Sociology Daily

What is Social Control? Global Perspectives, Formal to Informal

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Social Control is in Global Perspectives| Formal | Informal

Social control refers to the various mechanisms and processes through which societies regulate the behaviour of their members, ensuring conformity to established norms, values, and rules. It is a fundamental concept in sociology that examines the ways in which societies maintain order, cohesion, and stability. Social control can be exerted through formal and informal means, and it plays a crucial role in shaping individual and group behavior within a society.


The concept of social control has evolved within the field of sociology, reflecting changing perspectives and theories. Early sociologists, such as Émile Durkheim, focused on the importance of social norms and the collective conscience in maintaining social order. Durkheim argued that shared values and beliefs create a sense of solidarity among individuals, leading them to internalize and follow societal expectations. In the early 20th century, Durkheim witnessed the devastating impact of the First World War and its aftermath on society.

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He argued that the breakdown of social norms and values during wartime highlighted the significance of social control mechanisms in preventing chaos and maintaining order. Durkheim believed that society relied on the moral and ethical consensus established through shared values and norms. The war’s disruption of this consensus highlighted the need to reinforce social bonds and promote social integration. Durkheim’s work emphasized the role of institutions, such as religion and education, in fostering social solidarity and collective conscience as a means of social control.

As sociology progressed, scholars began to explore the mechanisms and processes of social control more deeply. They examined the role of institutions, such as the family, education system, and legal system, in exerting social control. Additionally, sociologists studied the influence of power dynamics, socialization, and social sanctions in shaping individual and group behavior.

Weber identified three types of authority: traditional, charismatic, and rational-legal. He argued that rational-legal authority, based on a system of laws and regulations, was the most stable form of authority and a crucial means of social control. Weber’s work shed light on the role of legal systems and formal institutions in exerting social control and maintaining stability in the face of changing political landscapes.

Foucault argued that social control is not solely imposed by authoritative institutions but is embedded in everyday practices and discourses. He explored the concept of “disciplinary power” and how institutions like prisons, schools, and hospitals exert control over individuals. Foucault’s work challenged conventional notions of social control, highlighting the subtle and pervasive ways in which power shapes and regulates behavior.

The purpose of social control is to regulate and guide individuals’ behavior in a manner that aligns with societal expectations. It serves several functions within a society, including:

Maintaining social order

Social control helps prevent or minimize disruptive or deviant behavior that may threaten the stability and functioning of a society. It promotes adherence to laws, norms, and rules, ensuring social cohesion. For example- the legal system establishes laws and regulations that govern various aspects of social life. By enforcing these laws through the criminal justice system, social control is exercised to maintain order and deter potential deviant behavior.

Preserving social norms and values

Social control helps transmit and reinforce the cultural values, beliefs, and norms of a society across generations. It ensures that individuals internalize and follow these norms, contributing to the continuity of social traditions and practices.For example- Education institutions play a significant role in socializing individuals and transmitting societal norms. Through formal curriculum, informal interactions, and peer influence, schools shape students’ behavior, instilling societal values and expectations.

Preventing social harm

Social control aims to prevent behavior that can cause harm to individuals or society as a whole. It establishes boundaries and guidelines to minimize actions that may infringe upon others’ rights, well-being, or safety. For example-Traffic regulations and laws exist to ensure road safety and prevent accidents. They prescribe speed limits, traffic signals, and other guidelines that help regulate drivers’ behavior and minimize the risk of harm.

Promoting social change

Social control can also be employed to bring about desired social changes and reforms. It can be used to challenge existing norms, practices, and power structures that perpetuate inequalities and injustices. For example- social movements advocating for civil rights, gender equality, or environmental protection engage in social control efforts to challenge and change societal norms and policies. They seek to bring about greater social justice and equality through collective action.

Means of Social Control

The means of social control can be broadly categorized into formal and informal mechanisms.

Formal means of social control are based on explicit rules, regulations, and authoritative institutions. They include:

Laws and legal systems

Formal laws established by governing bodies, enforced by courts and police, serve as a mechanism of social control. Legal consequences, such as fines, imprisonment, or other penalties, are imposed to deter deviant behaviour. For example-A person who commits theft can be arrested, prosecuted, and sentenced to imprisonment based on laws governing property crimes.

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Government and administrative institutions

Government agencies, bureaucracies, and regulatory bodies exercise social control through policies, regulations, and administrative procedures. They monitor and regulate various aspects of social life, such as taxation, public services, and public safety. For example- The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) enforces regulations to ensure the safety and quality of food, drugs, and medical devices available to the public. Its inspections, approvals, and penalties help maintain control over these products.

Formal education system

Schools and educational institutions play a significant role in socializing individuals and teaching societal norms and values. They employ formal curriculum, disciplinary measures, and grading systems to enforce conformity to established rules.For example- School rules that prohibit cheating or disruptive behavior maintain discipline and promote a conducive learning environment. Students who violate these rules may face punishments such as detention or suspension.

Informal means of social control are based on social interactions, relationships, and informal sanctions. They include:

Social norms and expectations

Informal norms, values, and expectations guide individuals’ behavior in everyday social interactions. They are internalized through socialization and reinforced through informal social sanctions. For example- In many cultures, it is considered impolite or disrespectful to speak loudly in a library. The disapproving glances or comments from others act as informal sanctions, exerting social control to maintain a quiet environment.

Peer pressure and social influence

The desire for acceptance and approval from peers can exert significant social control. Peer groups often have their own norms and expectations, and individuals may conform to avoid rejection or gain social rewards. For example- A teenager might choose to engage in certain behaviors, such as smoking or drinking, to fit in with a particular peer group. The fear of social exclusion or ridicule acts as a form of social control in this context.

Informal socialization agents

Informal agents of socialization, such as family, friends, and community members, play a crucial role in shaping individuals’ behavior and attitudes. They provide guidance, support, and informal norms that influence conformity.For example-Parents teach their children cultural values, manners, and expectations regarding behavior in different social settings. Through their guidance and reinforcement, parents exercise social control over their children’s actions.

Types of Social Control

There are various types of social control that operate within societies:

Formal social control

This refers to mechanisms and processes that are explicitly established by authoritative institutions, such as the legal system or government bodies. It relies on rules, regulations, and formal sanctions to regulate behavior.For example- Traffic laws that prescribe speed limits, traffic signals, and driving regulations are a form of formal social control.

Informal social control

Informal social control operates through social interactions, relationships, and informal norms. It relies on social sanctions, peer pressure, and societal expectations to shape behavior. For example- Peer disapproval or ostracism for violating a group’s norms is a form of informal social control.

Internalized social control

Internalized social control refers to the process by which individuals internalize societal norms and values, leading them to regulate their own behavior without external pressures or sanctions. For example- A person who refrains from stealing not only because of the fear of legal consequences but also because they have internalized the moral belief that stealing is wrong.

Coercive social control

Coercive social control involves the use of force, threats, or violence to regulate behavior. It often relies on the exercise of power by authoritative institutions or individuals. For example-The use of physical punishment or torture by authoritarian regimes to suppress dissent and maintain control over the population.

Persuasive social control

Persuasive social control operates through communication, persuasion, and influence. It seeks to shape behavior by appealing to individuals’ beliefs, values, and emotions. For example- Public service announcements encouraging individuals to quit smoking by highlighting the health risks and the negative impact on loved ones.

Conformist social control

Conformist social control occurs when individuals willingly conform to societal norms and expectations to avoid social disapproval or gain social rewards. For example- Dressing formally for a job interview to conform to the societal expectation of professionalism and increase the chances of being hired.

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Ways of achieving social control can vary depending on the specific context and societal factors. Some common strategies include:

Education and socialization

Educational institutions, families, and other socializing agents play a crucial role in transmitting cultural values, norms, and expectations to individuals. By instilling these values early on, societies can shape behavior and promote conformity.

Laws and regulations

Establishing and enforcing laws, rules, and regulations through legal systems and governmental bodies helps maintain social control. Penalties and sanctions for violating these laws serve as deterrents.

Social sanctions

Informal social control is often exerted through social sanctions, such as disapproval, ostracism, or loss of social status. These sanctions can influence individuals’ behavior by reinforcing conformity or discouraging deviance.

Social rewards

Societies can provide incentives and rewards for conforming behavior, encouraging individuals to adhere to established norms and expectations. These rewards can be material, social, or psychological in nature.

Surveillance and monitoring

Surveillance mechanisms, such as security cameras, patrols, or digital monitoring, can help deter and detect deviant behavior. The perception of being watched can act as a deterrent and maintain social control.

Social movements and collective action

Social movements can challenge existing social norms, advocate for change, and exert social control by mobilizing collective action. They bring attention to social issues, influence public opinion, and pressure institutions to address grievances.

Why any society may struggle to establish proper social control within the country can be attributed to various factors:

Diversity and complexity

Societies that are diverse in terms of culture, religion, ethnicity, and values may face challenges in establishing uniform social control mechanisms. Different groups may have conflicting norms and expectations, making it difficult to enforce a single set of rules.

Inequality and power dynamics

Societies characterized by significant social and economic inequalities may experience difficulties in achieving effective social control. Power imbalances can lead to differential treatment and enforcement of rules, undermining the legitimacy and effectiveness of social control mechanisms.

Weak institutional capacity

Inadequate infrastructure, resources, and governance systems can hinder the establishment and enforcement of social control mechanisms. Weak institutions may struggle to implement laws, regulate behavior, and address deviant actions effectively.

Cultural resistance and social change

Societies experiencing rapid social, cultural, or technological changes may face challenges in adapting and establishing new social control mechanisms. Traditional norms and practices may clash with emerging values, leading to conflicts and resistance to social control efforts.

Social disorganization

Societies characterized by social disorganization, such as high crime rates, poverty, or weak social networks, may struggle to establish effective social control. Disrupted social ties and a lack of community cohesion can undermine the collective ability to regulate behavior.

External influences

Globalization and the interconnectedness of societies can introduce external influences that challenge established social control mechanisms. The diffusion of ideas, values, and norms from different cultures and societies can disrupt traditional social order and norms.

Global Leaders’ Perspectives

Global leaders throughout the 20th and 21st centuries have grappled with social control in the context of major geopolitical events and societal transformations. Their perspectives have been shaped by issues such as war, globalization, social movements, and technological advancements.

First World War and Interwar Period

During and after the First World War, leaders sought to restore social order and stability in the aftermath of unprecedented destruction. They implemented measures to reinforce social cohesion and establish social control. For example, the Treaty of Versailles aimed to redress the power balance among nations and prevent future conflicts.

Cold War and Post-Colonial Era

The Cold War era witnessed global ideological struggles and the quest for social control within different political systems. Leaders sought to exert control over populations through propaganda, censorship, and surveillance, while also promoting their respective socio-political ideologies. This era also saw decolonization movements, with leaders striving to establish new social control mechanisms in newly independent countries.

Late 20th Century and Globalization

The late 20th century marked a period of rapid globalization, technological advancements, and social change. Global leaders grappled with the challenges of maintaining social control in a more interconnected world. They faced issues such as increasing inequality, the spread of consumerism, and the rise of social movements advocating for civil rights, gender equality, and environmental protection.

21st Century and Digital Age

The 21st century has brought forth new challenges and opportunities for social control due to the proliferation of digital technologies and social media. Global leaders have had to address issues such as online surveillance, cybersecurity, and the regulation of digital platforms. They have also grappled with the rise of misinformation, online radicalization, and the impact of social media on public discourse.

In summary, prominent sociologists and global leaders have provided diverse perspectives on social control from the First World War to the 21st century. These perspectives reflect the changing social, political, and technological contexts of different eras. Sociologists like Durkheim, Weber, and Foucault have analyzed social control from theoretical and critical lenses, highlighting the role of institutions, power, and knowledge. Global leaders have responded to geopolitical events and societal transformations, implementing measures to restore social order, promote ideological agendas, and adapt to the challenges of globalization and technological advancements. Understanding these perspectives offers valuable insights into the evolving nature of social control in the modern era.

Overall, social control is a complex and multifaceted concept within sociology. It encompasses the mechanisms and processes through which societies regulate and shape individual and group behavior to maintain order, cohesion, and stability. Social control operates through formal and informal means, ranging from laws and institutions to social norms, sanctions, and socialization processes. Various factors, such as diversity, inequality, weak institutions, cultural resistance, social change, and external influences, can pose challenges to establishing effective social control within a society. Understanding these factors and employing appropriate strategies is essential for societies to promote social order, harmony, and the well-being of their members.

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