The intersectional nature of social norms: so much more to learn

By Diana Chigas, Co-Director, CJL and Cheyanne Scharbatke-Church, Co-Director, CJL

This blog post originally appeared on the Corruption in Fragile States Blog. Subscribe here to receive blog updates via email.

If social norms are the mutual expectations of how to behave held by a particular group, what happens when you are a member of multiple groups each with their own norms? When faced with a particular situation, which group’s norm—be it gender, faith, generation, ethnicity, tribe, or locality—will influence you? Do the norms collide, refract, negate or reinforce each other? And when it comes to corrupt behaviors, how do these multiple identities and the associated norms interact to influence how people behave?

We first stumbled on this question in our work in the DRC. There, criminal justice professionals consistently told us that “women in Lubumbashi face greater consequences than men if caught engaging in ANY type of corruption.” This was in part because of a dominant gender norm that expects women to be the ‘upholder of family values.’ As a result, if any of these professional women were caught in an act of corruption, they and their families would experience significant shame—unlike men in similar positions, who if caught, would be mocked for being caught, but not for being corrupt in the first place. As we moved to research corruption in the criminal justice system in Uganda, we found that women did not have the same familial pressure to maximize income as men (gender norm); this diminished the strength of the social norm within the civil service to take every opportunity to benefit your own.

We wondered what implications these gendered dimensions of corruption-related social norms had for programming. The fact that women might more frequently be islands of integrity than men in northern Uganda, for example, could mean that working with women to promote integrity would be a sound strategy. But we also wondered whether the fact that they could more easily resist pressure to engage in corrupt behaviors than men because of the gendered norm could also mean that it would be difficult to expand the impact of the effort beyond women—at least without incorporating additional approaches.

Why it matters

If our hypothesis is true, social norms change programming must adapt. Specifically, it will need, when relevant, to assess intersectional dimensions of norms and incorporate them into their social norms programming.

For example, a common strategy for changing social norms is to identify a trendsetter and promote their positive deviance widely. However, if the intersection of gender norms with social norms promoting corruption leads to different pressures on women, one would need to think carefully how to identify and promote trendsetters. Their gender may implicitly dilute the influence of the intended message with men, who may discount their non-corrupt behavior as fine for a woman, but not for a man, due to gender norms. When working with female trendsetters, programs might need to consider how intersectionality could further marginalize or harm them—for example, by exposing them to disproportionate consequences (such as losing her job or public shaming) for challenging a gender norm that women do not speak up in public.

“If norms associated with different aspects of a person’s identity (such as religion and gender) interact with social norms driving corruption to influence their behavior, then programs will need to take this into account in their theories of change.”

Similar adaptation would be needed to account for the influence of norms associated with other identities. If there are strong norms of mutual support and trust within a religious community, for example, or a strong norm of respect for hierarchy, this may hinder people from taking action on corruption if their religious group is implicated; these norms may need to be addressed for any anti-corruption efforts to be effective.

What do we know about intersectionality of social norms?

We searched the literature to figure out what knowledge exists, and we found little. Scanning a university database that accessed over 800 databases, we discovered only two articles directly addressing this issue.

We did, though, find a growing literature on gender and (typically petty) corruption, and on the relationship of religion, religiosity and corruption to corrupt behaviors. There is recognition that “gendered expectations” about corruptibility—i.e., gender norms, including expectations of extra punishment if they are caught in corruption—play a role in women’s decision making about participating in corrupt acts. A similar pattern exists in relation to some other identities. There is, for example, extensive literature on the relationship of religion, religiosity, and corruption (though the findings about whether the influence is positive or not are more mixed than with gender and corruption), but few studies explicitly address the intersection of religious norms and corruption-related norms even while they recognize that the social environment is important in determining the influence of religion on corruption in specific situations. Only Leena Hoffmann’s 2021 study on religion and anti-corruption begins to address this directly.

In sum, we found practically nothing on the intersection of social norms related to corruption and norms identities—such as gender, race, ethnicity, religion—associated with different identities. The gap in the literature is a recognized one. Legros & Cislaghi’s 2019 review of the state of theoretical literature on social norms (not specifically related to corruption) noted that only two out of the 22 reviews analyzed addressed intersectionality of norms. They concluded that “future cross-disciplinary reviews of social-norms theory might cover bordering theoretical space, engaging with the relation between norms theory and … intersectional inequalities based on gender, class, or race.”

What’s next

Our hypothesis needs to be tested. If norms associated with different aspects of a person’s identity (such as religion and gender) interact with social norms driving corruption to influence their behavior, then programs will need to take this into account in their theories of change. CJL is currently developing an action research effort to test this hypothesis and, equally important, produce a method for implementing actors to assess it in their own contexts.

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