Social control is the various means by which society regulates human behavior. As a concept in the social sciences, there is no one definition as sociologists use the concept in different ways. A limited definition might conceptualize social control as an organized response and regulates only those behaviors that are considered deviant or problematic. A broader definition might include non-deviant behaviors as under the action of social control. Whatever the case, formal and informal social control are the two main types, and the most common classifications of the many forms of social control.
Formal and informal social control can be defined easily enough; formal control takes the form of being written and official, such as in the case of rules and laws, while informal controls are unwritten, as in traditions, norms and values. While this is a clear-cut distinction between the two types, it is important to note that most situations can be resolved by either formal or informal means. This article will explore and differentiate these two forms of social controls further in the following sections.
What is Formal Social Control?
Formal social control is often defined as any social control that is based upon the law. Some authors classify an action as a formal control as long as it is set by a written and official document, for example in the rules and regulations of a particular organization. Any form of control enforced or enacted by the government are formal social controls. Examples of these are monitoring, investigations or arrests done by the police, punishments meted out by judicial courts and policies of regulatory bodies such as the Food and Drug Administration.
Although not always and not exclusively, formal social controls tend to be imposed, punitive and repressive. A person or group under formal social control has no choice but to comply. In the past, formal controls have often focused on crime and punishment, whether the sanction is for future deterrence or reintegration. And in the clamor of modern society for more control, governments tend to make laws that prohibit or limit the actions of members of its society.
Formal social controls tend to be the favored type in large, urbanized societies. People in these societies continuously call to their respective governments to interfere in all sorts of social interactions and make more and more laws. Members of these societies also do not know each other very well and so often resort to formal social controls to resolve their conflicts.
What is Informal Social Control?
Informal social controls are any of those activities that regulate human behavior and interaction that are not based on laws. Society most often and most effectively controls the behavior of its members through socialization. Informal controls can take the form of rewards such as praise or compliments, making members feel socially desirable and therefore reinforce desired behavior. On the other hand, informal controls can also be in the form of sanctions such as ridicule or gossip to cull away unwanted behavior. These informal social controls are enforced primarily within families, schools or workplaces.
Again not always and not exclusively, informal social controls tend to be more persuasive, formative and integrative. Social norms rarely have any coercive power especially within highly independent and educated societies so it would be better to resort to persuasion to get members to act. Children are taught in school not to make them repositories of knowledge but to develop their capabilities and so that they can conform and integrate into society later on.
People in smaller communities, where members tend to know each other very well, often use informal means to control their society even with access to formal means. When people know each other very well, they tend to negotiate and resolve a conflict among themselves rather than resort to a legal intervention. In terms of crime prevention, members are also more likely to organize and form a citizen patrol rather than call on police for surveillance.
Difference between Formal and Informal Social Control
Formal social controls are actions that regulate human behavior that are based on law. Informal social controls are those that serve the same purpose of regulating human behavior but are not based on laws.
Enforcing social units
Formal social controls are enforced by any government body such as the police, judicial courts and regulation agencies. Informal social controls are enforced by family units, schools and workplaces.
Examples of formal social controls are policing, judicial sanctions and regulatory policies. Examples of informal social controls are socialization, praise and compliments, and ridicule and gossip.
Nature or quality
Formal social controls tend to be imposed, punitive and repressive. Informal social controls tend to be persuasive, formative and integrative.
Type of society
Large, urban societies where members do not know each other very well tend to prefer formal social controls. Small, rural communities where members know each other very well tend to favor informal social controls.
Formal vs Informal Social Control
- Social control is any of the means that society uses to regulate human behavior. As a social science concept, it is defined differently by different sociologists. Prevalent definitions usually limit the action of social control towards the control of deviant and dangerous behavior, but other definitions include all kinds of social behaviors.
- Formal and informal social control are two main types and the most common classification of social control.
- Formal social controls are those that are based on laws. They are enforced by all sorts of government agencies such as the police, judicial courts and regulation agencies. Examples of this type of social control are policing, judicial sanctions and regulatory policies.
- Informal social controls are those that are not based on law. These social controls are enforced by societal units such as families, schools and workplaces. Examples are rewards in the form of praise and compliments, and punishments in the form of ridicule or gossip.
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