Social control represents the methods and mechanisms used to maintain social order. The conformity of people to explicit and implicit rules of behavior to a certain extent can be described as social order. Societies can be characterized as having a high or low degree of social order depending on the degree to which most citizens conform to social norms. These norms set forth common models of behavior that is considered appropriate and expected in a society.
Norms are officially represented through laws, which have binding power over all members of society. Change of social norms takes place more slowly in conservative and culturally homogeneous societies than in liberal ones consisting of multiple ethnic groups. According to Frederick Elmore Lumley (1880-1954), the American sociologist, in Means of Social Control (1925) there are four main characteristics of social control. The first is authority, meaning that the will of one person, or the community as a whole, can be imposed. Second, a clear plan for action or demonstration of attitude must be present. A reliable communication system that is able to reach the intended recipients is the third characteristic. Fourth, individuals or groups that are willing to respond and accept what is conveyed through the communication channel. Although it is very complex, this model of imposing control can be characterized as the stimulus-response pattern.
A common example of social control would be any government acting through its official institutions to impose certain rules upon its citizens. In a broader sense using imperative patterns directed to others and adopted by them may represent exercising of social control. Other typical examples of relations imposing social control may include teachers and pupils or parents and children.
Social control can be formal and informal. A fundamental mechanism of exercising formal social control used in most societies is deterrence. It can be described as the means used by criminal justice systems to impede demonstration of criminal behavior. This functions by the idea that criminal behavior will result in paying a serious price - from imposing a fine to imprisonment, to the death penalty.
Other theories of social control look into understanding human behavior, regardless of whether it is normal or deviant. The deterrence theory, however, focuses on strict obedience to laws by all members of society for fear of punishment if acting otherwise. According to U.S. sociologist Jack Gibbs there is a strong relation between the severity and certainty of the punishment and the effectiveness of law enforcement. Gibbs believes that if it is highly probable for a potential offender to be caught and suffer a severe punishment, that person is more likely to be deterred from committing a crime.
Informal social control, on the other hand, employs different instruments ranging from early socialization of children at home and at school to imposing moral control and correction by informal groups. Such forms of control focus on reinforcement of socially accepted norms of behavior in various social environments. Typical channels of promoting normative behavior include social institutions like family or the education system. Commonly used methods of informal social control include learning through rewards and punishments, or imitating others.
The effectiveness of informal social control can be explained by the internalization of social norms through the socialization process. Obedience to rules is the result of inner belief rather than external force. Many of society's values have been assimilated by the people and perceived as their own. Furthermore, informal groups consistently monitor individual members of society. They easily detect inappropriate behavior and quickly correct it by punishment. Important social groups based around work or social status tend to exercise greater influence on their members. The reason for this is that individuals fear losing their place in the group by not complying with its rules.
Variations in the socialization process or the ability of informal groups to detect and correct inappropriate behavior can reduce the effectiveness of informal social control. Closer groups tend to achieve better results in promoting group values and in controlling the behavior of their members. When people value highly group membership it is easier to maintain behavioral conformity. Visibility of group members is another factor that increases the effectiveness of monitoring and sanctioning, thus leading to greater compliance within the group.