What anti-corruption practitioners should read about social norms

The literature on social norms and corruption needs to improve, and definitions need to be clarified, to enable practitioners to integrate the literature into programming. Cheyanne Scharbatke-Church and Russell Hathaway go into the details, and share resources sent in response to their previous blog on social norms and corruption. Including examples of programming with social norms.


We believe social norms might be an important missing link in the majority of conventional corruption analysis efforts and anti-corruption programming.  And the recent flurry of blogs shows we are not alone in thinking this is a rich field of inquiry for the broader development field.

In our previous post, we explained why we think social norms could contribute to anti-corruption programming, made a request for resources and laid out why we (Corruption, Justice & Legitimacy team) have embarked on an inquiry into how social norms may contribute to diminishing corruption in fragile states.

We received many helpful recommendations and thoughts on the post, and have summarized some – but by no means all – of the most useful resources recommended.  Using these resources and others, our next step is to distill critical actionable points for policy makers and practitioners about social norms change and corruption.

Improve the literature, clarify definitions, and integrate it into programming

While rich and thorough, the literature does have some limitations and frustrating aspects.  Academics who write about social norms often debate definitions in circles, while sometimes simultaneously contradicting themselves within the same article.  Other scholars seem to talk past each other, intent on distinguishing their particular perspective, which obscures the fact that many of their insights are similar to those of their peers.

On the other hand, many practitioners who have utilized social norms in their programming – or argued that they have – seem to have done so without integrating key aspects of the academic theory and experimental evidence on the subject.   (Which is not to say that the academics have the answer!)

For instance, in a recent post on social norms on the Poverty to Power blog by Duncan Green, Duncan brainstormed that employing a “life cycle analysis” could help aid organizations more strategically target their donor and constituent bases.  Part of this involves engaging with people at a young age when they are beginning to “form” social norms.  But this conception of norms, in which they are instilled from a young age and internalized, reflects only one of multiple theories on social norm development.  Some academics maintain that social norms are not formed and internalized from a young age but vary from context to context based on one’s social group, cues in the environment, and expectations about what is typical and appropriate based on those cues.

Practitioner reports also suggest some muddy thinking about social norms. Interventions are claimed to have ‘changed social norms’ when in fact they have focused solely on measuring and changing individual attitudes or beliefs.

Going back to the recent posts by Duncan (not to pick on them, as we are big fans, but they are current and easy to access), the idea of tackling norms as they are formed and instilled at a young age would be challenged by some academics as not a social norm intervention at all, but an intervention targeting personal values.  This is an important distinction, as the way in which social norms and personal values are formed and maintained differ.

One of our critiques of the state of the literature actually reflects one of Duncan’s main points – there is not enough coherent and rigorous analysis of what goes on “inside people’s heads,” which is a big problem if organizations think social norms can be used in programming.  Practitioners clearly need a better definition of social norms and contextually grounded about how norms change.

Social Norms and Corruption: two categories of resources

  1. material that endorses the predominate principal-agent perspective and locates social norms in that framework
  2. critical material that looks at cultural, social, and power-based aspects of corruption, but doesn’t employ a rigorous definition of social norms or theory about how they change

Neither category draws heavily from the academic or practitioner literature on social norm change, and virtually no anti-corruption interventions (that we could find) have focused explicitly on social norms, aside from those using techniques.

Recommended Resources

What follows is a list of recommended resources, which includes some of the recommendations provided in response to our first social norms post and supplements them with a select set of resources we identified as valuable.  We have organized the material by topic and have not limited inclusion to corruption-focused material.   If your work is not on this list and you think it should be, please get in touch.

Changing Social Norms

These resources combine academic theory with practical insights about what norms are, how they change, and how to program around them.  None of these authors are the sole authority on social norms, and none of these theories are complete, but taken together they offer a glimpse at a more integrated theory of norm change.

Programming with Social Norms: Program Examples

A number of interventions have utilized social norms in their programming, sometimes with the explicit goal of changing social norms or perceptions.  Social Norms Marketing refers to “traditional marketing techniques, including mass media and face-to-face campaigns, which are designed to alter individuals’ perceptions about which attitudes and behaviors are typical and desirable in their community” (Paluck and Ball 2010).  Other programs have tried to affect social norms by combining such marketing techniques with small discussion groups and community affiliations with role models.  What follows are descriptions and evaluations of a number of programs utilizing social norms.

Social Norms and Corruption:

Below are a number of resources that explicitly link social norms with corruption.  It is much more common for scholars and anti-corruption practitioners to relate corruption to culture.  These articles may mention culture, but they describe the relationship between corruption and social norms rather than to culture writ large.

What comes next?

In our next social norms post, we hope to offer a few key insights and “do’s and don’ts” when using social norms in anti-corruption programming, drawn from this wealth of literature.  Please be in touch if there is material that you feel would help us nuance our analysis or that we have missed.

This post is part of the corruption in fragile states seriesSubscribe 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 comment below or contact Cheyanne Scharbatke-Church, at Cheyanne Church cheyanne@besacsc.org, if you are interested in submitting a guest post.

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 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.

Header image: “MAP OF GREETING BODY GESTURES.” Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design.

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