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#9: The Role of Social Norms in Achieving Behaviour Change

Our Top Ten Blog Posts by Readership in 2011

Originally published on July 28, 2011

Recently I attended a course on social norms and social change organized by UNICEF at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Understanding how social norms affect change in practices and behaviours is becoming an increasingly ‘hot topic’ in development discourse, and rightly so I would add. In some of my previous blogs I’ve discussed how in many cases the failure to achieve expected results should be ascribed to technocratic solutions, which are not always understood and agreed upon with local communities. The lack of a clear understanding of the role and mechanisms of behaviour change has been responsible for many development failures. However, developing strict behaviour change strategies might also be not enough to promote change.

Let us consider the case of female genital cutting (FGC), a practice still prevalent in a number of countries. If the practices surrounding rites of passages and marriage are guided by certain norms, it is quite clear that individual behaviour change cannot occur easily, no matter the amount of dialogue engaged in, the channel used or how well-crafted the message. If a family does not perform FGC in a community where that is the norm, their daughter not only will be most likely marginalized and ostracized by other peers, but she might also never be able to get married. Social norms not only prescribe behaviours, but also condemn deviation from  that behaviour. Social pressure and expectations from the group can be a much more powerful behaviour enabler, or deterrent, than any other factor or element (e.g. validity of the solution, effectiveness of the message, etc.).

FGC in Africa provides one of the best instances in which a collective approach directly addressing social norms has made a difference and succeeded in gradually eradicating this practice from an increasing number of villages. Studies conducted on the work done by Tostan (the NGO that led this work in a number of countries in Africa) indicate that change occurred because of two basic factors. The first was that Tostan avoided a top-down, message-based approach and instead worked with the communities in an interactive mode until they decided themselves that FGC should be stopped. The second key factor leading to the abandonment of FGC was the strategy’s broader focus on addressing collective rather than individual behaviours, fully recognizing that no one would stop FGC unless they thought that others were going to take the same decision.

Social and cultural norms are present in almost every aspect of our daily actions, even in basic functions we usually take for granted and that we would not think to be strongly related to any norms. For instance, let us consider the daily need to relieve ourselves and the issue of open defecation, a major challenge in India and many other countries. Open defecation - OD - is the main cause of many illnesses, some resulting in deaths among the most vulnerable (i.e. the poorest, children and older people). The solution seems quite obvious -  building latrines -  and this has been done on a very large scale. Why then has progress in this area been so slow, while on the other hand there have been significant achievements in FGM, for instance? There are a number of factors that explain the difference between the two. First of all, OD is not yet perceived as a problem by the people practicing it, and in many places is an accepted practice. There are multiple root causes of this, and range from the lack of proper infrastructure (i.e. latrines) to the easy availability of open spaces, the ‘ease’ of relieving oneself in the open, and the expectation that almost everybody else in the community is doing the same.

A major difference between FGC and OD is not that one is guided by strong social and cultural norms and the other is not, but rather that FGC is a once in a lifetime occurrence that, once adopted or not adopted, does not require any further action. On the other hand, OD is a daily behaviour that also needs infrastructure in good maintenance (i.e. latrines). Even if adopted initially, OD requires that latrines will be well-maintained to encourage their regular use.

In case you have any doubt about OD being a social/cultural norm, we should first define what a social norm is (and note that usually a social norm includes a cultural dimension as well). The broader definition states that norms ‘are the agreed-upon expectations and rules by which a culture/population guides/shapes the behaviour of its members in a given situation.’ This means that in a context where everybody, or nearly everybody, follows the practice of OD, the expectations are that the same individual behaviour is performed by many others, thus making the practice acceptable and ‘normal’ (i.e. within the norm).

If most people expect others not to defecate in the open, there is social pressure (due to stigma) not to continue this behaviour.  Hence, expectations about other people’s behaviours play a definite role in shaping individuals’ behaviour, and that is why social norms are crucial to account for when developing strategies to promote change.

The interdependence factor is often neglected when designing strategies to promote change in development initiatives. Understanding the social and cultural context can ensure that such elements will be factored in the process of change.

Disciplines such as sociology or cultural anthropology have long studied and interpreted the role and functions of social and cultural norms in shaping individual behaviours. Now development practitioners must go the extra mile and not only understand how norms work, but also comprehend how they can be abolished, changed or created in order to achieve the intended change.  Let me clearly state that I hold the firm belief that norms can never be changed from outside of a given group or social system. This implies that external experts can mainly serve as catalysts or facilitators of change, and that dialogue is the key approach in influencing any change in norms. Dialogue is key to understand, assess and promote change in social norms, but dialogue on its own is not enough.

If development is about change, then innovations and solutions leading to change are about people being willing to change their behaviours. Changing behaviours does not happen in a vacuum. A full behavioural change approach can only succeed when an individual is on a deserted island. Otherwise, any individual is embedded in a web of relations of different nature (e.g. affections, power, work, etc.) that will affect his/her decisions. This individual knows that any change in behaviour will affect others and will be affected by others.

As development practitioners are well aware, changing behaviours is a tough task to accomplish. Most individuals are willing to change behaviour not only if they are able to see a definite benefit in that change, but also if they are convinced that other people will do the same. That is why, in order to promote almost any kind of change in the development context, is necessary to understand how social norms operate and how they can be influenced. Approaches such as collective deliberation, network building or game theory can help us to address social and cultural norms more effectively. It is time to account for norms when designing strategies addressing change, as they can often prove the difference between success and failure in almost all development sectors, from water to rural development, from health to governance.

Photo Credit: Curt Carnemark, World Bank

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