What is Informal Social Control? What are some Examples?

By Ayesh Perera, published Sept 21, 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.

What is Informal Social Control?

Informal social control relies on public or peer opinion to ensure compliane to the dominant values and norms in a society. This can happen through customs, norms, and mores.

Informal social control involves the internalization of normative standards for conduct via agents of socialization, such as the family, religion, school, and the mass media.

Edward Ross, in particular, argued that informal controls such as belief systems exert more influence than their formal counterparts such as government laws (Ross, 1901).

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

The preservation of social order is the principal objective of social control. Informal social control seeks to prevent anomie and anarchy by instilling widely accepted behavioral standards in the minds of individuals.

Informal social control measures can readily supplement and sometimes even eliminate the need for certain formal control measures.

For instance, John Stuart Mill’s no-harm principle is often propagated by voluntary associations ranging from political groups to labor unions, as evidenced by their commitment to peaceful protests over violent revolution.

Such informal control may complement the legal prohibition of rioting and by extension, preclude any need for martial law.

Informal Means of Social Control

Norms

Norms shape attitudes, afford guidelines for actions and establish boundaries for behavior. Moreover, norms regulate character, engender societal cohesion, and aid individuals in striving toward cultural goals.

Conversely, the violation of norms may elicit disapprobation, ridicule, or even ostracization. For instance, while the Klu Klux Klan is legally permitted in the United States, norms pervading many academic, cultural, and religious institutions barely countenance any association with it or any espousal of its racist and antisemitic propaganda.

Consequently, we see the potency of a norm condemning certain viewpoints being promoted through informal means even in the absence of any equivalent formal counterparts.

Values

Values comprise culturally constructed goals, presented as legitimate objects for attainment to a diverse array of individuals in a society. Such goals are accorded varying degrees of significance based on their relevance to a particular culture’s most cherished ideals.

These values are communicated to individuals, commencing at a tender age, as dreams worth pursuing.

Ancient Sparta offers an example of a society that explicitly upheld the value of military preeminence (Plutarch, 1859). Sparta’s granting of headstones only to a select victorious, the poetry of Tyrtaeus glorifying military prowess, and the agoges that molded 7-year-old boys into warriors barely elude attention.

Mores

Mores are considered folkways that have evolved into ethical principles whose violation may invite severe disapprobation.

Mores are deemed essential to a society’s cohesion, and comprise strong value judgments deeply rooted in community life. They are accorded a greater certainty of rectitude than folkways.

For example, in American society, skipping one’s turn in line may be a breach of a folkway, while bestiality may elicit condemnation as a violation of mores.

According to natural law philosophers like John Finnis, such mores embody objectively true and binding moral codes rather than merely evolved folkways (Finnis, 1979).

Customs

A custom is a rule of action birthed by social expediency. Its rational elements explain the allegiance it has procured. However, a custom’s character appears automated, and it hardly requires agencies of formal control for its enforcement.

The prospect of social censure its breach might engender seems to preserve its vigor. The passage of time seems sufficiently potent to enervate its force and thrust it to desuetude.

Conversely, its triumph over the test of time might enshrine it into law. Consequently, William Blackstone’s legal exposition connects Anglo-Saxon customs to the common law on monarchical rights and obligations (Cecchinato, 2021).

Belief System

Intimate beliefs, regardless of their veracity, exert enormous influence on individual behavior. Beliefs concerning oneself, one’s mission in life, and the purpose of human existence can guide one’s mundane actions and life-altering decisions alike.

A multitude’s subscription to a uniform worldview may fundamentally govern the trajectory of an entire society. Distinct beliefs may compel conformity to different norms.

The Pygmalion effect or the Rosenthal effect, for instance, amply illustrates how people can readily internalize via beliefs various optimistic labels they receive, especially from their superiors, and improve their performance in the relevant tasks to conform to those labels.

Ideology

Ideology encompasses comprehensive worldviews which dictate what is appropriate or not in a certain society. Regardless of whether an ideology governs the law of a land, it can be a potent driver of its adherents’ conduct.

The corruption that pervaded certain former Soviet nations in the aftermath of the Cold War, in many ways, testifies to an ideology that exalted political connections over individual entrepreneurship.

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), too, demonstrates how radical ideologies, herein a combination of Salafi jihadism, Takfirism, and Wahabism, can inspire and sanction atrocities against those holding different religious beliefs (Bunzel, 2015).

Religion

Religion generally includes proscriptions, prescriptions, counsels, customs, rituals, and philosophical and theological beliefs concerning both temporal and extratemporal rewards and punishments. These readily constitute a binding code of conduct for the members of a religious tradition to the extent such members accept it.

For instance, Max Weber’s sociological study of the relationship between the Protestant work ethic and the spirit of capitalism shows a possible causal connection between the Calvinist view on predestination and many Protestants’ financial success, stemming from the view that wealth signifies elect, that could have conduced to the rise of the capitalist system (Weber, 1958).

Examples Informal Social Control Mechanisms

Family

The family antecedes the state and constitutes the initial regulator of many an individual’s conduct. Families socialize their members and prescribe rules for their behavior. The adverse consequences, ranging from spanking to curfews, which attend insubordination, may discourage children from breaking broader social norms as adults.

Moreover, the prospect of rewards, ranging from hugs to allowances, may inspire children to please others with their conduct.

The family plays a vital role, although perhaps in subtle ways, in the inculcation of values such as fairness, honesty, teamwork, and empathy, in their members commencing at infancy.

Additionally, the family significantly influences the passage of cultural and religious norms as well.

The Pesach Haggadah, on the Jewish Passover, affords a striking example of how families can become mechanisms for the conveyance of religious customs and cultural rituals via crucial conversations at significant celebrations.

School

After the family, educational institutions play the most significant role in grooming young children into responsible citizens. The position of authority teachers occupy in a child’s mind often makes a child receptive to indoctrination. Consequently, schools invariably function as mechanisms whereby civic values are propagated.

Emile Durkheim believed that schools are essential for imprinting shared social values into children. The education system meets a functional pre-request of society by passing on the cultural and values of society. This is achieved hidden curriculum and PSHE lessons. This helps to build social solidarity as it teaches students the core values of society.

At the same time, fundamental changes in a society can be strategically wrought by the alteration of the educational system.

Joseph Stalin’s use of the Soviet school system to propagate communist ideology and produce docile subjects out of millions of Russians for his mammoth bureaucracy shows how schools can be employed to uphold ideologically inspired norms (Lauglo, 1988).

Mao Zedong’s grand strategy during China’s Cultural Revolution, too, intimately involved schools. His indoctrination program “zhishi qingnian” forcibly sent urban youth to be re-educated in agrarian regions by the peasantry in manual labor. This scheme deprived them of higher education and engendered China’s ‘lost generation’ (King, 2010).

Workplace: Employee Deviance

The substantial development of economies in recent times has been accompanied by the rise of industrial organizations. This has modified the distribution of social controls in favor of organizational communication.

Consequently, workplace deviance in the form of cyberloafing, coworker-backstabbing, peculation, and mediocre performance has acquired increased salience.

Endeavors to eliminate workplace deviance have involved self-assessment by management, the dispensation of amenities and rewards to compliant employees, and the limited incorporation of subordinates into executive decision-making.

Additionally, inviting the input of even low-level employees in crafting organizational mission statements has proven to be an effectively utilized means of discouraging deviance.

Finally, listening and responding to employees’ complaints and concerns may improve an employer’s credibility and in the long run, enable him/her to significantly shape the behavior of his/her subordinates.

Community: Crime Prevention

Communities play a vital role in deterring deviance. While formal controls such as police surveillance and penal sanctions are not insignificant, community norms strive to discourage deviance and crime employing more subtle and intangible methods.

For instance, the regard accorded by most communities to those pursuing respectable professional goals may serve to channel the energies of many would-be-delinquents away from antisocial behavior into acceptable occupations.

At the same time, the fear of ridicule and ostracization may dissuade them from crime even when they are inclined toward it, in the possible absence of other legitimate professional opportunities.

Additionally, various community programs focus on at-risk youth to serve the end of crime prevention. Two noteworthy examples herein are the Midtown Educational Foundation and the Metro Achievement Center which serve low-income African American and Hispanic youth in Chicago by focusing on academic excellence, virtue development, individual attention, and parental engagement (ABC7Chicago, 2014).

Religion

Religion’s influence as a social control mechanism may vary according to a specific tradition’s metaphysical claims and moral code. Eastern religions that express belief in reincarnation, for instance, hold that merits one gain by good works in the present life can determine one’s existence in the ensuing life.

According to this proposition, living virtuously and assisting the unfortunate might procure one a noble birth in the hereafter, while a wicked and depraved lifestyle would result in being reincarnated into a miserable existence as a cockroach or a pig.

Such beliefs may lead people to abide by normative standards even in the absence of formal social control mechanisms or external surveillance.

Consequently, in Indian, Nepalese and Sri Lankan societies wherein such beliefs hold sway, even without any legal coercion, many people may honor their parents, care for the poor, take care of their children, and respect other people’s property.

Mass Media

Mass media can shape the behavior of entire societies in both manifest and subtle ways. Visual stimuli are exceedingly potent, and the portrayal of scenes on the screen to propagate certain agendas may readily elicit the assent of viewers.

Moreover, the mere exposure to certain ideas consistently over a long time might engender conduct conforming to such propositions. Regular consumers of mass media, gradually might be convinced that what is morally acceptable is what they are seeing or hearing in the media.

The Hypodermic Syringe Model suggests that media audiences are passive recipients of the messages from the media and that these messages without critical thought. It argues that these messages are acted upon mindlessly by audiences.

For instance, the attention that the news bestows upon crime, and perhaps, the severe punishments attending criminals, may dissuade many from delinquent adventures.

Likewise, programs on diet and exercise may influence what many consider appropriate to eat or drink. Movies may communicate views on morals that run contrary to traditional beliefs and thereby invite especially their young viewers to embrace progressive ideologies and live accordingly.

Surveillance and Social Control

Modern society and technology has reached the point where our lives are quite transparent and there is a lack of privacy. Our every move, is monitored but it has become so routine that we no longer notice it or consider it consciously.

Self surveillance means people monitoring themselves and their behaviour due to the fear of being judged by others. This is particularly prominent in new mothers who fear being judged as a bad mother.

Liquid surveillance is all the ways that we are monitored from number plate recognition, store cards to CCTV means that we are constantly monitored and aware of that monitoring. Also refers to your digital footprint that can be used to infringe your civil liberties as well as protect you.

When people are aware of CCTV and other surveillance systems, as they believe that there is a greater chance of the perpetrator being caught so they are less likely to commit crime.

The French philosopher Michel Foucault distinguished between external surveillance, also known as panopticon, and internalized surveillance which he described as panopticism.

In the latter instance, the observer is internalized to an extent that turns the observed into the observer—as though a prisoner is metamorphosed into his/her own jailer.

This concept which Foucault borrows from Jeremy Bentham, holds that the transition from panopticon to panopticism involves an inducement, in an inmate’s consciousness, of the notion of being permanently visible to secure an automated functioning of domination.

Foucault contends that such a scheme establishes the permanence of the effects of external surveillance, even if the actual exercise thereof is discontinuous.

Such an exertion of authority, he argues, renders the actual exercise of formal social control unnecessary. Some people’s propensity to use recycling bins, refrain from jaywalking, and heed parking regulations, is an example (Foucault, 1977).

Are Norms Informal or Formal Social Control?

Norms codified into, and promulgated as law, are means of formal control. Conversely, norms that are not imposed by public authorities possessing coercive power but are willingly followed by most people in society are means of informal social control.

Religion demonstrates how the same norm could be either an informal or a formal means, depending on context. In Saudi Arabia, a Muslim who abandons Islam formally incurs the death penalty from the state.

In the United States, however, this same act would never result in such state-authorized punishment, although it may elicit the ‘informal’ consequence of ostracization from one’s family.

What informal social control mechanisms would help to maintain order?

Families, schools, religious communities, and many voluntary associations can play a vital role in preserving social order. For instance, the family where one first learns what is appropriate to say or do may restrain one from verbally or physically assaulting others out of anger.

Religious prescriptions and counsel for peaceful coexistence can inspire non-aggressive behavior even among those one disagrees with.

Schools that inculcate civic virtues and voluntary associations that promote political engagement may constructively channel frustrations with the status quo into civil dialogue and peaceful protests for changes in government policy.

Why is informal social control important for reducing crime?

Formal social control generally employs fear, via the threat of imprisonment or capital punishment, to procure compliance with laws prohibiting felonies. These, however, unlike informal social controls, seldom provide rational arguments for why individuals ought to refrain from deviance.

Moreover, they cannot guarantee that all criminals will always be caught and punished. Conversely, families teach children that gaining the support and love of others requires that one treat others with respect and care.

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 Informal Social Control? What are some Examples?. Simply Sociology. https://simplysociology.com/formal-social-control.html

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