Social control theory began to be studied as a separate field in the early 20th century. Sociologist Edward A. Ross argued that belief systems exert a greater control on human behavior than specific laws, no matter what form the beliefs take. The means to enforce social control can thus be either formal or informal.
Informal sanctions may include ridicule, sarcasm, criticism and disapproval. In extreme cases sanctions may include social discrimination and exclusion. This implied social control usually has more effect on individuals because they become internalized and thus an aspect of personality.
As with formal controls, informal controls reward or punish acceptable or unacceptable behaviour (i.e., deviance). Informal controls are varied and differ from individual to individual, group to group and society to society. For example, at a women's institute meeting, a disapproving look might convey the message that it is inappropriate to flirt with the minister. In a criminal gang, on the other hand, a stronger sanction would be applied in the case of someone threatening to inform to the police.
Formal social control is expressed through law as statutes, rules, and regulations against deviant behavior. It is conducted by government and organizations using law enforcement mechanisms and other formal sanctions such as fines and imprisonment. In democratic societies the goals and mechanisms of formal social control are determined through legislation by elected representatives and thus enjoy a measure of support from the population and voluntary compliance.
According to the propaganda model theory, the leaders of modern, corporate-dominated societies employ indoctrination as a means of social control. Theorists such as Noam Chomsky have argued that systematic bias exists in the modern media. The marketing, advertising, and public relations industries have thus been said to utilize mass communications to aid the interests of certain business elites. Powerful economic and religious lobbyists have often used school systems and centralised electronic communications to influence public opinion. Democracy is restricted as the majority is not given the information necessary to make rational decisions about ethical, social, environmental, or economic issues.
In order to maintain control and regulate their subjects, authoritarian organizations and governments promulgate rules and issue decrees. However, due to a lack of popular support for enforcement, these entities may rely more on force and other severe sanctions such as censorship, expulsion and limits on political freedom. Some totalitarian governments, such as the late Soviet Union or the current North Korea, rely on the mechanisms of the police state.
Sociologists consider informal means of social control vital in maintaining public order, but also recognize the necessity of formal means as societies become more complex and for responding to emergencies. The study of social control falls primarily within the academic disciplines of anthropology, political science, and sociology.