Formal and Informal Social Control



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Formal and Informal Social Control

            Different societies have their different forms of social control. Social control is therefore, part of the socialization process in different societies. When growing up, individuals have knowledge about the different forms of social control in their communities. Social control includes rules or laws, which community members adhere. Failure to adhere to the rules in society is regarded deviant behaviour. In most societies, deviant behaviour is punishable. The purpose of this punishment is normally to retain social order in the community. Social control can therefore, be defined as “the techniques and strategies for preventing deviant human behaviour in any society” (Schaefer 158). There are different strategies through which this is ensured, which can be either social strategies or political strategies. Nonetheless, social control is in two major forms, namely the formal social control and the informal social control. These are used “to encourage conformity and obedience-and to discourage violation of social norms” (Schaefer 160).

Although formal social control and the informal social control help maintain social order and adherence to rules and laws in society, there are various factors, which differentiate between these two forms of social control. The first difference between these two forms of social control lies in their mode of implementation. Formal social control is implemented by a higher authority compared to informal social control. The police, military officers, employers, among other authorized agents are responsible for implementing formal social control. Formal social control is also resorted to as a last option when informal social control fails. However, since social control is an aspect of the culture of a society, considering that cultures vary in different societies, it is therefore eminent that the type of behaviour that will call for formal or informal social control will vary in different societies (Siegel 201).

According to Parsons, formal social control is mostly in the form of codified regulations, statutes, and rules, which are meant to counter deviant behaviour. Therefore, a community might have many rules and regulations, meant to address different types of deviant behaviour (168). For instance, all the individuals in society will be expected to adhere to the laws that are concerned with theft. While some laws might apply to all the members of a society, others will apply only to a group of people in the society. Laws concerned with murder, theft, incitement, impersonation, among others, will apply to all people, as everyone is capable of such deviant behaviours. However, laws regarding poaching, illegal fishing, and mining, among others, are only applicable to the specific individuals who are capable of indulging in such activities. Additionally, different countries have corporate laws. These do not also apply to the whole population, but only to the concerned institutions in the country. Therefore, not all formal control is always directed to all individuals in society, but is diverse, and might apply to specific individuals, and also to the whole population (Parsons 169).

Another difference between formal and informal control lies in the ways in which these are conducted. For formal social control, it is the government of the specific country, which ensures that formal law takes effect. In addition, organizations, which are concerned with law, are also responsible for ensuring formal social control, through development of law enforcement mechanisms. Law enforcement mechanisms differ from country to country. However, in most countries, these are in the form of sanctions. Sanctions also vary from country to country, depending on the nature of deviant behaviour. Sanctions comprise imprisonment, fines, among others. Social control in a country is a process, as there are procedures or steps to be undertaken in order to attain control. In the case of formal control, this is also a process, which most countries consider important. Therefore, different countries might have varying steps involved in their formal social control processes (Clinard and Meier 43). In democratic countries, legislation is the source of formal control. Therefore, different individuals sit down to develop and implement the processes involved in formal social control. These are leaders, holding political offices, and acting as the representatives of their people, who elected them to office. Enforcement of formal social control is a different practice, and government agencies, school systems, courts, police officers, among other authoritative individuals and systems in a country mainly perform this (Siegel 200).

Informal social control is the opposite of formal social control. The characteristics of formal social control are the exact opposite of those of informal social control. For instance, while formal social control utilizes codified laws, the informal social control does not make use of written rules. Instead, informal social control makes use of unwritten norms, customs, and traditions. Another factor that differentiates informal social control from formal social control is the bodies responsible for enforcing the informal social control in society.

While the government and other authoritative bodies enforced the formal social control, informal social control is performed by its agents, including informal social networks and organizations (Siegel 202). The agents in charge of informal control are unofficial, and not recognized in an official capacity. Another major difference between formal social control and the informal social control is the nature of societies, where these forms of social control are adopted. Communities that are still traditional or conservative practise are more likely to rely fully informal social control. Such communities still live in the past, ad have not adjusted their cultures with regard to the arms of time. Therefore, they will use their cultural form of social control, which is informal in nature. However, the formal social control of the wider society or country, might affect such communities, as it will apply to them as well (Clinard and Meier 36).

According to Clinard and Meier, the mechanisms of enforcement of informal social control and formal social control are different. While the formal social control employs sanctions such as fines and imprisonment, informal social control utilizes rather low-profile mechanisms. These include laughter, ridicule, shaming, smiles, sarcasm, disapproval, criticism, and raising of eyebrows, among others (31). These forms of sanctions are not formal, compared to those in formal social control. In cases where individuals engage in extreme deviant behaviour, informal social control allows for stricter sanctions such as being banned from the community and social exclusion. Specifically, the sanctions in informal social control mainly aim at injuring the victim’s ego, self-identity, and self-esteem. This is mostly the case when victims are banished from their communities (Clinard and Meier 33).

Finally, Siegel notes that the degree of punishment in formal and informal social control differs. This is in addition to the size and nature of group or individuals on which these are exercised. Informal social control is less severe, therefore, suitable for primary units such as families, and other small groups. This is learnt during a person’s socialization period in the family (202). Formal social control is however, more sever, and therefore, suitable for larger groups. Informal social control cannot maintain social order in large and complex groups because of its sanctions, which are less severe, and can be easily ignored by people. Therefore, where informal social control fails, formal social control might apply (Siegel 202).

According to Schaefer, informal social control can be utilized by any person, as opposed to formal social control, which is only utilized by those in authority, such as school heads, judges, or police officers (163). Examples of informal social control as seen include facial expressions, ridicule, criticism, among others. Therefore, an example of formal social control might be when a student bullies another student. The bullied student reports to the school principal and the bully is either suspended or given another type of punishment. In addition, robbers if arrested are taken to court then might be made to serve imprisonment for a number of years. Another example is when a traffic police officer asks a driver to submit a certain amount of fine for failing to observe traffic rules. Finally, a security guard might ask owners of vehicles to remove their cars from the parking lot for failing to have stickers, which are required for every car parked. All these are formal social control because the individuals conducting them are in an authoritative position.

An example of informal social control is when my mother lifts her eyebrows when I use inappropriate language at home in the presence of guests. Secondly, passengers in a full bus might scorn a teenager who refuses to leave a seat for an elderly passenger who enters into the bus. In addition, a librarian might give a stern look to students who are talking in loud volumes in the library, when they are not supposed to, thus disrupting others. Finally, students might laugh and ridicule a fellow student who does not observe personal hygiene. All these are informal social control, since the people conducting them are not necessarily in an authoritative position. Additionally, these are simple and less severe compared to imprisonment and fines in the formal social control. Nonetheless, both formal and informal social control are important in society, as they serve their purposes in the situations, they are applied.


Works Cited

Clinard, Marshall B. and Meier, Robert F. Sociology of Deviant Behaviour. New York: Cengage

Learning, 2010.

Schaefer, Richard. Sociology: A Brief Introduction. New York: McGraw Hill, 2005.

Siegel, Larry J. Criminology. New York: Cengage Learning, 2011.

Parsons, Talcott. The Social System. London: Routledge, 1991.

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