Agents of Social Control

By Charlotte Nickerson, published Sept 23, 2022 | Fact Checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD

An agent of social control is an individual or group that attempts to limit or regulate another person or group's behavior, ensuring conformity to the dominant values and norms in that society.

Agencies, such as the family, can be informal and exercise control through customs and norms. Alternatively, agencies, such as the police, exercise formal control through laws or other official regulations.

Each type of agent has its own unique methods and goals for controlling behavior, such as negative sanctions, which punish those who transgress the rules of society, and positive policies which seek to persuade or encourage voluntary compliance with society's standards.

Agents of social control provide justification as to why people conform to societal norms and expectations.

What is Social Control?

  • Social control is the power of the institutions, organizations, and laws of society to influence or regulate the behavior of individuals and groups.
  • For instance, someone may internalize the values and beliefs of their religion and behave in a way that is consistent with those values even when no one is watching.
  • Social control can also be imposed from the outside, through rewards and punishments. For example, people may comply with traffic laws because they fear getting a ticket (Chriss, 2022).
  • Maintaining social order is key to preserving any society. All societies, no matter their level of development or civilization, have different methods of controlling the behavior of members and keeping social order (Mumby, 1993).

We normally refer to the people responsible for social control as agents, by extension, we can also talk about agencies of social control (such as our family, the education system, the media and so forth).

There are numerous agencies of social control, ranging from the police, to family, religion, and schools.


The family is an informal agent of social control. Primary socialization begins at home, and parents are the first teachers. They instill in their children the values and beliefs of their culture, as well as behaviors, conventions, and ways of living.

As children grow older, they internalize these values and they influence practically any action they take. The family is also a source of support, which can help people resist negative peer pressure.

Parents, for instance, are agents of social control for their children. They use a mix of rewards and punishments to shape their child's behavior. Positive sanctions can include anything from verbal praise to material rewards, like a toy or allowance. Negative sanctions may include scolding, verbal criticism, or withholding privileges.

Parents can verbally influence individuals directly through suggestion, persuasion, praise, blame, ridicule, and criticism (Matsueda & Heimer, 1987).

Educational Institutions

In schools, children learn not only academic skills but also social skills and the values of their culture. Schools teach children how to behave in society and follow rules. They also instill in children a sense of loyalty to their country and its institutions.

In this way, schools prepare children to become productive citizens who contribute to the stability and prosperity of their society.

Schools use a number of methods to socialize students. For instance, they may have dress codes or rules about hair length that require students to conform to certain standards of appearance. Schools also use rewards and punishments to shape student behavior.

Good grades, for instance, are often rewarded with praise from teachers and parents, while poor grades may result in criticism or even expulsion from school.

In this way, schools mold children into responsible, productive members of society as they learn the boundaries of acceptable and unacceptable behavior (Chriss, 2022; Innes, 2003).


The police play an important role in enforcing social norms. For instance, they may patrol areas where there is a high rate of crime in order to deter people from committing crimes.

They may also respond to reports of crimes that have been committed. By doing this, the police send a message that crime will not be tolerated and that those who break the law will be punished. The police may even use force to stop people from breaking the law or causing harm to others.

There are different types of policing, including community policing, problem-oriented policing, and Broken Windows policing. Community policing involves working with members of the community to prevent crime.

Problem-oriented policing involves addressing the root causes of crime. Broken Windows policing is a strategy that focuses on cracking down on minor offenses in order to discourage more serious crimes from taking place (Chriss, 2022).


Religion is an important institution in maintaining social cohesion and stability (Durkheim, 1951). It takes on the role of agent of socialisation as well as a form of informal social control which helps to maintain the status quo. It does this by providing a cultural basis for the norms and values and legitimises them.

Religious leaders often serve as moral guides, teaching their followers the values and beliefs of their faith. This can influence the way people behave, both in private and in public.

For instance, someone may be influenced by dietary beliefs and choose not to, for example, eat pork, in their everyday life. By teaching people what is and is not moral, religions socialize members of society to be "good."

The Ten Commandments are perhaps the most famous set of such moral guidelines to originate from the Judeo-Christian tradition. Religion can also be used to justify other agents of social control. For example, many religions teach that it is important to obey the government or one's parents.

This helps to legitimize government and family authority and maintain social order. In this way, religion can be used to support existing power structures and prevent social change (Stark & Bainbridge, 2013).

Karl Marx states that religion is a tool of the ruling class to maintain power and reproduce inequality. They justify the principals of capitalism and prevent the proletariat revolution. Marxists argue that major scientific discoveries are motivated by generating mass profits and only fuels capitalism further.


Laws are enacted to influence or regulate behavior, and law enforcement officials work to ensure that these laws are followed. The government both encourages and discourages specific behaviors through its actions and policies.

Indirectly, it uses speeches to communicate social values. It also can directly rehabilitate criminals or administer punishment. In addition, the government regulates welfare programs as a way to prevent crime and ensure that people obey society's rules.

By issuing punishments for breaking these rules, the government is better able to keep people in line with what is considered socially acceptable behavior.

The government may also use more coercive methods of social control, such as surveillance, censorship, and punishments like imprisonment or execution.

By using these extreme measures, the government sends a message that such behavior will not be tolerated and serves as a deterrent to potential criminals (Innes, 2003; Chriss, 2022).

Peer Group

A peer group is a social group consisting of people who are of approximately the same age, have similar status, and share similar interests.

Peer groups serve as agents of social control by setting standards for behavior and punishing those who do not conform to these standards.

For example, a peer group may pressure its members to drink alcohol or use drugs. Those who refuse to go along with the group's activities may be ridiculed or excluded from the group. In this way, peer groups can influence their members to engage in behaviors that they would not otherwise consider.

While peer groups can have a negative impact on behavior, they can also promote positive socialization. For instance, peer groups can teach cooperation and respect for others. They can also provide support during difficult times, such as when a member is experiencing grief or bullying (Grizard et al., 2006).

Neighborhood / Community

Neighborhoods and communities can also serve as agents of social control. For instance, community members may come together to form neighborhood watch groups. These groups work to prevent crime by keeping an eye out for suspicious activity and reporting it to the authorities.

In this way, they help to make their neighborhoods safer and more orderly places to live. This can reduce criminality because people who feel connected to their community are less likely to want to engage in activities that would harm it.

Additionally, the local neighborhood can reinforce or strengthen the individual family as an agency of social control. The neighborhood, in many tight-knit communities, comes only after the family in social importance.

The elder members of the neighborhood or locality, when they are of high enough status and have close enough interpersonal relationships, keep group customs and norms alive and enforce them in the neighborhood (Innes, 2003).

Mass Media

Through television, movies, radio, and the internet, the media communicates messages about what is considered socially acceptable behavior.

The media can also be used to discourage certain behaviors. For example, anti-drug campaigns may use the media to educate people about the dangers of drug use. These campaigns often feature negative consequences, such as addiction or death, in order to dissuade people from using drugs.

The media can also have a more subtle impact on behavior. For instance, TV shows and movies often depict violence as a way to resolve problems. This can desensitize viewers to violence and, according to some sociologists, make them more likely to resort to it in their own lives.

The media enforces these norms through positive and negative communication. While a channel may put positive sanctions on a clothing brand by advertising it, it can put negative sanctions on a celebrity through close scrutiny and criticism (Innes, 2003).


Employers expect their employees to behave in a certain way and conform to certain standards. For instance, employers typically expect employees to show up on time, dress appropriately, and refrain from using offensive language.

Those who do not receive negative sanctions: they may be disciplined or even suspended or fired. Additionally, the workplace can serve as a place of positive socialization.

For instance, workplaces can provide training on how to handle difficult customer service situations. They can also teach teamwork and communication skills. By teaching these things, workplaces can help to prepare employees for success in their careers.

Other methods of encouraging positive behavior can include bonuses and verbal phrases (Van Maanen & Barley, 1982).

Abercrombie and Warde et al. (2000) identified four types of ways in which the workforce is controlled: Besides direct control, these include:

  • Technical control, where a worker is given fewer tasks that require less skill.
  • Bureaucratic control, where there is a hierarchy of authority whose rules and procedures largely dictate the worker’s job.
  • Responsible autonomy,where workers who are more experienced are given the chance to deliver lessons how they see fit within certain guidelines.

About the Author

Charlotte Nickerson is a member of the Class of 2024 at Harvard University. Coming from a research background in biology and archaeology, Charlotte currently studies how digital and physical space shapes human beliefs, norms, and behaviors and how this can be used to create businesses with greater social impact.

Fact Checking

Content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Fact checkers review articles for factual accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. We rely on the most current and reputable sources, which are cited in the text and listed at the bottom of each article. Content is fact checked after it has been edited and before publication.

This article has been fact checked by Saul Mcleod, a qualified psychology teacher with over 17 years' experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in psychology journals including Clinical Psychology, Social and Personal Relationships, and Social Psychology.

Cite this Article (APA Style)

Nickerson, C. (2022, Sept 23). Agents of Social Control. Simply Sociology.


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