Changing Social Norms: What Anti-Corruption Practitioners Should Read

By Hope Schaitkin

New material on social norms change seems to be appearing every week. It can be hard to keep up with it, let alone adapt an ongoing program based on new insights. Here is our short list of recently published and evidence focused must-reads, building on our 2017 select set of resources on social norms and corruption. 

 This past summer, the Corruption, Justice and Legitimacy team dug back into the literature to see what insights we could glean on how to actually go about changing social norms. We wanted to know whether those studying social norms – either as academics or as social norm change practitioners – had coalesced around concrete strategies used to shift harmful social norms.

Our review found that overall, authors do not yet agree on the broad theories of change around social norms, or the key elements that make up a successful change intervention. While our literature revealed several “don’ts” in social norm change practice, we had a harder time elucidating concrete and clearly evidence-based social norm change “dos” that could be or have been applied and tested in the anti-corruption space.

The below categories present recently published (2014-2018) literature that offers some lessons to be applied to social norm change programming.

Changing a social norm requires a social approach

We define social norms as the mutual expectations about what is appropriate and typical behavior within a group. But too often, social norm change programming assumes that changing a social norm can occur at the individual level.

These two pieces on social norm change helped us to understand the truly social nature of both social norms and the strategies used to change them. Though these are not social norm change program evaluations, they do make use of evidence from social norm change programming to draw conclusions on what works.

Messaging around social norms is complicated

Using messaging campaigns to deliver social norm change is relatively common. This messaging can be implicit (think a radio soap opera showing citizens rejecting requests for bribes) or explicit messaging (think posters citing that “people in this town do not tolerate police corruption”).

While messaging can be a useful part of a social norm change intervention, it is by no means a silver bullet. There are essential nuances around social norm change messaging that are often missed during campaign or program design. These resources helped us to conceptualize key elements – and often missteps – of social norm messaging campaigns,

Some norms may be easier to change than others

Intuitively, we know that social norms can be more or less entrenched depending on the context. New literature however is starting to explore what factors make norms more resistant to change.

Understanding the systems holding a social norm in place is necessary for designing social norm change programming that works, and for dialing up the elements of your programming that can address these dynamics head on. These resources helped us to understand what might make a norm stronger (or more resistant to change), or what target groups might be most relevant when designing a social norm change intervention.

Examples of effective social norm programming and their evidence

For examples of what good social norm change programming can look like, refer to the following. If your work is not on this list and you think it should be, please get in touch. Notably, examples of aligned theory and practice largely come from the public health and gender equity sectors, though we believe their lessons are applicable to anti-corruption programming in fragile states.

New material on social norms change?

We do our best to stay current with the newest materials. Your help with that is most appreciated. Please use the comment section below to link to your latest work, or material you have found useful.

About the author

Hope Schaitkin recently graduated from The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, where she received her master’s degree in gender analysis and human security. Hope’s master’s thesis analyzed the conflict implications and economic benefits of a proposed infrastructure project in Helmand, Afghanistan. Before Fletcher, Hope worked for an international development contractor in Boston, MA and in Kabul, Afghanistan. Hope received her Bachelor’s degree from Tufts University, where her thesis focused on the environmental impact of Chinese development assistance in sub-Saharan Africa. Hope is currently completing an internship in gender and M&E with Mercy Corps Timor-Leste.

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9 thoughts on “Changing Social Norms: What Anti-Corruption Practitioners Should Read

  • November 29, 2018 at 12:12 pm

    I appreciate this initiative of response to this big challenge of social norm today. As Sociologist i think that it is necessary and will be helpfull for our current social problems.

  • November 30, 2018 at 11:59 am

    I very much liked your article. Pls can you send me your Masters Thesis or the link to it… would like to read it.

  • February 25, 2019 at 5:02 am

    That’s good to take part in changing the social norms. Messaging campaigns to deliver social norm change is relatively common as you said. I think this is great article about social norms.

    • March 8, 2019 at 4:52 pm

      HI Lisa – yes there are lots of messaging campaigns seeking to change corrupt behavior. However if they don’t take social norms into account AND they use a ‘look how bad it is’ approach in an attempt to shock people they run the risk of increasing the corrupt behavior. We wrote a post on this exact thing a while ago –

      Would love to hear your thoughts. Cheyanne

  • February 26, 2019 at 2:13 pm

    It would be interesting to read some details about the practitioners.
    Guess it’s kinda hard to work on some analysis or thesis after visiting such areas in the world like Kabul or Timor. Hope it would be something to read between the lines.

    • March 8, 2019 at 4:55 pm

      I agree more concrete material from practitioners would be really helpful. We are hoping to do something along this line in the future – funding pending!

      We’ve done analysis in several countries – DRC, Uganda and CAR. The full analysis for Uganda and CAR is available on the Fletcher Website and we blogged about some of the core features. There is a full list of posts on the Corruption in Fragile states main page.

      Best Cheyanne


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