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  • Writer's pictureCheyanne Scharbatke-Church - CJL

The Elementary Problem That Undermines Social Change Programming: Word of Warning to Anti-Corruption

By Cheyanne Scharbatke-Church and Hope Schaitkin

There is increasing interest in understanding the role social norms play (or see here or here) in maintaining corrupt patterns of behavior. Research from other fields has shown that social norms can act as the brake on behavior change, thus acting as the block to enduring change. While less is known about how to integrate social norm change into effective anti-corruption programming, other sectors are advancing this practice and anti-corruption practitioners can benefit from what they have learned.

Over the past few months we have doubled down on our efforts to review social norms change practice literature, e.g. evaluations and case studies. (If you are involved in an anti-corruption effort that targets social norms, please be in touch.) In reflecting on all of the material we gathered, it became apparent that there is one elementary yet existential pitfall that many programs, regardless of the field, have fallen victim to.

Interventions regularly confuse social norms with attitudes or behaviors

Interventions that aim to shift social norms are unintentionally targeting the wrong thing in their intervention design, and subsequent monitoring and evaluation. Our review found that attitudes and behaviors are commonly being mistaken for social norms. As these are different types of change, they require different strategies if we are to be effective.

Like many other fields, the study of social norms does not have a commonly accepted working definition. For the Corruption, Justice and Legitimacy program, we define social norms as the mutual expectations about what is appropriate and typical behavior within a group. These expectations flow from beliefs about what others do, and beliefs about what others think we should do. Enforcement of expectations of what behavior is “right” is predominately done through social punishment and reward. The anticipation of social punishment or reward can also create or reinforce these behavioral patterns, even if the punishment and reward never comes to pass. (Our definition has evolved since we started looking at social norms, so maybe it is more accurate to say our definition at this time.)

For example, a typical pattern of behavior that is seen in fragile contexts involves civil servants requesting bribes. This could be enabled by the civil servant’s perception that their family expects that they provide for them (a belief about what others expect me to do) and their opinion that everyone in their department is doing the same (a belief about what others do). The civil servant could also fear the consequences from their supervisor if they stop requesting bribes, and feel the positive reinforcement of their family’s pride in their ability to generate income beyond their salary.

It follows then that to change a social norm, an intervention must shift one (or ideally both) of these types of beliefs. However, these beliefs, about what others do and what others think we should do, are not attitudes nor behaviors. Changing these beliefs requires a distinct intervention from one which aims to change attitudes or behaviors.

Attitude beliefs are not the same as the beliefs that make up social norms

We understand an attitude to be an individually held belief or judgement (e.g., favor or disfavor) about something or someone. Unlike social norms, attitudes are not primarily socially constructed – they are not contingent on expectations about what others do or think. In a simple world, attitudes would have a direct influence on our behavior – if I felt that requesting a position for my nephew was a bad thing to do, I would not do it. But research shows that attitudes can be constrained by social norms – if I felt that requesting this position was a bad thing to do, but I felt the pressure of social expectations and the threat of sanctions, I might do it anyway. This bears repeating: people will do things they do not agree with when faced with a sufficiently strong social norm. To steal from a great business strategy line: social norms eat attitudes for breakfast!

Importantly, attitude change alone does not create social norm change and, in fact, may not even be necessary to achieve social norm change. For example, after an anti-corruption training, I may dislike the practice of requesting bribes because I believe that it is unprofessional (attitude change). However, I may continue to engage in the practice because I think that everyone else is doing it, and I think that others think I should (no social norm change).

Behaviors are the effect of social norms, not the same thing

Behaviors are also not synonymous with social norms. A behavior is what an individual actually does. The act of paying a bribe, giving preferential treatment to family or demanding sexual favors in return for a promotion are all behaviors. A social norm can be the cause behind the behavior, along with numerous other factors.

A social norm can create or reinforce a pattern of behavior, as the social norm represents the mutual expectations around what behavior is typical and appropriate within a group. For instance, a pattern of behavior around giving preferential treatment to family (i.e. favoritism) can be held in place by a norm around providing for the family. Fear of familial disapproval could further prevent an individual from refusing to engage in favoritism.

Importantly, targeting individuals in an effort to change their behavior does not always ripple back to influence the social norm itself. In some instances, it may even be impossible to achieve enduring behavior change if the social norm remains untouched. Where this gets confusing is that changing the behavior is likely the real objective of an intervention, but we have to view the social norms change as a means to a sustainable end.

An anti-corruption example of conflating social norms, attitudes and behaviors

Even though we have not been able to find a substantial number of anti-corruption programs that target social norms, we believe that the anti-corruption field is as prone as others to this elementary but critical mistake. Our review found that, when looking to change social norms, those in the anti-corruption space often try to reduce the frequency of a corrupt behavior, or the extent to which a corrupt behavior is acceptable (regarded with a favorable or neutral attitude).

However, this approach misses the “social” piece of “social norms.” By focusing exclusively on behavior and attitude change, practitioners lose sight of the need to change beliefs about what others do (expectations of what is typical) and beliefs about what others think we should do (expectations of what is acceptable). In doing so, these anti-corruption interventions potentially fail to create and then measure social norm change.

For example, a 2011 literature review presented case studies of 16 social norm-focused anti-corruption interventions. While these interventions did indeed aim to change what was acceptable or typical for their target groups, it is unclear from our reading whether these interventions aimed to change beliefs about what is typical for others, or beliefs about what others think is acceptable behavior. Further, the way these interventions measured “impact” focused on measuring attitude and behavior change, and failed to measure or illustrate whether perceptions or expectations actually changed.

One such case study presented in this review was the Culture of Lawfulness program in Colombia – a frequently cited example of an anti-corruption intervention which aimed to change social norms. The program is described to focus on structural change (create a group of public and private leaders), attitude change (honesty and transparency are believed to be beneficial to society), and knowledge change (increase understanding of the “rule of law” concept).

Don’t forget: ignoring social norms can make corruption worse

While targeting the wrong thing – an attitude or behavior rather than a social norm – is the most common pitfall, we don’t want anti-corruption practitioners to forget that there are other pitfalls. Namely that when it comes to social norms, not all awareness is good awareness. As we described in a previous post, awareness raising campaigns can make the socially negative behavior even worse. For instance, by creating the perception that “everybody does it” or that “corruption is bad” the messaging can create a magnet for the negative behavior, allowing others to justify their own negative actions based on that assumption. This can make the problem you are trying to address even worse.


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.

Hope Schaitkin recently graduated from The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, where she received her master’s degree in gender analysis and human security. Hope’s master’s thesis analyzed the conflict implications and economic benefits of a proposed infrastructure project in Helmand, Afghanistan. Before Fletcher, Hope worked for an international development contractor in Boston, MA and in Kabul, Afghanistan. Hope received her Bachelor’s degree from Tufts University, where her thesis focused on the environmental impact of Chinese development assistance in sub-Saharan Africa. Hope is currently completing an internship in gender and M&E with Mercy Corps Timor-Leste.


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