What Is a Formal Sanction?

formal-sanction Credit: DMITRY SEREBRYAKOV/AFP/Getty Images

A formal sanction is a form of social control that is official, equally applied and often written. Laws are a common form of formal sanction, as are the rules established by schools, businesses and other non-governmental social institutions. In contrast to a formal sanction, an informal sanction consists of behavior enacted by people on an individual level rather than on an institutional level.

The purpose of a formal sanction is to enforce cultural values. The Novia Scotia Department of Education and Early Childhood Development explains that cultural values are shared assumptions about what is right and wrong. Institutions, such as government and schools, codify their values in order to promote order and harmony.

Formal sanctions are the punitive measures that these institutions exert when individuals trespass the cultural values. For example, those who break the law are subject to formal sanctions adjusted to the nature of their crime. Murderers receive capital punishment of imprisonment, and speeding drivers are given fines. The same principle applies to schools. Students who misbehave are subject to formal sanctions, such as failing grades, detention and expulsion.

Formal sanctions work hand-in-hand with informal sanctions, such as ostracism, to keep people in line with social values. According to the Anthropology Department of Palomar College, however, the most effective form of social control is not the formal sanction but internalization of moral codes through early childhood instruction.