Definition of Social Control

Overview of a key concept in sociology

Crossing signal
A walk signal informs pedestrians when to safely cross the street, illustrating the concept of social control. Dorling Kindersley/Getty Images

Social control, within sociology, refers to the many ways in which our behavior, thoughts, and appearance are regulated by the norms, rules, laws, and social structures of society. Social control is a necessary component of social order, for society could not exist without it.

Overview of the Concept

Social control is achieved through a variety of means, including through social norms, rules, laws, and social, economic, and institutional structures. In fact, there would be no society without social control, because society cannot function without an agreed upon and enforced social order that makes daily life and a complex division of labor possible. Without it, chaos and confusion would reign.

The primary way through which social order is produced is through the ongoing, lifelong process of socialization that each person experiences. Through this process, we are taught from birth the norms, rules, and behavioral and interactional expectations that are common to our family, peer groups, community, and greater society. Socialization teaches us how to think and behave in accepted ways, and in doing so, effectively controls us our participation in society.

The physical organization of society is also a part of social control. For example, paved streets and traffic signals control, at least in theory, the behavior of people when they drive vehicles. Sidewalks and crosswalks control foot traffic, for the most part, and aisles in grocery stores control how we move through the space.

When we fail to conform to norms, rules, and social expectations, we suffer sanctions that remind us of their social importance, and that serve to control our behavior. These sanctions take many forms, from confused and disapproving looks to conversations with family, peers, and authority figures, to social ostracization, among others.

The Two Types of Social Control

Social control tends to take one of two different forms: informal or formal. Informal social control refers to our conformity to the norms and values of the society, and adoption of a particular belief system, which we learn through the process of socialization. This form of social control is enforced by family, primary caregivers, peers, other authority figures like coaches and teachers, and by colleagues.

Kid learning traditional dance in Cambodia
EyesWideOpen/Getty Images

Informal social control is enforced by rewards and sanctions. Reward often takes the form of praise or compliments, but also takes other common forms, like high marks on school work, promotions at work, and social popularity. Sanctions used to enforce informal social control, like those discussed above, tend to be social in form and consist mainly in communication or lack thereof, but can also take the form of the ending of a relationship, teasing or ridicule, poor marks in school, or being fired from work, among others.

Formal social control is that which is produced and enforced by the state (government) and representatives of the state that enforce its laws like police, military, and other city, state, and federal agencies. In many cases, a simple police presence is enough to create formal social control. In others, police might intervene in a situation that involves unlawful or dangerous behavior in order to stop it--to "arrest" literally means to stop--in order to ensure that social control is maintained.

Police on horse back
 Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Other government agencies enforce formal social control as well, like those that regulate which substances or foods can be legally sold, and those that enforce building codes, among others.

It is up to formal bodies like the judiciary and the penal system to dole out sanctions when someone fails to comply with the laws that define formal social control.