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Although there is no clear-cut dividing line, formal social control usually characterizes more complex societies with a greater division of labor, heterogeneity of population, and subgroups with competing values and different sets of mores and ideologies. Formal controls arise when informal controls alone are insufficient to maintain conformity to certain norms. Formal controls involve the explicit establishment of procedures (laws, regulations, codes, decrees) and take two general forms: (1) social controls instituted by the state and authorized to use force and (2) social controls imposed by agencies other than the state, such as business and labor groups, religious organizations, and colleges and universities.

As these two general forms suggest, formal social controls originate in and are implemented and enforced by society’s various social institutions. Many of these are nonpolitical institutions, which may resort to a variety of penalties and rewards to ensure compliance (Vaughan, 1998). For example, an organization may fire an employee; a church may withhold religious services at a wedding or a burial, or even excommunicate a member; and a league owner may fine or suspend a professional athlete for infractions of rules. These same organizations may also use formal rewards to ensure conformity. An organization may promote someone for excellent job performance or provide a bonus to someone who makes an outstanding contribution. Houses of worship may commend a member for exemplary service, and a sports team may provide a well-paid, long-term contract to an athlete who shows much promise.

Turning to the political institution of the state, its primary form of social control involves the law. Social control through the law seldom involves the use of positive sanctions or rewards. A person who obeys the law and meets its requirements seldom receives rewards or commendations. Instead, social control through the law ordinarily involves the use or threat of punishment to regulate the behavior of citizens. The next two sections focus on law as a means of formal social control.

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