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Are social norms an important missing link in anti-corruption programming?

– In this post Cheyanne Scharbatke-Church and Russell Hathaway begin their deep dive into the world of social norms and its potential applicability to anti-corruption programming. They invite you to help further develop this line of inquiry. –

The Corruption, Justice and Legitimacy (CJL) program is developing a process to generate more effective anti-corruption programming through the creation of a systems-based analytic process.  Through our work to date, CJL has come to believe that social norms are a critical omission in the vast majority of corruption analysis in fragile states.  Critical, we argue, because social norms help explain how seemingly negative behaviors, such as corruption, are sustained over time.   This gap in understanding the context undermines the effectiveness of much anti-corruption programming.

Our question is: Can experience in social norm change on other issues – such as preventing addictions, diminishing campus binge drinking or stopping littering – inform theories of change within anti-corruption programming?

The Role of Social Norms in the System of Corruption

One of the reasons we think there is potential in focusing on social norm change comes from our assertion that corruption in a fragile state is a complex adaptive system; where the parts – including actors, attitudes, institutions etc. – interact with each other to form a complex dynamic that is not linear.  In the systems thinking field, mental models – intuitive generalizations from observations of real world events which are used to guide decisions– are understood to have some of the most significant potential to create change in a system.  It is possible that social norms could have some of the same high-impact potential.

We feel that in complex systems, social norms can often be a key driving factor behind patterns of corrupt behavior and the subsequent resiliency of corruption as a system.  In other words, despite the best intentions and even short-term successes of anti-corruption programs, the system will revert to its equilibrium.  Some of the elements of the system may have changed, but the phenomena of corruption will not, if our assertions hold true.

These arguments can help explain the ineffective nature of the many anti-corruption programs that do not address the factors behind normalized behaviors. These behaviors (e.g. paying bribes, nepotism) generally serve a purpose in the context.  They may be counter-intuitive for an external actor or from the collective perspective, yet there is a rationale behind the behavior.  If this rationale is not addressed then it is unlikely that corruption can be diminished through interventions that assume corruption is a deviation from, or malfunction within, the system, as is generally the case with programs based on a principal-agent model.

Any advice? Do you know of experiences that would contradict or confirm our assertion that social norms are key to understanding drivers of corruption? Email program manager, Kiely Bernard-Webster.

Commonalities in Defining Social Norms

“…the capacious content of a social concept or its diverse manifestations may often be lost or diminished through the maneuver of trying to define it in sharply delineated terms.” – Amartya Sen

A social norm is one of these “rich phenomena” where the capacious content makes definition difficult and the variety of competing attempts testifies to its diversity and complexity.  While there are common features that social norms discussions generally cover, no definition dominates the discourse.

It is generally agreed that a social norm is

  1. unwritten or informal, and
  2. is not to be confused with the behavior generated by the rule. For instance, that act of paying a bribe is not a social norm; rather, there is a rule that generates this behavior.
  3. involves some degree of social sanction for not complying; this can be external – like being laughed at or dishonored by others – or internal – through guilt or anxiety.

Disagreements in the Meaning of Social Norms

There are differing opinions on the role of social interaction or a social group (sometimes called a reference group) in the development and maintenance of a social norm.  For instance, some argue that it is through interaction with others that social norms are created and maintained and this critically differentiates it from a personalized value; others do not draw this distinction.

There is much debate about whether social norms must serve a functional purpose in a society. Muddying the waters somewhat is the fact that authors in these debates use different understandings of “functional.”  Some argue that for a social norm to be considered functional, the resulting behaviors must be socially efficient.

What Do We Think?

Our current, very nascent and sure to change, sense on these debates is that “social norms are the informal rules governing behavior that emerge unintentionally through social interaction.”

In systems thinking actors, institutions etc. all interact and are related.  It stands to reason then that social norms are developed through social interaction and are group dependent.  People can conform to different social norms pending which group they find dominant in a particular moment.    We also believe that these interactions with others involve sanction.  In other words, non-conformity with the social norm could result in an external sanction e.g. disapproval of contemporaries or an internal sanction e.g. shame.

Systems thinking also asserts that patterns of behavior always meet a function. And there is no requirement for that function to be socially positive.  We feel that social norms do serve a function, which is why they are both resilient and malleable.  Social norms are known to change, at times quite rapidly, which suggests that the purpose they were serving has been rendered or shown to be no longer necessary.  However, they are also resilient to efforts to change them that do not address the function that they are serving. It is from these beliefs that we feel that moralizing about corruption (corruption is “bad” or “evil”) is not helpful because it ignores the real needs the norms behind these behaviors are serving.

Social Norms are not Formal Rules, Morals or Values

In our understanding, social norms are distinct from formal rules or laws, which are usually the product of explicit deliberation and debate among the public, policymakers, and academics and can be enforced by official structures.  Further, there can be numerous behaviors resulting from a single social norm; these behaviors can be positive or negative from a societal perspective.  For instance, through working together a police unit may have developed the expectation that team members always back each other.  This can result in positive behaviors of help and support and as we found in DRC, and also in negative behaviors of turning a blind eye to a member of the unit using his position to sexually abuse someone in pretrial detention.

We also draw a distinction between a personalized value (e.g. moral norm) and a social norm.  A personalized value is not derived from on-going social interaction and is not changed through sanction. Finally, social norms are not to be confused with culture.  Culture is more expansive including other things besides norms such as laws, rituals, personal values, institutions, and physical artifacts.

Seeking Research, Cases, Evaluations and Expert Opinions

We are at the beginning of our deep dive into the world of social norms and its potential applicability to anti-corruption programming.  Our first step is mastering the literature from a diverse set of disciplines ranging from evolutionary biology to social psychology.   From this we hope to develop a workable concept applicable to corruption.  From there we will mine existing wisdom for insights on changing social norms that may be useful in the corruption field.  At that point we hope to return to Uganda – one of our research cases – to test these ideas with implementing actors.

As we embark on this effort, we would be keenly interested in hearing from those who have worked on identifying social norms that drive corruption or any other phenomena.  What process did you use to identify the unwritten rules?

We would also like to hear from those who have developed programs to change social norms related to corruption or in other sectors.  Research papers, case studies, program designs and evaluations would all be tremendously useful.  Please send along to Kiely Bernard-Webster, Program Manager at

Subscribe to our mailing list to receive future posts from experts with unique insights, points of view, and experience on anti-corruption policy, program design, and implementation. We hope to hear and learn from your reactions to our posts. Please contact Kiely, at, with feedback, comment below or email us if you are interested in submitting a guest post. Corruption in Fragile States Series authors and curators, Cheyanne Scharbatke-Church and Kiely Barnard-Webster



Cheyanne Scharbatke-ChurchCheyanne 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 a regular author and co-curator of the blog series on corruption in fragile states.

Russell Hathaway is a Masters student at the Fletcher School of Tufts University studying conflict resolution and development economics. He received his BA from The University of Chicago, where he studied the linkages between post-conflict disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) and transitional justice. Outside of the classroom, Russell has researched sexual violence in the Syrian Civil War at UN Headquarters, authoring a report on the subject for UN Women. He also served in a project support capacity at the international development organization Heartland Alliance and has traveled extensively in Turkey and Germany. Most recently, Russell served in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs and the political section of U.S. Embassy Berlin as a U.S. Foreign Service Intern with the State Department. Following graduate school, he will join the Foreign Service through the Pickering Foreign Affairs Fellowship.

Image source: From “The Essentials of Business Etiquette” by Barbara Pachter; posted on “15 meeting etiquette rules every professional needs to know” by Samantha Lee, Business Insider August 10, 2015. See:

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