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What are social control techniques?

Social control refers to the methods and strategies used to maintain social order by shaping behavior to align with dominant societal norms and values. Every society has informal and formal mechanisms of social control to regulate individuals and maintain conformity and obedience. Social control techniques involve the use of power, authority, and influence to regulate human behavior.

What are some examples of social control techniques?

There are many different types of social control techniques that societies employ. Some common examples include:

  • Laws – Laws prohibit and penalize behaviors that are considered dangerous or harmful to society, like theft, assault, and murder.
  • Law enforcement – The criminal justice system including the police, courts, and correctional facilities enforce laws and punish criminal violations.
  • Religion – Religious doctrines define appropriate behaviors and rituals and often outline consequences for deviance like excommunication.
  • Education – Schools socialize youth, transmit mainstream values, and reward conformity to advance societal goals.
  • Family – Families teach norms and expectations, use discipline and approval to obtain obedience, and influence behaviors and attitudes.
  • Peer groups – Peer groups exert significant normative pressure and enforce conformity through ridicule, rejection, and disapproval of deviance.
  • Workplaces – Workplaces have policies, hierarchies, surveillance, and disciplinary procedures to control workers.
  • Mass media – Media spreads social messages about norms which encourage conformity and stigmatize deviance.
  • Medicine & psychiatry – Designating behaviors or conditions like alcoholism as diseases exerts control through treatment regimes and clinical authority.

These primary institutions in society all regulate human behavior in macro-level structural ways as well as through daily social interactions between individuals and groups. Social control pervades social life and is enacted both formally and informally in a constant process of promoting social conformity.

What are positive forms of social control?

Social control is not inherently negative. Societies rely on social control techniques to create order and stability. Many forms of social control actually encourage positive behaviors and social cohesion, such as:

  • Positive peer pressure to do well in school or avoid risky behaviors
  • Family support, affection, praise for achievement
  • Rewards like scholarships, honors, and promotions for exemplary performance
  • Social recognition for altruism or volunteer work
  • Guilt, shame, embarrassment for transgressions which reaffirms norms
  • Patriotism and social rituals which strengthen national identity and unity
  • Counseling and therapy which aims to adjust behaviors in a healthy direction

These positive forms of control affirm social bonds and dominant values. They regulate behavior through positive social reinforcements rather than coercive or punitive methods.

What are negative forms of social control?

While social control is necessary for social order, many techniques for exerting control can be considered ethically problematic. Forms of negative or unethical social control include:

  • Authoritarian governance which denies civil liberties and silences dissent
  • Censorship of information and ideas that challenge those in power
  • Discrimination against minority groups through prejudice and institutional biases
  • Corporal punishment used to control children’s behavior
  • Violence or threat of violence to intimidate and generate fear-based compliance
  • Shunning and public shaming of individuals who deviate from norms
  • Stigmatization of people based on identities or conditions like race, gender, sexuality, disability etc.
  • Manipulation and gaslighting used to psychologically control victims
  • Exploitation, abuse, and harassment enacted from positions of power

These negative techniques impose excessive, unethical, or harmful control over individuals and limit freedom and autonomy. They marginalize vulnerable populations and reproduce social inequalities and oppression.

What are formal methods of social control?

Formal social control refers to organized, official, and explicitly stated rules and procedures aimed at regulating behavior. Formal methods include:

  • Criminal justice system: police, courts, corrections, criminal code
  • Laws enacted by legislative bodies
  • Regulatory agencies that oversee industries, professions, environments etc.
  • School and workplace policies and disciplinary procedures
  • Military and police chain of command structure
  • Bureaucratic organization of governments, corporations, institutions
  • Contractual obligations and systems of accountability
  • Surveillance and monitoring of public spaces and online environments
  • Taxes, fines, and fees used to deter unwanted behaviors
  • Licensing and permitting requirements to engage in regulated activities

These formal mechanisms rely on codified rules, hierarchical authority, state power, and bureaucratic administration to constrain and shape behavior.

What are informal methods of social control?

In contrast, informal social control involves unstated social norms, interpersonal relationships, and values. Examples of informal control include:

  • Peer pressure and social conventions
  • Stigma, gossip, ridicule, shame
  • Family and community expectations
  • Religious beliefs and morality
  • Cultural values and traditions
  • Gender norms and socialization
  • Conformity to unwritten rules of etiquette, customs, ethics
  • Self-control derived from internalized norms
  • Ostracism, social exclusion, silencing
  • Socialization and education into mainstream ideologies
  • Media messaging and narratives that valorize conformity
  • Supervision and surveillance in localized social networks

These informal modes of control emerge from social bonds, shared identities, internalized beliefs, and a collective desire for social order. They regulate behavior through diffuse social and psychological pressures.

What are some key theories of social control in sociology?

Sociologists have developed many theoretical perspectives to understand how social control operates to build social order and conformity in society:

  • Functionalism – Social control is necessary to create social stability, shared values, and a cooperative system that benefits society as a whole.
  • Conflict theory – Powerful groups use social control to maintain their privilege and subordinate other groups by restricting access to resources and political power.
  • Critical theory – Social control reinforces oppression by perpetuating social inequalities and dominant ideologies through institutions like media, education, government, and law.
  • Social constructionism – Our understandings of normality and deviance are socially constructed through labels created and enforced by those with social power.
  • Feminist theory – Patriarchal social control polices female bodies and sexuality and reproduces gender hierarchies.
  • Labeling theory – Being formally designated as deviant amplifies and entrenches deviance through stigmatization and outsider identity.
  • Social bond theory – Strong attachments and commitment to conventional groups reduces deviance by promoting conformity.

These perspectives provide frameworks for analyzing how social forces and constraints shape our behaviors, beliefs, and roles in society.

What are some positive aspects of social control?

When exercised ethically, social control does provide some important benefits for society:

  • Maintains social order and stability
  • Facilitates coordination through shared expectations
  • Enables the fulfillment of collective goals
  • Reduces crime and interpersonal conflicts
  • Upholds moral standards of responsibility and justice
  • Protects members through social welfare and regulations
  • Transmits knowledge and culture across generations
  • Promotes solidarity through shared identities and values
  • Provides ontological security and sense of normalcy

Social control techniques allow large, complex societies to cooperate peacefully through a basic consensus on norms, institutions, and social structures. Some degree of conformity is necessary for humans to thrive in group environments.

What are some of the problems with social control?

However, social control can become problematic when it is used unethically as a form of social domination. Potential issues include:

  • Infringes on individual freedoms and human rights
  • Justifies inequitable treatment of marginalized groups
  • Maintains power structures that benefit certain groups over others
  • Enforces arbitrary norms rather than ethical principles
  • Stifles dissent, critique, innovation, and progress
  • Reflects and reproduces ideological biases
  • Is resistant to necessary social reforms
  • Inhibits self-determination and expression
  • Imposes the values of the powerful on everyone
  • Can lead to conflict when control is too coercive

Problematic social control serves the interests of dominant groups rather than the common good. It limits human potential and diversity. There is often a tension between order and autonomy in regulating social life.

How can individuals resist illegitimate social control?

Individuals are not simply passive recipients of social control. There are strategies for resisting unethical modes of control:

  • Engage in collective activism and protest movements
  • Raise awareness through education, media, and art
  • Advocate for policy and institutional reforms
  • Participate in politics to change regimes
  • Practice civil disobedience of unjust laws
  • Boycott or strike against powerful institutions
  • Reject consumer culture and dominant ideologies
  • Create alternative communities and subcultures
  • Develop critical consciousness to challenge hegemony
  • Promote human rights and social justice

By organizing and building solidarity, people can overcome structural constraints and transform oppressive social systems. But there are often high costs for openly resisting social control and alternatives also need to be controlled for social stability.


Social control is a fundamental process in society by which human behavior is regulated to establish social order. All societies employ a variety of informal and formal techniques to promote conformity to norms and values. Social control provides many benefits, like reducing crime and enabling cooperation. But it can also be used unethically to serve the power interests of dominant groups. There are ongoing debates about how to balance order and autonomy. But rational democratic reforms may expand freedoms while still preserving social stability.