What are sanctions in sociology?

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Social norms are rules most people abide by everyday without thinking about them. Wearing clothes, being on time, sleeping on a bed and eating with a spoon or fork are all social norms in the U.S. Sanctions help enforce society's value system and uphold common beliefs about what is right and wrong. Sanctions can be positive or negative, physical or psychological and formal or informal. In complex societies, social values often become law.


Social norms are folkways, mores and laws. Folkways are etiquette and customs of a culture that are not critically important to society as a whole. Respecting your elders and being quiet at night are folkways. Mores are rules of behaviour where a violation would endanger the stability of a society. Killing, stealing, setting someone's house on fire, cheating on exams and lying are immoral violations of mores. Laws are formalised norms.

Positive and Negative

When society applies a positive sanction it means social controls are successful; a desired behaviour occurred and thus rewarded. Positive and negative sanctions are in combination with other forms of sanctions. Correct behaviour elicits positive sanctions that reinforce the behaviour through praise or rewards. Incorrect behaviour elicits negative sanctions that may be mild to severe and physical or psychological, depending on the circumstances.

Physical and Psychological

Physical sanctions bring pleasure or pain in a physical sense while psychological sanctions address a person's feelings or emotions. Shame is a psychological sanction used to repress aggressive or undesirable behaviour as well as a means to dominate and manipulate social status. Physical sanctions may include sitting a child in a corner or taking a timeout, or grounding. Physical sanctions for positive behaviour in children include hugging, a pat on the back or issuing an allowance.

Informal and Formal

Informal sanctions remind others that their behaviour is displeasing. Some examples of informal sanctions are frowning, smiling, condemnation, praise, applause or rejection. When informal social sanctions are no longer sufficient in bringing about conformity, the norms become laws that are punishable by formal sanctions such as imprisonment, probation or community service. Formal entities like police, courts and correctional institutions enforce the laws and punish those who act against them.

Combination Santions

Both positive and negative formal sanctions are typically public, such as awarding of prizes, announcements, news articles, parades and public court. Both positive and negative Informal psychological sanctions are actions by peers or groups and include gossip, congratulations, ridicule or laughter. Informal negative sanctions typically occur in public places, such as a school, library or church where the offender's inappropriate behaviour results in expulsion.

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