December 24, 2010

There Oughta Be a Law? Formal and Informal Social Control

KS_2010a By Karen Sternheimer

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 clip_image002obesity 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 clip_image004instructions 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.


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i like to read your posts. thanks for this one.

I found this extremely interesting, and I never looked at laws being "symbolic" as you said. Also as the population increases the simpler laws, such as the San Fransisco toy ban, can help lower the rate of obesity in young children, ad the allure of a reward for not eating healthy will be eliminated.

Cool info on social control. It seems that having "consequences" to the action is what leads to aversion in behavior.

It would be interesting to see how IQ and perception of laws are related. Is higher IQ correlated with more rigid view of laws or not? (Don't know if this is true, but someone told me that prison population has a higher average IQ than general population)

PS. If you know any good articles on IQ vs perception of laws/ rigidity of reality, please e-mail them to me, if it is not too bothersome.

Being new to the subject of sociology it seems that the goverment, the ones imposing social control, are not taking all the other variables into account for childhood obesity causing a spurious correlation. Rules are established to help dwindle the numbers of obese children because of the consumption of McDonald's foods. Instead of looking at the parental figures, they are looking at the toys being distributed to the children. Which is quiet odd giving that parents are the ones deciding whether or not to buy the happy meal or not. Don't regulate the fast food chain but instead regulate the parents of the obese children.

I really like this post. I have never thought of law being "symbolic". That is a good way to look at it. I have always thought of laws that i think are weird as pointless to have; but if you think about it like that i actually get why we have them now. I think it would be very cool if banning the toys in San. Francisco would help obesity in children and even some adults!

The difference between formal and informal social control is actually quite interesting. Many times, it's not because of the formal social control that people refrain from doing certain things, but the reaction of those around them, which is the informal social control. I think it'd be interesting to find out which form of social control is really more effective depending on the action being done. Such as healthy eating habits or stealing from a store.

Finding your post very interesting I began to realize that things such as unhealthy eating habits lead to social rejection making people cope. If you have unhealthy eating habits you are more than likely to cope by eating more food which is probably the worst way to cope with a situation of any sort. Your outlook on symbolic laws also helped me learn something new about our government in trying to control more than what the actual law is about. I now know that with some laws you have to look at the big picture rather than just the simple law put upon us by the government.

I never thought of laws being symbolic, but you are completely right. There are laws that are just out there to try and make people change, but they are rarely enforced and some are practically impossible to enforce. I think it is interesting that they make those types of laws just to frighten people into abiding by them.

This information is interesting, i agree with you. Laws are made so people follow them, but causes formal social control. No one will ever agree with all the laws there but its the goverments job to regulate these laws in safety of the people. People shouldnt feel cheated or angry because thats the way life is everything isnt going to always be perfect. By laws like making mcdonalds toys food healthy, is silly, but not a big deal and promoting healthy eatting to lower obesity. These such laws are postivie but mcdonalds should have a right to put what they want on toys for food. So as these laws conflict form formal social control between people.

Good blog, it really got me thinking about how many laws are out there that aren't really enforceable, but how glad I am that they exist because they really do influence how people act. I also sometimes like seeing the informal social control because it's fascinating to look at how easily someone changes their behaviors based on the people around them, but it is also kind of scarey because of all the negative influences people can have.

This post is very interesting, I never realized that sometimes laws were made to be symbolic, and even when they know they can't enforce them that much that they are just made to make things sound better. There really are alot of laws out there that are not enforced, maybe those were just made to symbolize somthing?

Interesting blog. It got me to question the laws we have in place and if they are having any effect in today's society. As in putting toys in the Happy Meals I think it was a great idea to ban that because its not good to reward something that is so unhealthy for you. I look forward to reading more of your blogs to see what's going on in other places.

Social control has it's limitations , because opening the flood gates to any type of self-owning behavior can be passed to some board to legislate, not the owness of the individual.Watch for the hook!!!!. Laws kill inspiration

If it isn't possible to enforce some of the laws, sanctions, etc. then why do people make them and why don't people know that these aren't enforceable?

thanks, very interesting and informative post, will bookmark this page

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