Formal means of social control are the means of social control exercised by the government and other organizations who use law enforcement mechanisms and sanctions such as fines and imprisonment to enact social control. In democratic societies the goals and mechanisms of formal social control are determined through legislation by elected representatives. This gives the control mechanisms a measure of support from the population and voluntary compliance. The mechanisms utilized by the state as means of formal social control span the gamut from the death penalty to curfew laws.
From a legal perspective, sanctions are penalties or other means of enforcement used to provide incentives for obedience with the law, or rules and regulations. Criminal sanctions can take the form of serious punishment, such as corporal or capital punishment, incarceration, or severe fines. Within the civil law context, sanctions are usually monetary fines.
Our understanding of formal control is enhanced by social theorist Max Weber's work on the state's use of violence. Weber writes of the definitional relationship between the state and violence in the early twentieth century in his essay "Politics as Vocation. " Weber concludes that the state is that which has a monopoloy on violence. By this, Weber means that the state is the only institution within a society who can legitimately exercise violence on society's members. When Sam kills Katie, he is a criminal guilty of murder. When the state kills Katie, it is enacting its authority to use the death penalty to protect society. Weber uses this definition to define what constitutes the state. The formal means of social control and the monopoly on violence serve a similar role in defining the state—they both illustrate the unique relationship between the state and its subjects.