause harm to the economy of competitors.
For example, Western sanctions have been in place against countries such as Iran and Russia in response to their threats against liberalism and democracy.
As with many other types of sanctions, there are often negative consequences. For example, if you place a trade tariff on a competitor, the price of products in your homeland often goes up, meaning you’re also punishing yourself.
5. Suspension or revocation of professional licenses
In regulated professions such as medicine and psychiatry, negative sanctions are used to punish members who behave in ways that bring the profession into disrepute.
Commonly, this takes the form of revocation of a professional license so the person can no longer practice the profession, or, as a lesser sanction, retraining of people who contravened the rules.
Suspension or revocation of professional licenses is a damaging sanction as it can have significant consequences for an individual’s ability to pay their bills or support their family; it may also permanently damage their career and reputation.
A blacklist is a list – real or imagined – of people who are banned from participating in a group or event.
Perhaps most famously, Hollywood blacklists in the 1980s were used to exclude communist sympathizers from getting jobs in the industry.
Whether there was a real blacklist or not is beside the point – rather, it’s a term used to explain how some people are excluded and socially shunned. Today, we might call it “canceling” someone.
7. Physical gestures
A more subtle form of sanction, used extensively by skilled teachers, is a physical gesture.
Physical gestures are nonverbal expressions or actions which can communicate approval or disapproval. For example, a stern look, a raised eyebrow, or a wagging finger can send a serious message to a child in a classroom.
This is often enough to sanction a student – let them know their misbehavior has been noticed and will be remembered – and get them back on track.
8. Peer pressure
Peers may exert pressure on each other to conform to normative behaviors. In fact, this is one of the prime ways in which young people learn how to behave in social situations.
This pressure can be positive or negative (and, therefore, either a positive or negative sanction) and may be conveyed through verbal or nonverbal cues such as encouragement, disapproval, or teasing.
While peer pressure is most evident in adolescence, it can also occur among adult social groups, such as in the workplace.
It can be effective in shaping behavior because individuals often value their relationships with their peers and desire social status among their peer group.
Shaming involves publicly criticizing or mocking someone for their behavior in order to pressure them to conform to certain standards or norms. In this sense, it’s a form of peer pressure.
People may be shamed by simply having their behaviors pointed out publicly in a one-off conversation.
But in the era of social media, shaming can be extremely harmful because it can so easily be done, and shaming messages can be spread so easily.
10. 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 that is severe enough to cause harm to others or disruption of others’ learning.
When a student is expelled, they are permanently banned from attending a particular school or educational program. They may also be suspended, which is a temporary ban.
Expulsion is a serious and often damaging sanction, as it can have significant consequences for a student’s education and future prospects. However, it is often used as a last resort to maintain a safe learning environment for all students and to protect the reputation of the educational institution (especially in private schools).
List of Additional Negative Sanctions Ideas
|Negative Social Sanctions||Negative Economic Sanctions|
|Confiscation of property||Anti-dumping measures|
|Loss of employment||Countervailing duties|
|Reduction of social welfare||Licensing requirements|
|Loss of voting rights||Seizure of assets|
Positive vs Negative Sanctions
- Positive sanctions are rewards or positive consequences that are provided when the desired or appropriate behavior is exhibited. Positive sanctions can encourage and reinforce the desired behavior, making it more likely to reoccur. Examples of positive sanctions might include praise, rewards, privileges, or other forms of positive reinforcement.
- Negative sanctions are punishments or negative consequences that will be assigned if undesirable behavior is exhibited. They discourage the behavior in the hope that it will be less likely to occur again. Examples of negative sanctions might include reprimands or fines.
Consequences or punishments given in response to undesired or inappropriate behavior are called negative sanctions. They aim to discourage and decrease the likelihood of the behavior occurring in the future. Negative sanctions can shape and discourage a wide range of behaviors, from small everyday actions like talking out of turn or failing to complete a task to larger issues. Examples of negative sanctions include reprimands, fines, penalties, and so on.
Altynkhanov, D., & Taylor, L. (2019). Sanctions and taxes. Journal of Leadership, Accountability and Ethics, 16(1), 97-110.
Horne, C. (2001). Sociological perspectives on the emergence of norms. Social Norms.
Little, W. (2016). Introduction to Sociology. Victoria: Rice University.
Caruso, R. (2021). Negative and positive sanctions. In Research Handbook on Economic Sanctions (pp. 297-308). Edward Elgar Publishing.