Types of Social Control: Customs, Laws & War

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  • 0:05 Social Controls
  • 1:05 Customs
  • 2:29 Laws
  • 3:19 War
  • 4:12 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

This lesson will seek to explain the different social controls or constraints that exist in societies around the globe. In doing so, it will highlight the concepts of customs, laws, and war.

Social Controls

Here's an odd social phenomenon. Say you have to go into work or school one day extremely early, and since your car's in the shop, you have to take the bus. Now, you get on the bus, and no one says a word. After all, it's 6 a.m., and everyone's half-asleep. So you drive in silence for several miles when all of a sudden you sneeze, and through the silence comes several voices piping out 'God bless you.' Without even knowing your name, these strangers feel constrained to respond to your sneeze.

With this social oddity in mind, today's lesson will seek to explain why we act as we do. In other words, what social constraints or controls, things like blessing someone after they sneeze, exist within societies? Since this could be such a broad, broad subject, we'll limit our discussion to customs, laws, and warfare.

Being sort of the loosest of the controls and playing off our 'God bless you' story, we'll start with customs.


A custom is a traditional and widely accepted way of behaving or an action that is specific to a particular society. Using our opening little story, saying 'God bless you' after someone sneezes is an English-speaking custom. There are no laws that dictate we must; it's just something we're expected to do. In many ways, customs are very similar to norms, rules or standards that regulate behavior.

When speaking of customs, many social scientists assert that customs are used to support the social bonds and structure of society. When speaking of supporting bonds, think of the custom of families spending the holidays together. Even if families can't hardly stand each other throughout much of the year, many still get together at Thanksgiving. In short, this custom serves to support the family structure.

Jumping across the ocean, many Asian societies carry the custom of elderly parents living with their children until death. No, there's no written law that states they must; however, it's simply expected.

It's customary, and like many customs, not doing it can carry shame, ridicule, or even ostracism. In other words, even though they're not written in stone, customs are very effective social controls. If you want to test this, just show up to a wedding wearing all black with a veil over your head or to a funeral wearing a short, tight, hot pink dress.


Getting stricter, we come to laws. With this being very familiar, laws are rules that a society uses to regulate behavior and that are enforced through the levying of penalties. Differing from customs, laws are mandatory, not voluntary.

When thinking of laws, it's easy to think only within our Western paradigm of a statute, a written law passed by a formal legislative government, things like speed limits, no trespassing, or even insider trading. However, laws aren't always so formally written down.

For instance, a less industrialized tribe of hunter-gatherers probably won't have a written code of law; however, they still have unwritten laws that act as social constraints. For instance, even without a police force, stealing someone's food or kidnapping a child would still bring penalties and punishments.


With this, we come to our last social constraint or control, war. Not usually thought of as a social constraint, we'll define war as a structured, armed struggle between groups, each of which is motivated by a specific purpose. Being a bit hard to understand how war can be seen as a social constraint, we'll use some examples.

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