Is it a Social Norm, or Something Else? The Curious Case of a Traffic Police Officer in India

Image Credit: Zakwaan Asim

By Dhaval Kothari

Since I started working with the Corruption, Justice and Legitimacy Program (CJL), I have learned that it is not easy to apply social norms frameworks to real life situations. Colleagues and CJL partners have echoed this experience. Social norms are complex, and it can be easy to confuse them. In theory, the difference between a behaviour that is common and a behaviour that is driven by social norm may seem obvious but in practice the differences are nuanced and deeply embedded in the context.

With this in mind, CJL published a short guide on social norms and corruption which boils down the complexity of social norms into its essential components. It also highlighted the guidance set out in our publication titled on how to identify whether a social norm is driving a corrupt behaviour. The feedback we received from the anti-corruption community was that they want to use these ideas but would benefit from more examples. In response, this post takes a common corruption scenario and applies the CJL social norms framework to it in order to illustrate the process to our readers. 

It is our expectation that this post will aid practitioners in avoiding common mistakes and improving the effectiveness of efforts to change social norms that is driving corrupt behaviour. This post is first of many posts where we will analyze common scenarios widely known by the anti-corruption community.

A not so unusual scenario: Bribery at a traffic stop

Police soliciting a bribe at a traffic stop is a scenario that I have encountered numerous times in India and is certainly not unique to India. For this post, I have amalgamated all of those experiences into a fictitious example.

Credit: Zakwaan Asim

Arvind lives near Sion Circle in Mumbai, India.  Traffic police officers in Sion are known to solicit bribes from drivers breaking traffic rules. On his way to grabbing some dinner with friends, Arvind breaks the signal (runs a red light) to reach the restaurant on time. He gets stopped by a young traffic police officer, Narendra. Arvind steps out of the car with his driving license to speak to Narendra (as commonly done by drivers in India). Narendra steps back to get the ‘challan book’ (ticket register) from his peers who are deputed with him at that traffic stop to be able to register Arvind’s traffic violation and give him a ‘challan’ (ticket).

Credit: Zakwaan Asim

Narendra’s peers causally suggest “Why are you writing him a ticket? As we always do, just ask for 300 rupees for our chai-paani (Hindi for tea – coffee: commonly used as slang for bribe) and tell him that if you issue a challan, it would be 700 rupees.” Narendra nods and walks back to Arvind where he says “I am in a good mood today. Just help me with some chai-paani – let’s say 300 rupees and I will let you go without issuing a challan (ticket with a fine of 700 rupees).” Arvind obliges and drives away. Narendra shares the bribe with his peers and gets a pat on the back from them.

On to the analysis to figure out if there a social norm driving this behaviour. The initial question I would want to ask myself is: What behaviour am I trying to influence?

a. If I am trying to stop the corrupt act of solicitation of bribes, I would want to inquire if a social norm is driving the traffic officer’s corrupt behaviour?

b. If I am trying to stop the corrupt act of offering of bribes, I would want to inquire if social norms are driving the driver’s behaviour?

For the purpose of this blog post – we will analyze both.

How would we know if a social norm influenced Narendra’s behaviour? 

We need to inquire into three primary questions:

a. Is it common for Narendra’s peers (whose opinion matters to Narendra in such scenarios) to solicit a bribe from a citizen? The facts given in the scenario indicate that Narendra’s peers commonly solicit bribes from citizens.

b. Does Narendra believe his peers to think that it is appropriate to solicit bribes for a traffic rule violation? Given that Narendra’s peers suggested seeking a bribe instead of writing Arvind a ticket, it is reasonable to assume that they think that is appropriate behaviour. If Narendra wants to be viewed favourably by his peers in his precinct, their opinion about what is appropriate behaviour would influence Narendra’s own decisions about how to behave.

c. Are there positive reinforcements for soliciting bribes or negative repercussions for not doing what other officers in the team think is typical and appropriate? Narendra received a pat on the back for his behaviour. This is a social reward/positive reinforcement.

Based on this analysis, it appears the social norm driving this behaviour is:

“Traffic police officers in Sion Circle in Mumbai are expected by their traffic police peers to solicit bribes from citizens for traffic rule violations.”

What about Arvind? Are there social norms driving Arvind’s willingness to offer a bribe to traffic police officers?

While we do not have enough information to answer this, we would ask the same three questions again.

a. Is it common for Arvind’s friends and family (whose opinion matters to Arvind in such scenarios) to offer a bribe to a traffic police officer to get away with a traffic violation? To conclusively say that a behaviour is driven by a social norm, it is essential to establish that it is typical or common among the group of people whose opinion matters to Arvind. In this scenario, we do not have enough information to conclusively answer this question.

b. Does Arvind believe his friends and family think that it is appropriate to offer a bribe to traffic police officers to get away with traffic rule violations? We would need to inquire if Arvind’s friends and family perceive it to be appropriate to offer a bribe to a traffic police officer to get away with traffic rule violations. In this scenario, we do not have enough information indicating to assess whether Arvind’s friends and family think it is appropriate to engage in such behaviour.

c. Are there positive reinforcements for offering the bribe or negative repercussions for not doing what other friends and family think is typical and appropriate? We would need to inquire into whether Arvind offered the bribe under the fear of any negative social repercussions – the hallmark of a social norm. If instead Arvind was motivated to save money by paying a bribe that was less than the fine or if Arvind did not want to go through the trouble of legal formalities, this would suggest a personal motive rather than one driven by social pressure.

Based on this analysis, it appears that we do not have enough information to assess if a social norm existing among Arvind’s friends and family.

Was this helpful?

Did this blog post help you understand what social norms are and what are the key questions one must ask while inquiring if a social norm is driving corrupt behaviour? Where can we provide more clarity? If you are currently trying to assess if a social norm is driving corrupt behaviour in a specific context, we would urge you to write to us and we would be excited to work with you and figure it out together.


About the Author

Dhaval Kothari is the Senior Associate at the Corruption, Justice and Legitimacy Program which works to improve the effectiveness of anti-corruption programming in contexts of endemic corruption. He is the co-founder of ADMEL Lab, a social change collaborative striving to embed inclusive accountability in M&E frameworks. His prior work experience includes working with the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue in Nigeria and co-founding a non-profit organization focusing on the development of children from low-income families in India. Prior to this, he practiced as a litigation lawyer for several years focusing on governance and regulatory issues.

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