What are the formal and informal means of social control?



Different sociologists have given different opinions regarding the means of social control. F.E. Lumley classified the means of social control into major categories; based upon force and based upon symbols. According to him, though physical force in indispensable in social control, yet, it is not merely the force that can manage the individuals. Human societies have to rely upon symbolic devices, which are more effective than force. According to him, the means of social control are rewards, praise, flattery, education, persuasion, gossip, satire, criticism, propaganda and so on.

E.A. Ross has described a number of means of social control that have been employed by social groups through out the human history to keep individuals under control. The important among them are public opinion, law, custom, religion, morality, folkways and modes.

E.C.Hayes distinguished between control by sanctions and control by suggestion in imitation. By control, by sanctions he meant a system of rewards and punishments. According to him, education is the most effective means of social control.

Karl Mannheim distinguished between direct and indirect means of social control. Kimhall Young classified the means of social control into positive and negative means. According to him, reward is a positive means while punishment is a negative means. L.L. Bernard distinguished between conscious and unconscious means of social control. The most important unconscious means are custom, tradition and convention. The conscious means of social control are those, which have been consciously developed and employed by leaders of all types. These are law, education, public opinion and coercion.

Bernard also distinguished between destructive and constructive means of social control. Exploitive means are such as punishment, reprisals, intimidation and repression. Among the constructive means are included revolution, custom, law, education, social reform and non-violent coercion.

But most of the sociologists have classified the means of social control into types such as informal means and formal means. These are traced out below:

1. Informal Means

The informal means of social control grow themselves in society. No special agency is required to create them. The Brahmins do not take meat. They take meals only after bath. The Jains do not take curd. They take their dinner before sunset. The Hindu women do not smoke. One can marry only in one's caste. The children should respect their parents. All this is due to informal social control. It is exercised through customs, traditions, folkways, modes, religion, ridicule etc. Informal control prevails over all the aspects of man's life.

However, it is said that people are not afraid of informal social control. Yet informal means of social control are very powerful particularly in primary groups. No man wants to suffer loss of prestige. He does not want to become the target of ridicule. He does not want to be laughed at by the people. He does not want to be socially boycotted. On the other hand, he wants praise, appreciation, honor and recognition by the society. Thus, informal means, like praise, ridicule, boycott etc. effectively control his behavior. Moreover, the child through the process of socialization learns to conform to the norms of group. A person with socialized attitudes would not do any work, which is socially harmful. Thus, socialization also exercises an influence over him.

Now we may describe briefly the important means of informal control.

(I) Belief- Belief is a conviction that a particular thing is true. It is primarily of five kinds.

(a) The belief in the existence of an unseen power;

(b) The belief in the theory of Ye-incarnation,

(c) The belief in Nemesis, the Goddess of Vengeance,

(d) The belief in the existence of hell and heaven and,

(e) The belief in the immortality and soul.

All these different beliefs influence man's behavior in society. The first belief in the existence of an unseen power leads a man to right actions because he believes that his actions are being watched by an unseen power. The second belief in the theory of reincarnation keeps the man away from wrongful acts because he believes that in order to have a good birth in next he must do good, acts in this life. The third belief in the Goddess of Vengeance also regulates man's behavior because he believes that he will be punished by the goddess of Vengeance for his sins. A sinner is punished here and now. The Fourth belief in the existence of hell and heaven influences a man to virtuous acts and avoid sins in order to go to heaven or avoid going to hell after death. Heaven is place full of luxuries, fairies and romance. Hell is a place of terror, miseries and tortures. The fifth belief in the immortality of soullend man to avoid such actions as will cause pain to the soul of the deceased ancestors.

In this way, beliefs are powerful influences on human actions. They are vital for human relations. They define the purposes and interests for the individual and control his choice of means so that the purposes of the groups may be advanced of at least not hundred. No aspect of social relationship escapes them. Beliefs may be false. They may be founded on factual or faculty evidence. But the question of their validity does not necessarily determine their effectiveness of social controls, we act with as much determination from false beliefs as from factually second ones.

Social Suggestions:

Social suggestions are also powerful means of social control. Suggestion is the indirect communication may be made through various methods. The first method is putting the life examples of great men. We celebrate the anniversaries of Mahatma Gandhi and Lal Bahadur Sastri, We build monument in the memory of great men. We place their ideals before the people and exhort them to follow these ideas. The second method of making suggestion is through literature Books, Journals, newspapers etc. may inspire people to heroic deeds and develop in them national feeling. The literature may also make people narrow minded conservative and superstitious. These types of literature will indirectly influence his mind and consequently his behavior. The third method is through education. The educational curriculum may communicate certain ideas to the students and make them discipline citizens. The fourth method is through advertisement. Many magazines carry beautiful advertisements depicting the advantages of visiting certain places and suggesting the prestige attached to traveling to these places. The advertisements from Radio. Ceylon may attract the people to Binaca toothpaste. Many of our business enterprises employ advertising to influence-attitudes and therefore, action. Suggestions may be conscious or unconscious. It may also be intentional or unintentional.


Ideology is a theory of social life, which interprets social realities from the point of view of deals to prove the correctness of the analysis and to justify these ideals. It is the projection of a certain ideal. Leninism, Gandhism and Fascism are ideologies, which have analyzed social realities and laid down an ideal before the people. Ideologies influence social life to a very deep extent. Leninism-had influenced the social life of Russians. Hitler's theory of socialism influenced the German to the extent that they began to regard themselves as the supreme race of the world. Gandhism has influenced social life in India. In the world we today, find a conflict of ideologies. The conflict between U.S.A. and U.S.S.R. is a conflict of capitalism and communism. The history of man has been one of struggle among conflicting ideologies. Ideologies are powerful dynamic forces of contemporary social life. They satisfy the need of all men to believe in a system of though that is rigorous. They express the vital interests of social groups and satisfy their desire for a scheme of social betterment. They stimulate action. They provide a set of values. They are motivators of social action. They make life meaningful. The success of any ideology, as an effective means of social control depends on many factors. Some of these factors are its completeness and coherence, its vision of the future is its ability to hold men's imaginations, its consistency and its ability to meet criticism.


Folkways are the recognized modes of behavior, which arise automatically with a group. They are the behavior patterns of every day life, which arise spontaneously and unconsciously in a group. They are in general the habits of the individual and are common to a group. They are socially approved. They have some degree of traditional sanction. It is not easy for the members of a group to violate the folkways. They are the foundation of group culture. If an individual does not follow them he may be socially boycotted by his group. A particular dress must be worn at a particular function. The Brahmins shall not take meat. The Jains should not take curd. The Hindu women should not smoke. Since folkways become a matter of habit, therefore, these are followed unconsciously and exercise powerful influence over man's behaviour in society.


Modes are those folkways, which are considered by the group to be of great significance, rattier indispensable to its welfare. The modes related to the fundamental needs of society more directly than do the folkways. They express the group sense of what is right and conducive to social welfare. They imply a value judgment about the folkways. Modes arc always molding human behavior. They restrain an individual from doing acts considered as wrong by his group. They are the instruments of control. In society, there are innumerable modes like to monogamy, prohibition, endogamy, antislavery etc. Conformity to modes is regarded necessary. It is essential for the members of the group to conform to them. Behavior contrary to them is not permitted by society. Certain modes may even be harmful for the physical well-being of an individual, yet these must be obeyed. Thus, mode control man's behavior in society to a very great extent.


Customs are the long established habits and usages of the people. They are those folkways and modes, which have persisted for a very long time and have passed down from one generation to another. They arise spontaneously and gradually. There is no constituted authority to declare them to apply them or to safeguard them. They are accepted by society. They are followed because they have been followed in the past. The importance of custom as a means of social control cannot be minimized. They are so powerful that no one can escape their range. They regulate social life to a great extent. They bind men together. They control the purely selfish impulses. They compel the individual to conform to the accepted standards. They are held so sacred that any violation of them is regarded not only a crime but also a sacrilege. In primitive customs are main agencies of social control but in modern times their force has loosened.


Religion also exercises a powerful influence upon man's behavior in society. The term religion has numerous definitions. Religion is an attitude towards super human powers. It is a belief in powers superior to man. It expresses itself in several forms like superstition, animism, totemism, magic ritualism and fetishism. Religion pervades practically in all the societies, though there may be different forms of religious beliefs and practices. The Hindu religion gives great importance to ceremonies. At the time of birth, marriage arid death a number of ceremonies is performed. Mantras are recited even if one does not understand their meaning. Religion is a powerful agency in society. It influences man's behavior. Children should obey their parents, should not tell a lie or cheat, women should be faithful to man, people should be honest and virtuous and should limit one's desires, man should renounce unsocial activities are some of the teaching of religion which influence man's behavior. Men should do good acts is a common teaching of all the religion. Religion makes people benevolent, charitable, forbearing and truthful. It may also be noted that religion may easily be destroyed into superstition and dogmatism instead of being an incentive to ethical idealism. Religion may be, used to make people be used their lot obedience to their rules and defenders of status quo. It may deny freedom of thought. It may favor poverty exploitation and idleness and encourage practices like cannibalism, slavery, untouchability, communalism and even incest.

Art and Literature

Art in its narrow sense includes painting, sculpture, architecture, music and dance. Literature -includes poetry, dream and fiction. Both art and literature influence the imagination and exert control on human behavior. The marital music of the military band arouses feeling of determination and strength. A classical dance creates in us an appreciation of our culture. The statute of Mahatma Gandhi teaches us the virtue of simple living and high thinking. A painting may arouse in us a feeling of sympathy, affection and hatred. There is always a close relationship between the national lives. The civilization of any specified time can be judged by an examination of its arts. Artists have been called an agent of civilization.

Literature also influences human behavior in society. We have 'good' literature and 'bad' literature. A good literature possesses an indefinable quality which makes it live through the ages, Ramayana, Bhagvadgita and Mahabharat are classical work of great social value. On the other hand, detective literature may have its effect on crime. Romantic literature may make the reader passionate while religious literature may make them virtuous or superistituous. Rousseau1 in France has tended the French Revolution. Dickens changed the entire school system in Britain by writing David Copperfield and other of his books. In this way, both art and literature exert control through their influence on the imagination.

Humor and Satire:

Humor is also a means of social control. It assumes various forms depending upon the situation and purpose. It often serves to relieve a tense situation. Sometimes it is used with a bad intention to deflate others without a reason. It also used to gain a favorable response. Humor controls by supporting the sanctioned values of the society. Through cartoons, comics and reports it can support the values of the society in a form that is light in spirit but effective in control.

Satire employs wit and scorn as indirect criticism of actions felt to be vicious and socially harmful. It exposes by ridicule the falsity and danger of behavior. There by it causes the people to give up their vicious and harmful actions.

Public Opinion

The influence of public opinion as a means of social control is greater in simple societies. In a village, the people are known to one another personally. It is difficult for a villager to act contrary to the public opinion of the village. Public opinion greatly influences our actions. For fear of public ridicule and criticism, we do not indulge in immoral antisocial activities. Every individual wants to win public praise and avoid public ridicule or criticism. The desire for recognition is a natural desire. We want count for something in the eyes of our fellowmen. Human praise is the sweetest music. The greatest efforts of the human race are directly traceable to the love of praise. Persons behave according to social norms to win public recognition or at least to avoid public ridicule. Thus, public opinion is one of the strongest forces influencing the behavior of people.

2. Formal Means

Among the formal means of social control, the importance ones are law, education and coercion. A brief explanation of these means follow,


Law is the most important formal means of social control. Early societies depended upon informal means of social control but when societies grew in size or in complexity, they were compelled to formulate rules and regulations, which define the types of behavior and specify the penalties to be imposed upon those who violate them. Law is a body of rules enacted by legally authorized bodies and enforced by punishments for their violation. The modem societies are large in size. Informal means of social control are longer, sufficient to maintain social order and harmony. Therefore, modern societies had to resort to formal means of social control.


Along with law, the importance of education as a means of social control is being growingly realized. Education is a process of socialization. It prepares the child, for a social living. It reforms the attitudes wrongly formed by the children already. Thus, a family may make the child superstitious, education will1 correct his beliefs and remove his prejudices. It teaches him value of discipline, social co-operation, tolerance and sacrifice. It instills in him the qualities of honesty, fair play and a sense of right and wrong. The importance, of education for creating right social attitudes among the youth cannot be minimized. It is to note that education in India has miserably failed to create right social attitudes among the youth of the country and act as an effective means, of social control.


Coercion is the use of force to achieve a desired end. It may be physical or non-violent. It is the ultimate means of social control when all other means failed. Physical coercion may take the form of bodily injury, imprisonment and death penalty. Physical coercion is without doubt the lowest form of the social control. Societies would least desire to use it. It may have immediate effects upon the offender but it does not have enduring effects. If a society has to depend on external force, it shows its weakness rather than .strength in social control. Society's best protection lies in the development of its citizens.

Non-violent coercion consists of the strike, the boycott non-co-operation. A person, who threatens to withdraw his support to a friend if he does not give up smoking, is using non-violent coercion to change his action. The students may go on strike to force the principal withholding of social or economic intercourse with others to express disapproval and to force acceptance of demands. A student who teases the girls may be socially boycotted by the other students of the college. Non co-operation is refusal to co-operate. The teachers may refuse to co-operate with the principal for his insulting behavior. Nonviolent coercion can be a successful way of effecting social control. Mahatma Gandhi used it to force the British Government to grant political independence to India.