Social control is a concept referring to rules and restrictions that shape, supervise, and regulate the behaviors of individuals and societies. We can separate them into formal and informal types of social control.
Examples of social control include the use of religious texts to enforce moral standards, police to enforce secular laws, and stigmatization to suppress unwanted behaviors.
Through social control, acceptable behaviors are encouraged and unacceptable behaviors are discouraged. However, what is considered acceptable and unacceptable is culturally-defined and depends largely on cultural context (Zald, 1978)
The sociological study of social control aims to understand the functions of various rules, regulations, and attitudes that we often take for granted. It allows us to understand how people comply with social control, and how it is used to achieve social stratification.
Social control refers to rules, regulations and sanctions applied in order to encourage socially acceptable behaviors and discourage deviance (Zald, 1978).
Its main function is to sustain social norms and values of a society by rewarding those who conform to them, and punishing those who do not.
Social control can include laws and punishments, such as prison sentences and fines. These are formal social control mechanisms which are often enforced by the government.
Social control also includes informal strategies, such as shaming, stigmatizing, or social exclusion, which are often applied by one’s peers or social group.
In addition to negative strategies such as stigmatizing and punishing, positive reactions such as praising or promoting are also parts of social control.
Social control can be separated into two types: informal and formal controls.
Informal social control refers to strategies adopted in interpersonal relationships, such as shaming or praising someone.
Despite not having any legal implications, informal social control often has significant consequences for people as it can lead to social exclusion and marginalization.
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.
Another distinction can be made between positive versus negative ways of social control. Positive means of social control are used to encourage socially acceptable behaviors. These include respect, praise, job promotions or academic awards and prizes.
Negative means of social control include formal punishments, and informal strategies such as social exclusion and shaming. In contrast with positive social control, negative social control targets socially undesired behaviors.
Social Control Examples
- Shaming: Shaming is an informal way of social control. It is often applied by someone’s peers, social group or society to discourage their behaviors or attitudes that are seen as socially unacceptable.
- Praising: Praise is an informal social control strategy which often takes place in interpersonal contexts. It is a way to encourage the continuity of a behavior or stance, such as academic success or political activism.
- Job promotion: Promoting an employee is a way of social control applied to ensure that they keep improving their job performance and undertake increased work responsibilities.
- Curfews: Curfews are methods of social control that ban people from leaving their house after a particular hour. They can be informal curfews, imposed by one’s parents or family, or formal curfews imposed by legal authorities. Curfews apply social control over one’s mobility for various reasons including safety, security, or asserting power.
- Stigmatization: Stigmatization refers to asserting negative labels to identities and behaviors. This informal way of social control leads to exclusion and possible marginalization of those whose behaviors or identities are deemed socially undesirable. A specific example is substance abuse which is a topic that is often stigmatized in media and education.
- Dress codes: Dress codes include both formal and informal rules, regulations, and expectations about clothing. They include obligations to wear uniforms in workplaces or institutions such as the army and the police forces.
- Censorship: Censorship refers to restrictions over news, discourses, and narratives in various contexts. It includes media censorship, social media restrictions, modifications in school curriculums as well as self-censorship due to fear of negative consequences.
- Prison confinement: Legal punishments, including imprisonment, are formal aspects of social control which serve the goal of discouraging socially undesirable and illegal behavior (McCarthy, 1990).
- Capital punishment: Capital punishment is currently legal in 92 countries while only used in 56 of them (Worlddata, 2022). Some theories argue that death penalty is used to control marginalized communities, for instance Blacks in the United States, who are overrepresented in the death sentence statistics (Tucker, 1969).
- Social status: The distribution of social status to certain professions and castes enables society to differentiate between people and control who is listened to and respected, as well as who is marginalized.
- Caste systems: Caste systems are formal social norms that separate people into groups based on birth and heritage (aka ascribed status). Being born into a caste and limit what profession you can enter and who you can marry.
- Taboos: Taboos are often informal and refer to the things that a society considers impolite and shocking to discuss in public. See some examples of taboos in the USA here.
- Legal system: The legal system sets in place the formal norms of a society and institutes a range of punishments for contravening the laws.
- Language: Post-structuralist theorists argue that language use can be used as a form of control. For example, refusing to using a trans person’s preferred pronouns (instead using their ascribed status at birth) acts as a means of controlling a person’s self-identification.
- Media representation: Negative media representation has the effect of stigmatizing social groups and pushing them to the margins of society.
Stigma refers to social labels and prejudices that shape the society’s perceptions towards identities, behaviors, or lifestyles.
When a behavior is stigmatized, individuals who adopt this behavior are pushed to the margins of society and excluded from “polite company”.
Stigmatization is an informal way of social control as it has negative social consequences such as social isolation, loneliness, and restriction of economic participation for those whose identities or behaviors are stigmatized.
Common examples to stigmatized social groups include people with mental health issues, people with obesity, and those who consume restricted substances.
Dress codes refer to rules, regulations and restrictions around clothing. In many cases, dress codes include uniforms which work as a way of asserting social control over how workers, students, or members of official institutions dress and behave.
Dress codes also include restrictions over wearing certain clothing, such as jeans or crop tops, in workplaces.
In some countries, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, individuals are legally obliged to follow certain religious dress codes in all public places (Ramírez, 2015).
Unlike these examples of formal social control, dress codes can also be implicit. For example, dressing up in a party would be an implicit dress code in accordance with prevalent social expectations.
Censorship refers to formal and informal restrictions over expression in public platforms. This includes censorship in traditional and social media, such as TV programs, newspapers, or the internet forums.
This also refers to self-censorship where someone restricts their own expression due to fear of social or legal consequences.
Media censorship can be used to assert and sustain political power for certain groups. It is also commonly used with the justification of protecting children, youth, or all citizens from harmful discourses or material.
Curfews refer to restrictions and limitations over time spent outside by an individual or a community. It often implies mandatory stays at home particularly during nights.
Curfews can be informally applied, such as the instances of parents controlling teenagers’ timings of leaving and returning home.
Curfews can also be formally applied through laws, especially during extraordinary situations such as coups, wars, or pandemics, but have also been used against certain groups of people – particularly, youths (Velias et al., 2022).
Visa requirements form a global example to formal social control methods. These requirements and restrictions control who can enter a country, and how long they can stay.
Visa requirements often include financial proof requirements, proof of lack of criminal records, tickets, hotel reservations, and detailed travel plans. In some cases, national consulates or visa offices also demand biometric photos or fingerprints.
Visa requirements are often used to discourage illegal entry to countries, and overstaying. These restrictions depend on an individual’s country of citizenship, which deeply affect their freedom to travel and access other opportunities.
Rules, regulations, and restrictions used to assert social norms and values are referred to as social control.
Different means of social control are used in order to reword those who conform to social values, and to punish those who engage in socially unacceptable behaviors.
Social control can be viewed in four broad categories which are formal, informal, positive and negative social control. Visa restrictions are examples of formal social control, while shaming is an informal negative example and praising is a positive one.
McCarthy, B. R. (1990). A micro-level analysis of social structure and social control: Intrastate use of jail and prison confinement. Justice Quarterly, 7(2), 325-340.
Ramírez, Á. (2015). Control over female ‘Muslim’bodies: culture, politics and dress code laws in some Muslim and non-Muslim countries. Identities, 22(6), 671-686.
Tucker, C. B. R. (1969). Capital punishment: a study of law and social structure (Doctoral dissertation, University of Texas at Austin).
Velias, A., Georganas, S., & Vandoros, S. (2022). COVID-19: Early evening curfews and mobility. Social Science & Medicine, 292, 114538.
Worlddata. (2022). Countries with statutory death penalty. Worlddata.info. Retrieved November 4, 2022, from https://www.worlddata.info/deathpenalty.php
Zald, M. N. (1978). On the social control of industries. Social Forces, 57(1), 79-102.
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.