Learn About Various Sanctions in Forcing Compliance With Social Norms

Timeless Tactics and Control Measures Used in Shaping Human Behavior

Young girl being scolded by an authority figure

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Sanctions, as defined within sociology, are ways of enforcing compliance with social norms. Sanctions are positive when they are used to celebrate conformity and negative when they are used to punish or discourage nonconformity. Either way, the use of sanctions and the outcomes they produce are used to encourage our conformity with social norms.

For example, an individual who behaves appropriately in a given setting by being polite, socially engaged, or patient could be sanctioned with social approval. An individual who chooses to behave inappropriately by acting out of turn, saying or doing strange or unkind things, or expressing rudeness or impatience may be sanctioned with disapproval, expulsion, or more severe consequences, depending on the situation.

How Sanctions Relate to Social Norms

Social norms are expected behaviors that are agreed upon by a social group. Social norms are part of society as a whole (like using money as a tool for exchange) and of smaller groups (like wearing a business suit in a corporate setting). Social norms are thought to be necessary for social cohesion and interaction; without them, we could live in a chaotic, unstable, unpredictable, and noncooperative world. In fact, without them, we might not have a society.

Societies, cultures, and groups often use sanctions to enforce compliance with their desired social norms. When an individual conforms—or does not conform—to the social norms, he or she may receive sanctions (consequences). In general, sanctions for conformity are positive while sanctions for nonconformity are negative. They can be informal sanctions such as shunning, humiliation, accolades, or awards to help shape the way individuals and institutions behave.

Internal and External Sanctions

Sanctions can be internal or external. Internal sanctions are consequences imposed by the individual, based on compliance with social norms. For example, an individual might suffer from embarrassment, shame, or depression as a result of noncompliance and associated exclusion from social groups.

Imagine a child who decides to challenge social norms and authorities by stealing a candy bar from a store. Not being caught and without external sanctions, the child may feel miserable from guilt. Rather than eating the candy bar, the child then returns it and confesses guilt. This end result is the work of an internal sanction.

External sanctions, on the other hand, are consequences imposed by others and include things like expulsion from an organization, public humiliation, punishment by parents or elders, and arrest and imprisonment, and more.

If a person breaks into and robs a store and is caught, there will be an arrest, an accusation of a crime, a court trial and the likelihood of being found guilty, and maybe jail time. What happens after the person is caught ​is a series of state-based external sanctions.​​​

Formal and Informal Sanctions

Sanctions can be formal or informal. Formal sanctions are imposed through formal means by institutions or organizations upon other institutions, organizations, or upon individuals. They can be legal or based on an institution's formal code of rules and ethics.

A nation that fails to comply with international law may be "sanctioned," meaning that economic opportunities are withheld, assets are frozen, or trade relationships are ended. Likewise, a student who plagiarizes a written assignment or cheats on a test may be sanctioned by the school with academic probation, suspension, or expulsion.

To expand on the former example, a nation that refuses to comply with an international ban on building nuclear weapons will face economic sanctions from nations that comply with the ban. As a result, the noncompliant country loses income, international status, and opportunities for growth as a result of the sanction.

Informal sanctions are imposed by individuals or groups upon other individuals or groups without the use of a formal, institutional system. Scornful looks, shunning, boycotts, and other actions are forms of informal sanctioning.

Take the example of a corporation whose products are made in factories in which child labor and abusive practices are rampant. Customers who object to this practice organize a boycott against the corporation. The corporation loses customers, sales, and income as a result of informal sanction.