What is Formal Social Control? What are Some Examples?

By Ayesh Perera, published Sept 08, 2022 | Fact Checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD

Norms, rules, and laws are used to regulate the behavior of individuals and groups. This process, known as social control, can be either informal, as in the exercise of control through customs, norms, and expectations, or formal, as in the exercise of control through laws or other official regulations.

Formal social control is the regulation of society via normative standards based on official laws and social agencies. These social controls explicitly demand compliance, and tend to be repressive and punitive.

The concept of formal social control, prior to its rise to salience in academia, seems to have elicited attention in Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, Cesare Beccaria’s On Crimes and Punishments, and Emile Durkheim’s The Division of Labor in Society.

While historically the concept had been predominantly concerned with a society’s self-regulation, the 20th century saw a shift in focus toward individuals’ conformity to normative social standards (Janowitz, 1975).

What do Formal Social Control Measures Seek to Accomplish in Society?

The prevention of chaos and anarchy, and the maintenance of order constitute a principal objective of formal social control measures (Ross, 2009).

The disapprobation of deviancy from acceptable conduct explains the enforcement of publicly promulgated legal sanctions in order to engender conformity in individuals otherwise prone to undesirable behavior.

Moreover, penalties may serve to uphold retributive justice and deterrence. Some legal philosophers such as John Finnis and Robert P. George have contended that formal social measures should also ensure that individuals’ behavior conform to certain basic norms of the natural moral law (George, 2010).

Examples of Formal Social Control Agencies


Governmental policy, especially via legislation, is an evident example of formal social control that demonstrates what may be acceptable or unacceptable in a certain society.

Germany’s official ban on propaganda by Nazi, Communist and Muslim extremist groups via Strafgesetzbuch section 86 amply illustrates how elected officials may readily outlaw the expression of opinions deemed to be dangerous to a particular society (Strafgesetzbuch, 86).

Another example is Hungary’s zero-tolerance policy toward Antisemitism, introduced in 2010 under the leadership of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán (Kovács, 2022).

The policy has outlawed hate symbols and banned paramilitary groups deemed to be hostile to Hungary’s Jewish community.

Criminal Justice System

The criminal justice system is a collection of social institutions, such as legislatures, police, courts, and prisons, that creates and enforces laws.

Each of theses institutions is an agent of formal social control.

Police Force

The enforcement of laws and the capture of criminals play a vital role in formal social control. This, however, would not be possible without a committed police force. Both minor infractions (e.g., parking violations) and major crimes (e.g., robbery and murder) might be averted by the mere presence of law enforcement officers.

Additionally, certain approaches such as broken windows policing may serve to reduce both undesirable behavior and the likelihood of violent crime (Donald, 2016).

The punishment of misdemeanors such as public drinking, loitering and vandalism can function as an admonition that serious felonies would produce extremely harsh consequences.

Police officers have the power and authority to choose to ignore an incident, to label people as ‘suspicious’ or ‘potentially criminal’, to stop and search a person, to issue formal or informal warnings and to arrest a person using force if necessary.

It is important to understand that the police are expected to police all sections of society equally. However, interpretivist sociologists note that this rarely happens – some groups attract more police attention.

John Lambert observed police­suspect interaction on the streets and noted that officers use stereotypical assumptions or labels about what constitutes ‘suspicious’ or ‘criminal’ in terms of social types and behaviour, i.e. the decision to stop or arrest someone may be based on whether they or the group to which they belong correspond to a negative stereotype held by a police officer.

It is important to understand that the 43 police forces in the UK do not operate in a standardised fashion, i.e. they do not necessarily follow the same rules or have the same priorities as each other. For example, the official criminal statistics  on cannabis use and prostitution are often unreliable because some forces consistently crackdown on these offences whilst others turn a blind eye to them.

Prison Service

The purpose of prison is to be the ultimate deterrent, both controlling crime and punishing offenders.

Incarceration punishes lawbreakers, isolates them from the rest of society, and seeks their rehabilitation and eventual reintegration.

All these objectives strive to procure the conformity of former delinquents and malefactors to a society’s norms for conduct codified into law. Imprisonment that removes a criminal from the public can be construed as an elimination of a bad example, which, if followed by more individuals, could undermine the stable fabric of social relations (Sampson, 1986).

Meanwhile, rehabilitation and reintegration programs seek to diminish the likelihood of reversion on the part of former offenders.

Judicial Courts

The role of the courts are to determine guilt and impose an appropriate sentence.

The concurring testimony of history shows how judges can drive social change, and thereby fundamentally alter what is considered acceptable in a certain society.

Brown v. Board of Education, which ruled school segregation to be unconstitutional, inspired massive changes in attitude toward race in American society.

That the Supreme Court of the United States is considered an institution whose decisions are expected to be enforced, evidently, plays a significant role.

It bears noting however, that the power of the judiciary to exert formal social control is not boundless, as evidenced by the heavy litigation on issues ranging from gun rights to healthcare, which in effect, demands the overturning of past judicial precedents.

Is Formal or Informal Social Control More Effective?

The comparative effectiveness of each method of social control depends on a variety of factors.

Large and urban societies comprising individuals barely acquainted with each other may prove more amenable to formal social control, while smaller communities such as voluntary and religious organizations and families may be more successfully governed by informal methods of social control.

This is because while clear legal expectations can readily produce peaceful and predictable interactions among strangers, warm familiarity with one’s family and friends would prefer more personal and flexible guidelines to cold and rigid rules.

Are Norms Informal or Formal Social Control?

A norm may fall under either informal or formal social control, depending on whether that norm is codified into law.

For instance, the First Amendment to the United States Constitution permits the expression of many viewpoints most Americans consider to be repugnant.

Consequently, while the public display of Nazi, Fascist or White Supremacist symbols is legally permitted, informal conventions of civility upheld by many academic, religious and governmental institutions, seek to exclude them from society.

These same norms, however, would fall under the appellation of formal social control in Germany on account of Germany’s legal ban on hate speech.

About the Author

Ayesh Perera recently graduated from Harvard University, where he studied politics, ethics and religion. He is presently conducting research in neuroscience and peak performance as an intern for the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies, while also working on a book of his own on constitutional law and legal interpretation.

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)
Perera, A. (2022, Sept 08). What is Formal Social Control? What are some Examples?. Simply Sociology. https://simplysociology.com/formal-social-control.html

APA Style References

"Section 86a Use of Symbols of Unconstitutional Organizations". Criminal Code (Strafgesetzbuch, StGB). German Law Archive. 

Beccaria, C. (2016). On crimes and punishments. Transaction Publishers.

Carmichael, Jason (26 June 2012). "Social Control". Oxford Bibliographies. doi:10.1093/OBO/9780199756384-0048

Donald, M. H. (2017). The war on cops: How the new attack on law and order makes everyone less safe. Encounter Books. 

Duignan, B. (n.d). Brown v. Board of Education. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/event/Brown-v-Board-of-Education-of-Topeka

Durkheim, E. (1892). The division of labor in society. Free Pr.

George, R. P. (2010). In Defense of Natural law. Oxford University Press. 

Hobbes, T. (1967). Hobbes's leviathan. Рипол Классик.

Janowitz, Morris (Jul 1975). "Sociological Theory and Social Control". American Journal of Sociology, 81(1): 82–108.

Kovács, Zoltán (2022, July 24). Hungary's Viktor Orbán is not antisemitic - opinion. The Jerusalem Post | JPost.com. Retrieved September 7, 2022, from https://www.jpost.com/opinion/article-712948

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Lambert, J. R., & Jenkinson, R. F. (1970). Crime, police, and race relations: A study in Birmingham. London: Oxford University Press.

Ross, E. A.  (2009). Social Control: A Survey of the Foundations of Order. Transaction Publishers. ISBN 9781412834278.

Sampson, Robert J. (1986). "Crime in Cities: The Effects of Formal and Informal Social Control". Crime and Justice. 8:271.