What You Must Know to Differentiate Norms from What’s Normal

This post draws from the latest publication of the Corruption, Justice and Legitimacy Program Understanding Social Norms: A Reference Guide for Policy and Practice. One of the first publications focused specifically on endemic corruption, the Reference Guide offers an introduction to core concepts for practitioners and decisionmakers. Download the full guide here.

One of the consistent challenges that we have experienced when first introducing the topic of social norms to anti-corruption practitioners is the tendency to quickly conflate all normal behaviors with social norm driven behaviors.  This is typically followed in rapid succession by the declaration that since corruption is totally normal in X context it must be a social norm.  (For what it is worth this also signals a further misunderstanding of the concept because the norm drives the behavior but is not the behavior itself!) Getting past the ‘all things that are normal are norms’ is critical to accurately diagnosing the social norms that do drive a corrupt pattern of behavior (e.g. bribery, sextortion), which in turn is necessary to devise effective strategies. This post offers up four ‘lessons’ to remember when differentiating between what is normal and social norm driven behavior.

Lesson 1: Social expectations and pressure must play a role

One of the biggest mistakes people new to social norms make is confusing behaviors they see as normal or common with behaviors that are driven by social norms.  A social norm is the mutual expectation of the right way (typical & appropriate) to behave held by a group.  Social norms are created and maintained within groups through social sanction; rewards for compliance and punishments exerted for breaches. 

Photo: David Alliet via Flickr

A classic example of normal behavior in many contexts is the use of an umbrella when it rains.  While using an umbrella is completely common, it is rarely done because of the expectations of others.  Instead people typically use an umbrella to meet their own need – namely not getting wet.  This is a common practice, but it is unlikely that it is social norm driven.  Let’s take another example: artisanal miners that do not wear helmets when working. Not using safety equipment might be common—the “norm” even—but that doesn’t mean the behavior is driven by a social norm. In this case it could just as easily be a matter of convenience, lack of access to the right equipment or finances­—safety equipment is expensive.

Lesson 2: Specificity matters – which is why corruption is not a direct social norm

Because people initially confuse social norms with behaviors that are widespread, they often conclude that corruption must be a social norm.  Similar to the earlier examples, although corruption may be totally normal, and therefore “the norm” in a particular place, this does not mean that social pressures drive the behavior.

With direct social norms
mutual expectations dictate a specific behavior.

In fact, in our experience, even in fragile and conflict affected contexts corruption would rarely be driven by a direct social norm.  The term “corruption” encompasses a wide assortment of behaviors—from hiring unqualified family members to sexual exploitation to demanding a fee for a free public service. By definition, this excludes corruption from being driven by a direct social norm because direct norms dictate a specific behavior.

This is not to say that there are no corrupt practices that are driven by direct social norms.  In some circumstances, a direct norm may develop in a group dictating a particular type of corruption, such as extortion. In this case a practice that may have begun for other reasons (e.g., resources to wage conflict, need, etc.) has now become associated with expectations of the group. The ongoing practice is now supported by social pressure within the group; “X people should extort money from Y people” and now may be the social norm.  However, this is the specific form of corruption (e.g. favoritism), not all forms of abuse of power for personal gain.

Lesson 3: Corruption may be an indirect norm, but others are likely more influential

With indirect social norms
mutual expectations can manifest in a variety of behaviors.

At most, abuse of entrusted power for personal gain could be an indirect social norm within a group. This would account for the multiplicity of possible behaviors that could transpire (e.g. bribery, favoritism, nepotism etc.), which is the very definition of an indirect norm.  But, our research as well as others suggests that it is not abuse of power for personal gain (i.e. corruption) that is typically the indirect norm; rather, other social norms—such as reciprocity, support of family, loyalty, accumulation of resources to become marriageableare what support corrupt behaviors. Interestingly though these indirect social norms also lead to socially positive behaviors.

Lesson 4: Intent matters

The caveat to all of the above is that it is possible that people engage in a behavior because they see others doing it and wish to fit in.  While this does not make it a social norm, it does mean it is influenced by one of the sets of beliefs that make up social norms – our belief about what others in a group do (often called descriptive norms). Returning to an earlier example, a new artisanal miner opts to go into the mines without a helmet because he notes that no one else is wearing one and thinks this will make him fit in. If this observation of what others are doing has driven his behavior then his choice is influenced by the descriptive norm. However, this is the weakest form of influence and our research suggests it would be very rare to be a driver behind collective corrupt behavior in FCAS.  

Descriptive norms are defined as beliefs about what others in a given group do.

Applying the lessons

Sextortion, the extortion of sexual favors, offers a useful corruption-focused example. Our research has found that in the DRC police it is understood that for a female recruit to receive a decent placement after finishing the academy she will be required to perform sexual acts with the officer in charge of placements. This is understood to be quite common and even normal practice, but is it a social norm–driven collective behavior?

From the perspective of the female officers, it is known to be commonly done (i.e., typical), but not seen as appropriate behavior. In fact, resisting sextortion is praised within this group, not negatively sanctioned. For new female recruits who elect to comply with this demand it is something they feel they have to do, not something driven by the mutual expectations of women police officers.

Shifting the group to the male superiors, someone new to these ranks may follow this behavior because they see the other men doing so and want to fit in—here it is a descriptive norm influence. However, if the other men signal that this is expected of the new member and ostracize him if he does not take sexual advantage in his role, then it is likely a social norm–driven behavior among the male superiors. 

For corrupt patterns of behavior in fragile and conflict affected contexts, equating what is typical or normal practice with a social norm–driven behavior without considering whether there are expectations or pressure to participate and/or consequences for not participating will lead to mistaken conclusions, and ineffective strategy choices. A corruption analysis seeking to understand whether and how social norms are a factor needs to go beyond identifying what is typical to look at social expectations, pressure, and potential consequences.

Understanding Social Norms: A Reference Guide for Policy and Practice

Understanding Social Norms: A Reference Guide for Policy and Practice

A guide by Cheyanne Scharbatke-Church and Diana Chigas ...


About the authors

Cheyanne Scharbatke-Church is Principal at Besa: Catalyzing Strategic Change, a social enterprise committed to catalysing significant change on strategic issues in places experiencing conflict and structural or overt physical violence. She has significant experience working on anti-corruption and state legitimacy in the DRC and Uganda. As a Professor of Practice, she teaches and consults on program design, monitoring, evaluation and learning. Cheyanne is also the Corruption in Fragile States blog series editor.

Diana Chigas, JD, is the Senior International Officer and Associate Provost at Tufts University and a Professor of the Practice of International Negotiation and Conflict Resolution at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. Diana has worked with governmental and non-governmental organizations on systemic conflict analysis, strategic planning, and reflection and evaluation to improve the impact of peace programming. Diana has over 25 years’ experience as a facilitator and consultant in negotiation and conflict resolution, as well as supporting and evaluating social change programming in conflict-affected countries. Her interest in corruption emerged from her experience supporting peacebuilding programming, where corruption has consistently been a key factor hindering effectiveness and driving conflict.

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