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Formal Social Control vs. Informal Social Control: What's the Difference?

By Janet White || Published on December 10, 2023
Formal social control is enforced by laws and regulations, while informal social control arises from societal norms and customs.

Key Differences

Formal social control is rooted in codified laws and legal systems, ensuring societal order through enforceable regulations. Informal social control, on the other hand, operates through unwritten societal norms and customs that guide behavior.
The implementation of formal social control is carried out by authorized institutions like courts and police, focusing on legal compliance. Informal social control, conversely, is exercised through social interactions and peer pressure, emphasizing moral and social expectations.
Sanctions under formal social control are legal consequences like fines or imprisonment. In contrast, informal social control uses social sanctions like ostracism or disapproval.
Formal social control is explicit, with clear rules and consequences, making its boundaries and expectations known. Informal social control is more implicit, relying on the internalization of societal values and mores.
The effectiveness of formal social control is measured by legal processes and outcomes, whereas informal social control is gauged by societal cohesion and the adherence to social norms.

Comparison Chart

Enforcement Agency

Government, legal system
Community, social groups

Nature of Rules

Codified, explicit laws
Unwritten, implicit norms


Legal penalties (fines, imprisonment)
Social sanctions (shame, ostracism)

Scope of Influence

Nationwide or jurisdiction-specific
Community or group-specific

Reliance on Public Perception

Less dependent on public opinion
Highly dependent on social consensus

Formal Social Control and Informal Social Control Definitions

Formal Social Control

It refers to regulations established by government and authorities.
Tax laws are a form of formal social control.

Informal Social Control

Informal social control is maintained through socialization and cultural norms.
Community disapproval for certain actions is a type of informal social control.

Formal Social Control

Formal social control encompasses state-enforced mechanisms to maintain order.
Prison sentences for criminal activities are a form of formal social control.

Informal Social Control

Informal social control is exerted through peer and community pressure.
Social ostracism for breaking unwritten rules is an informal social control.

Formal Social Control

Formal social control is the imposition of order through legal means.
Police enforcement is a key aspect of formal social control.

Informal Social Control

It encompasses societal expectations and moral values for behavior.
Parents teaching manners to children demonstrate informal social control.

Formal Social Control

A system where behavior is regulated by legally-enforced norms.
The court's ruling exemplifies formal social control.

Informal Social Control

A process where societal norms and customs govern behavior.
In small communities, gossip acts as a form of informal social control.

Formal Social Control

This control operates through legal systems and state institutions.
Legislative bodies create laws as a method of formal social control.

Informal Social Control

This control relies on internalized respect for traditional norms and values.
Dressing modestly in certain cultures is influenced by informal social control.


What is an example of formal social control?

Police enforcement of traffic laws.

What is formal social control?

It's a control mechanism enforced through laws and legal institutions.

How does formal social control differ from informal?

Formal is legally enforced, while informal relies on societal norms.

Can formal social control change?

Yes, it changes with amendments in laws and policies.

What is informal social control?

Control based on societal norms, customs, and peer pressure.

How do social norms enforce informal social control?

Through expectations and pressures from within the community.

Does formal social control respect individual rights?

Ideally, but this can vary based on the legal system.

Is informal social control consistent across cultures?

No, it varies widely based on cultural and societal norms.

Is formal social control always effective?

Effectiveness varies based on implementation and public perception.

What happens if formal social control is weak?

It can lead to disorder and increased criminal activities.

Who enforces informal social control?

Community members, family, and social groups.

Can informal social control be more powerful than formal?

In some societal contexts, yes, due to its deep-rooted nature.

Who enforces formal social control?

Government and legal authorities.

Can informal social control be formalized?

Some aspects can be, like making community norms into laws.

Is informal social control visible?

Not always, as it often operates subtly within social dynamics.

How do changes in society affect informal social control?

It evolves with shifts in societal norms and cultural values.

Are laws the only form of formal social control?

Primarily, but it also includes institutional policies and regulations.

Does informal social control vary within a society?

Yes, based on subcultures, communities, and groups.

Can informal social control lead to negative outcomes?

Yes, if it enforces harmful or discriminatory norms.

Can informal social control suppress individuality?

In some cases, if it enforces conformity strongly.
About Author
Written by
Janet White
Janet White has been an esteemed writer and blogger for Difference Wiki. Holding a Master's degree in Science and Medical Journalism from the prestigious Boston University, she has consistently demonstrated her expertise and passion for her field. When she's not immersed in her work, Janet relishes her time exercising, delving into a good book, and cherishing moments with friends and family.

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