Social control is the processes of informal social control such as custom and formal social control such as law of deviant behavior which falls beyond the bounds set by social norms. Social control is present in all societies, if only in the control mechanisms used to prevent its establishment in anarchic situations.

Formal social control is expressed through law as statutes, rules, and regulation. It is conducted by government and organizations using law enforcement mechanisms and other formal sanctions such as fines and imprisonment. Informal social control is exercised by a society without explicitly stating these rules and is expressed through custom, norms, and mores using informal sanctions such as criticism, disapproval, guilt and shaming. This implied social control usually has more control over individual minds because they become ingrained in their personality.

Traditional society uses mostly informal social control embedded in its customary culture relying on socialization of its members to establish social order. As society becomes more complex more and more reliance must be placed on formal mechanisms.

In democratic societies the goals and mechanisms of social control are determined through legislation by elected representatives and thus enjoy a measure of support from the population and voluntary compliance.

Authoritarian organizations and governments in order to maintain control and regulate their subjects promulate rules and issue decrees but because of lack of popular support for enforcement must rely more on force and other severe sanctions such as censorship, expulsion and other limits on freedom. In extreme cases totalitarian governments such as those of the late Soviet Union or currently North Korea rely on the mechanisms of the police state.

Sociologists consider informal means of social control vital in maintaining public order, but recognize the necessity of formal means as societies become more complex and for responding to emergencies. The study of social control falls within the academic disciplines of anthropology, economics, history, law, political science, psychology, sociology, and theology.

See also: criminal justice, ethics