There Oughta Be a Law? Formal and Informal Social Control
By now you have probably heard that San Francisco recently banned the sale of toys with unhealthy children's food, most notably McDonald’s Happy Meals, within city limits. Proponents argue that toys encourage children to eat unhealthy food, contributing to obesity and its related health complications. Critics suggest that this is an example of an overreaching attempt to legislate personal habits, which some refer to as the “nanny state.”
Regardless of your views on this ban, this is a great example of something that sociologists call formal social control: the attempt to alter behavior through rules, laws, and sanctions.
While the government is often a source of formal social control, many other organizations have codified rules with stated sanctions in attempt to regulate its members. Universities have rules about plagiarism and cheating, companies have policies that provide guidelines on employee behavior, and religious institutions provide specific instructions about how its members should behave.
Consequences for violation of formal rules can range from arrest and imprisonment, getting fired, or being expelled to more modest sanctions like a traffic ticket, a stern warning by the boss, or a failing grade on an assignment.
Generally speaking, creating new laws is often popular. Each year at the start of the New Year, dozens of new laws go into effect around the country. In fact, when I ask my students to think of ways to come up with solutions for particular problems, the most popular response is to make new laws to punish violators and possibly deter those from committing an infraction in the future.
Many laws are symbolic—even though they might not be enforced (or even enforceable) we like having them because of the message they send. For instance, it’s practically impossible to regulate many forms of prostitution, especially if the solicitation takes place out of the public view. And yet few lawmakers would argue for a repeal of such laws that are generally popular with the public.
The San Francisco toy ban is in some ways a symbolic law; although it might lead McDonald’s to change their Happy Meals in the city, its real goal is to promote healthy eating. But the law can’t guarantee that people won’t eat fattening food elsewhere, and it won’t ensure that parents purchase and prepare healthy meals for their kids. What might do that?
Our eating habits are likely shaped by the people closest to us, not to mention the food we have access to in our neighborhoods, rather than by formal sanctions. Sociologists examine how informal social control, or the reactions of our friends, family, and community members shape our behavior. Food choices emerge in part from our family and cultural backgrounds; people who grow up eating foods high in calories and fat might find it hard to change their diet if the people around them continue to serve this food at gatherings or chide someone for new food choices. It can be very difficult for one member of a family to decide to change their diet if they sit down to dinner with others who are eating foods they are trying to avoid.
Just as formal social control cannot always prevent people from breaking the law (how many of you have exceeded posted speed limits?), informal social control isn’t always effective at changing people’s behavior either.
Overweight children—and sometimes adults—are sometimes teased and berated by their peers. This social rejection, a key component of informal social control, often causes people to use overeating as way to cope with stress and sadness, which in turn leads to more social rejection.
In some cases the fear of social rejection acts as a powerful force in shaping our behavior well beyond what people eat. Presumably part of what makes people do their job well or earn good grades comes from a desire for approval from our friends, family, or co-workers. This can be a much more powerful force than formal rules or the threat of sanctions.
Whether the San Francisco toy ban leads to healthier eating habits in its children remains to be seen. Despite the allure of formal social control, it can be somewhat limited in its ability to shape our behavior.