Understanding Sanctions in Sociology

How Sanctions Help Enforce Compliance With Social Norms

A girl being scolded by a teacher is exeriencing a sanction for bad behavior in school.
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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 work 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, is 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, is sanctioned with disapproval, expulsion, or more severe consequences, depending upon 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 necessary for social cohesion and interaction; without them, we would live in a chaotic, unstable, unpredictable, and noncooperative world. In fact, without them, we would not have a society.

Because social norms are so important, societies, cultures, and groups use sanctions to enforce our compliance with them. When an individual conforms — or does not conform — to social norms, he or she receives sanctions (consequences). In general, sanctions for conformity are positive while sanctions for nonconformity are negative.

Sanctions are a very powerful force. Even informal sanctions such as shunning, humiliation, accolades, or awards can 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 herself, based upon compliance with social norms. So, 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. He is not caught, so receives no external sanction. His guilt, however, makes him miserable. Rather than eating the candy bar, he returns it and confesses his 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, among others.

If a man breaks into and robs a store and is caught, he will be arrested, formally accused of a crime, tried and likely found guilty, and may be required to serve jail time. What happens after he 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 non-compliant 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 that's 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 the informal sanction.