In sociology, sanctions refer to reactions that are used to encourage or discourage someone else’s behaviors in accordance with social norms and values (Farley & Flota, 2017).
Sanctions can be divided into several categories such as positive and negative, formal and informal, or internal and external. These types differ according to the nature, goal, and source of the sanctions.
Regardless of their types, sanctions are always a reflection of an attempt to enforce social control and to prevent deviance from social norms and values.
Sanctions can take place in an individual level, such as reactions in the context of interpersonal relationships, or in a more institutional level, such as sanctions by (or towards) political institutions such as nation-states.
Types of Sanctions
1. Positive vs. Negative Sanctions
One of the key divisions between different types of sanctions is based on the positivity or negativity of them. While positive sanctions refer to responses with an encouraging characteristic, negative sanctions refer to discouraging reactions, including punishments.
One can receive a positive or negative sanction for the same behavior, depending on the contextual norms and expectations (Gibbs, 1966).
For example, while a woman might receive praises and compliments (positive sanctions) for wearing a glamorous dress in a formal event, she might receive negative sanctions, such as being excluded or being punished, if she wears the same dress in a place that requires official uniforms or a conservative dress code.
2. Formal vs. Informal Sanctions
Formal sanctions are enforced by individuals or organizations who have official roles or statuses, such as teachers, the law enforcement or judicial authorities. Informal sanctions are often applied by one’s peers or the broader society, especially through unwritten customs and traditions.
An example of a formal sanction is being issued with a ticket because of breaking a parking law is considered a formal sanction.
An example of an informal sanction in a society is where marriage is a norm, the social exclusion of a single adult by their peers and neighbors would be an informal sanction (Farley & Flota, 2017).
Internal sanctions refer to responses and reactions derived from internal resources, such as one’s emotions. External sanctions come from external resources, such as other individuals or organizations.
An example of an internal sanction is feelings of guilt by a religious person after committing an act that is deemed a sin in their religion, can be considered an internal sanction.
While this is a negative internal sanction, an individual’s sense of pride after an academic or professional accomplishment can be seen as a positive internal sanction, encouraging these achievements (Liu, 2003).
An example of an external sanction might be being warned by your neighbor because you delay garbage disposal is an external negative sanction coming from an individual, while being issued a fee by the municipality because of not recycling your garbage is a similar sanction coming from an organization (Warren & Smith-Crowe, 2008).
Examples of Sanctions in Sociology
- Positive Formal (External) Sanction: A researcher receives an official award by an association after conducting an important study.
- Positive Informal (External) Sanction: A guy receives a smile from his neighbor after holding the building door for her.
- Negative Formal (External) Sanction: A man receives a ticket from the traffic police after parking his car in a forbidden spot.
- Negative Informal (External) Sanction: An individual becomes excluded by their social circle after coming out as transgender.
- Positive Internal Sanction: A student feels proud of herself after receiving high grades in her final exams. The feeling of pride is a sanction in this context.
- Negative Internal Sanction: A teenage girl steals jewelry from her mom, and feels guilty afterwards. The emotion of guilt is a negative internal sanction.
Sanctions are closely related to norms of a society, which they serve to enforce and assert. Norms can be defined as informal and unwritten rules and expectations about what is deemed an appropriate behavior in a society (Farley & Flota, 2017).
This approach which sees some behaviors as normal and acceptable and the others as abnormal and unacceptable is referred to as normativity.
The sustainability of normativity in any society heavily depends on sanctions, particularly negative sanctions that punish or discourage behaviors that are deemed abnormal.
While this refers to criminal and harmful deviant behaviors, normativity can also exclude people with marginalized identities and further exclude them from society. In such cases, sanctions can further enforce this exclusion by contributing to stigma and prejudice.
For example, in a conservative society where same-sex relationships are a taboo, homophobia would be the norm. As a result, negative sanctions such as gossip, harassment, or even assaults or legal punishments can sustain this heteronormativity.
The main goal of any sanction is to insert social control by preserving social norms and values and discouraging deviance.
Therefore, sanctions are inherent means to enforce social control. Through maintaining social control, sanctions preserve rules and order in a society (Klotz, 1996).
The preservation of social norms and values especially take place through informal sanctions, since these are often enforced by one’s peers or broader social group. For example, in a patriotic society, praising or thanking someone for their military service would imply and sustain this value by functioning as an encouragement.
Another goal and function of sanctions is to reduce crime in a society. Many negative formal sanctions such as incarceration or legal fines directly target criminal acts and behaviors such theft or robberies, discouraging individuals from committing them.
However, while preserving rules and order and preventing crime are often positive functions of sanctions, sustaining normativity can also be a negative act in cases where the norms are immoral, unethical, or discriminatory.
While social control and sanctions are closely related topics that target deviant behaviors in society, their definitions are still different.
Sanctions are responses or reactions to encourage or discourage specific acts or behaviors.
In contrast, social control is the broader idea of asserting power to sustain norms and values in a society. The use of sanctions are vital for asserting social control in any society. Thus, sanctions can be seen as specific tools or manifestations of social control.
Both sanctions and social control are related to power as they enforce and maintain norms and values which are often shaped by those who have power in a community or society (Farley & Flota, 2017).
Sanctions and Socialization of Individuals
Socialization refers to the process through which an individual learns norms, values, and expectations in a society (Farley & Flota, 2017; Klotz, 1996). Sanctions are related to socialization in several ways.
Firstly, since we learn norms and rules through this process, sanctions also teach us when to enforce sanctions. In other words, we know which behavior should be encouraged or discouraged, according to social expectations, because of socialization.
Secondly, we know how to enforce sanctions towards others, through socialization. For example, socialization teaches us how to appropriately praise, or criticize an individual.
Thirdly and relevantly, we learn the meanings of sanctions, especially the informal ones, through socialization. This is important as not all behaviors are interpreted in a similar way in all cultures.
For example, asking someone the question “are you okay” might be interpreted as a criticism or negative informal sanction in one context, but as a genuine question in another, depending on the questioner’s tone and the cultural or linguistic context.
Context is also important in determining which behavior will be sanctioned by whom. The same behavior might provoke conflicting sanctions from different communities or individuals depending on the specific norms and values.
For example, while informing police about crime will provoke punishment and revenge by someone’s former gang members (negative sanction), the same behavior will possibly be rewarded by the legal authorities (positive sanction).
Reactions or responses to encourage or discourage certain behaviors are known as sanctions in sociology. Sanctions are divided into multiple categories depending on their characteristics and source. These categories include positive, negative, formal, informal, external and internal sanctions. Regardless of their type, sanctions are learned through socialization and they are a vital aspect of social control.
Farley, J., & Flota, M. (2017). Sociology. Routledge.
Gibbs, J. P. (1966). Sanctions. Social Problems, 14(2), 147-159.
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.