Social control can be defined as any social or cultural means by which systematic and relatively consistent restraints are imposed upon individual behaviour and by which people are motivated to adhere to traditions and patterns of behaviour that are important to the smooth functioning of a group or society. Probably the most basic form of social control depends upon the individual's acceptance of the standards of behaviour defined by social norms and role expectations as being right and proper. Thus socialization with the accompanying internalization of social norms and values provides an essential source of positive social control.
Social control may be positive or negative and either of these may be formal or informal. Formal social control involves systems of authority and laws, rules and regulations that specify awards or punishments for conformity or violations. Organized religion also provides a system of formal social control. Informal social control may be manifested in such forms as public opinion and fashion and enforced by diffuse sanctions such as praise or ridicule.
Social control is defined so that the end of social control is seen as order and the attainment of social values and not exploitation, selfish gain or the benefit of those who have powers. The values of a society may reflect the needs of a ruling class, an elite or a dominant cultural or racial group and thus social control may be directed toward supporting special interests.