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A classic academic definition of social norms is that they are 'shared understandings about actions that are obligatory, permitted, or forbidden within a society' (Ostrom 2000, pp. 143–44). Social norms provide unwritten rules of behaviour and therefore structure many social interactions. This is especially relevant when formal rules, such as laws, do not regulate behaviour – as is often the case in countries riddled with corruption. Social norms are influential because they can trump individual attitudes.

Anti-corruption policies that are designed without social norms in mind are unlikely to be effective. Using a social norms approach means recognising that no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution exists. Effectiveness in one location does not imply effectiveness elsewhere, and it is important to design programmes around a particular corruption practice – and then around the social pressures driving that practice.

The existence of social pressures in a community is a sensitive matter, and there may be a number of risks in attempting to change norms. It is therefore important to assess and address these risks so that practitioners first 'do no harm' (Alexander-Scott, Bell, and Holden 2016 pdf). When practitioners recognise and avoid these pitfalls, a social norms approach can provide a novel lens to understand, diagnose, and eventually change the social forces that sustain corruption.

Types of social norms

Across academic disciplines, studies have identified two main types of social norms:

  1. Descriptive Norms are based on the perceived frequency of a given behaviour. People engage in a certain practice because they believe (correctly or incorrectly) that it is common: that it is what other people in their community, organisation, or network do. For example, they pay bribes because everyone else does.
  2. Injunctive Norms refers to the perceived acceptability of a given behaviour: whether it is considered right or wrong. This might be captured in a statement like “Giving gifts to officials in exchange for services isn’t wrong because you are showing your gratitude for their help.”

Social norms can shape a person’s behaviour even if it contradicts personal attitudes. To understand why many corrupt practices persist we must look beyond individual attitudes and examine shared perceptions, attitudes, and expectations – in other words, social norms. Perceived social norms are sometimes aligned with personal attitudes, but there can also be misalignment. Just because a behaviour occurs frequently does not mean that the majority of people approve of it (Cislaghi and Heise 2018). Many corrupt practices are considered objectionable by large parts of the society.

Connecting social norms and corruption

To better analyse the link between social norms and corruption, it is important to understand that there are several types of social norms. Social norms theory highlights that a person typically belongs to multiple social networks, some considered essential to a person’s identity, others more peripheral. People may be subject to multiple normative pressures depending on whom they meet, whom they compare themselves to, and to whom they are accountable. The main sources or types of social pressures can be summarised as follows (from U4 Issue Anti-corruption through a social norms lens):

  • Societal pressures: including returning favours and acting sociably.
  • Kinship pressures that relate to the notion of 'family first'.
  • Horizontal pressures that usually coincide with the workplace and the belief that 'my colleagues are doing it too'.
  • Vertical pressures that stem from managers and higher-ups in the workplace.

Social norms do not have to directly dictate the corrupt practice to play an important role in encouraging or condoning it. Consider a social norm that can be described as 'support the family above everyone else'. Imagine if you believed everyone in your family deemed this norm both typical and desirable – this perception would not need to lead to corruption. But if you are a public official, it could lead to your family network exerting pressure on you to skim off money or provide jobs to relatives for the benefit of the extended family. Resisting this pressure may result in a social sanction, such as being shunned at family gatherings.

These social pressures certainly are not the only explanation for how citizens and public officials act and interact, but they belong to the number of factors that may determine how people behave.

How to map normative pressures

It’s all about the context! Designing successful interventions requires a thorough understanding of the social forces that perpetuate a particular corrupt practice. This requires research to identify important reference groups for key actors, the norms that prevail within these groups, the channels for social pressures to enforce these norms, and the anticipated sanctions for deviance (section II of this U4 Issue on social norms provides an overview of the available methodologies to do this).

A good example of a study that applies a survey methodology and focus groups is Chatham House’s social norms study in Nigeria. For many practitioners, such extensive surveying may be too resource intensive. Cheyanne Scharbatke-Church and Diana Chigas from the Corruption, Justice and Legitimacy Program, at Tufts University have provided this helpful guide for practitioners to use to identify how to identify norms in a particular setting.


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