Economic Growth

How do social norms affect development?

David Jodrell
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Interventions targeting social norms have long been part and parcel of the international development landscape.  But following on the heels of the World Development Report 2015[1], how to measure – and capture the impact – of these interventions is the subject of rising attention.

There is particular interest in research around how social norms can contribute to behavioural change in the governance sector – in areas such as conflict resolution and women’s empowerment – as well as to help realise health objectives such as reducing open defecation or ending female genital mutilation. At BBC Media Action, where I work, we explore how media and communication intersect with social norms around some of these issues.

As interventions that aim to have an impact on social norms become more appealing to donors as a means of achieving development outcomes, the academic community is under growing pressure to refine and agree on definitions. This was succinctly and bluntly summarised at a meeting I recently attended at the Gates Foundation in Seattle with assorted scholars, donors and NGOs entitled ”The Impact of Social Norms on Outcomes for Adolescent Girls.”

At that meeting, Cristina Bicchieri, Harvie Professor of Social Thought and Comparative Ethics at the University of Pennsylvania and one of the world’s foremost experts on the topic, declared: “The definition of social norms is a disaster.”

Many development actors and researchers define social norms as other social forces, such as empowerment, collective attitudes, or beliefs. While these factors are all certainly relevant, the research community needs more specific definitions in order to design effective interventions to influence social norms, and also to measure the impact of these interventions.

Most definitions of social norms, including Bicchieri’s[2], have two common features. First, individuals perceive that most people around them conform to particular behaviours. Second, individuals have a perception that other people around them – i.e. society – believe they ought to conform to those behaviours. Thus, expectations of what we should do, and of what others expect us to do, constitute ‘social norms’.

As well as refining definitions, our view at BBC Media Action is that more successful development interventions require us to better understand the causal role of social norms, and the degree to which we as individuals are masters of our own behavior, and the extent to which the external expectations of others influence our actions.  An analogy for this is an individual rower in a boat.[3]

A rower could be heading South, but if her attitude changes and she decides to head North, she will abruptly start paddling in the opposite direction. This decision is based on her own knowledge, attitudes and self-efficacy, and the expectations of others do not come into play.

But attitude changes are internal, and therefore invisible to others. Once we have more than one rower, the action of rowing becomes collective, and even if one rower wants to head South, no one else will know unless the rower physically begins paddling in the opposite direction. Even if all six of the rowers decide they would prefer to head South, the boat will continue heading North until they communicate and agree to change direction. Until that moment, every rower in the boat believes their companions still want to head South.

This is what researchers mean by a ‘normative effect’, and it becomes an even more potent influence of an individual’s chosen behaviour when factoring in approval and disapproval and sanctions from others.  The more extreme the perceived disapproval and the more severe the resulting sanctions, the more an individual preference for a changed behaviour is likely to be overridden.

At BBC Media Action, our research team is actively grappling with how to both identify and measure social norms in areas ranging from the use of violence in family disputes to harmful traditional birthing practices to female circumcision. Not surprisingly, individuals who change their behaviour in opposition to such social norms can face strong public disapproval and sanctions in certain settings.

BBC Media Action’s work in communications for development interventions has helped us identify four key ways in which media has significant potential to influence changes in social norms and behaviours in the development sphere:

  1. The scalability of media means that it can change behaviours, attitudes and beliefs among large segments of a population, creating a more approving environment for individuals who want to adopt new behaviours.
  2. Media also encourages and promotes discussion, through which internal characteristics, such as attitudes, can enter the collective or social space, allowing people to realise that others’ internal views and attitudes towards particular behaviours are shifting.
  3. Media can further change our perception of the expectations that others have of us. This was the finding of Paluck and Green, who describe a randomised control trial evaluation of soap operas as a means of reducing intergroup conflict in Rwanda.[4]  While this drama did little to change individual views and beliefs, it was found to have effectively changed individual perceptions of preferred social behaviours and approval, and this in turn led to changed external behaviours such as greater cooperation between different ethnic groups.
  4. Effectively designed media interventions can influence the collective beliefs which can drive social norms. BBC Media Action’s research in Bangladesh, for example, has identified social norms affect the uptake of antenatal care (ANC)[5]. Many Bangladeshi women – and their husbands and brothers – are uncomfortable with the idea of being treated by male health workers at health clinics and hospitals. There is also a popular view that the main purpose of ANC is to advise whether a woman should give birth in hospital or at home. These beliefs feed normative disapproval towards women who seek ANC. Our health programming is currently being designed to reflect this finding, with broadcast content that both addresses these beliefs, and seeks to mitigate the social normative pressure against attendance.

If we return to our rower analogy, then, media offers the opportunity to learn quickly of an approaching storm to the South – for example, by listening to a news broadcast. This can change collective social attitudes about the comparative benefit of rowing North. It will encourage the rowers to communicate their shared interest in heading North and to understand that no one will be thrown overboard for doing so.

In an ideal world, that will turn the boat around – and when it comes to international development outcomes – that counts as a result.

[2] Bicchieri, C. (2005) (Eds): “Grammar of Society: The Nature and Dynamics of Social Norms”, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
[3] Analogy adapted from “What are Social Norms? How are They Measured”, Mackie, G. and  Moneti, F.: Working Paper, UNICEF/UCSD Center on Global Justice, 30 September 2014.
[4] E.L. Paluck and D.P. Green, “Prejudice Reduction: What Works? A Review and Assessment of Research and Practice”, Annu. Rev. Psychol. 2009. 60:339–67.
[5] Frank, L., Jodrell, D. & Smethurst, L. (in press). Social and Structural Factors to Promote Antenatal Care in Bangladesh. International Journal of Communications.

This article was originally published on The World Bank’s People, Spaces, Deliberation Blog. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: David Jodrell is the Head of Evidence at BBC Media Action, the BBC’s international development charity.

Image: A woman walks through shadows cast by columns. REUTERS/Luke MacGregor.

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