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

Sociologists define social control as the way that the norms, rules, laws, and structures of society regulate human behavior. It is a necessary part of social order, for societies could not exist without controlling their populations.

Achieving Social Control

Social control is achieved through social, economic, and institutional structures. Societies 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 lifelong process of socialization that each person experiences is the primary way social order develops. Through this process, people are taught from birth the behavioral and interactional expectations common to their family, peer groups, community, and greater society. Socialization teaches us how to think and behave in accepted ways, and in doing so, effectively controls our participation in society.

The physical organization of society is also a part of social control. For example, paved streets and traffic signals regulate, at least in theory, the behavior of people when they drive vehicles. Motorists know that they should not drive through stop signs or red lights, though some do anyway. And, for the most part, sidewalks and crosswalks manage foot traffic. Pedestrians know that they should not run out into the middle of the street, though jaywalking is fairly common. Lastly, the structure of places, such as aisles in grocery stores, determines how we move through such businesses.

When we don't conform to social expectations, we face correction of some sort. This correction can take many forms, including confused and disapproving looks or difficult conversations with family, peers, and authority figures. Refusal to meet social expectations may also result in severe outcomes such as social ostracization.

Two Types of Social Control

Social control tends to take two forms: informal or formal. Informal social control involves conformity to the norms and values of society as well as adoption of a belief system learned through the process of socialization. This form of social control is enforced by family members and primary caregivers, teachers, coaches peers, and colleagues.

Kid learning traditional dance in Cambodia
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Rewards and punishment enforce informal social control. Reward often takes the form of praise or compliments, good grades, job promotions, and social popularity. Punishment tends to involve relationships ending, teasing or ridicule, poor grades, being fired from work, or withdrawal of communication.

City, state, and federal agencies such as the police or the military enforce formal social control. In many cases, a simple police presence is enough to achieve this form of control. In others, police might intervene in a situation that involves unlawful or dangerous behavior to stop the misconduct and maintain social control.

Police on horse back
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Other government agencies, including those that regulate building codes or the goods businesses sell, enforce formal social control also. Ultimately, it is up to formal bodies like the judiciary and penal systems to issue penalties when someone violates the laws that define formal social control.