3 advocacy case studies I would love to read (on long term norm shifts). Anyone fancy writing them?

On the off chance that someone is looking for an interesting research topic, here are 3 case studies related to norm change that I would love to read about, but don’t currently have time to research myself. If you are interested in picking up any of them, I’d love to discuss (and read the result).

1. The canonization of Oscar Romero.

The archbishop of San Salvador was assassinated by death squads in 1980, in the early days of the Salvadoran civil war. His crime? Adopting ‘a preferential option for the poor’. No one was ever convicted of the crime. In 2018, he was canonized (becoming Saint Oscar).

What those bare facts conceal is a three decades-long advocacy campaign to have Romero declared a saint. When I worked for CAFOD in the late 1990s, it seemed a slightly bizarre campaign (the structures of the Vatican are labyrinthine and to qualify as a saint, you have to prove that miracles have taken place….). Why spend time and energy on that, rather than the immediate injustices confronting so many people in Latin America and elsewhere?

Since then, I’ve changed my mind. Saint Oscar will be a normative beacon within the Catholic Church for centuries to come, when the details of Central America’s civil wars are long forgotten.

So how did it happen? I saw at first hand the relentless advocacy of CAFOD’s Julian Filochowski and Clare Dixon. Parallel campaigns must have taken place in other countries, not least El Salvador.

Credit: Marcin Mazur

I bumped into Clare recently and we were talking about this – she laughed at the idea of making it an advocacy case study. ‘We just did it because it was the right thing’. Sure, but how did you win? I would love to see the timeline and a power analysis.

Here’s my 2015 piece on one of the key victories in the campaign – an official declaration of martyrdom.

2. Modern Slavery.

The term ‘Modern Slavery’ appeared suddenly on the UK political map in the middle of the last decade (here’s my summary of a big Economist briefing from 2015), becoming a law under the Conservative government, accompanied by campaigns and public briefings and a referral mechanism for people who suspect it is taking place.

According to the government:

‘Modern Slavery can take many forms including the trafficking of people, forced labour, servitude and slavery. Children (those aged under 18) are considered victims of trafficking, whether or not they have been coerced, deceived or paid to secure their compliance. They need only have been recruited, transported, received or harboured for the purpose of exploitation. It is an international crime, affecting an estimated 45.8 million people around the world. It is a global problem that transcends age, gender and ethnicity. It is not an issue confined to history or an issue that only exists in certain countries. It is something that is still happening today, and it happens here in the UK.’

What made a conservative government grappling with austerity decide to embark on a human rights initiative that, to be honest, sounds more Labour than Tory? Who/what were the drivers? What were the political calculations within government? Answers on a postcard please.

3. Dog pooh.

OK, I realize this may seem a bit trivial compared to the preceding two issues, but if you take kids to the park these days, you can be fairly sure they won’t come back covered in dog shit. That was not the case 25 years ago, when I was taking my littl’uns to the swings. It is now almost universal that people carry plastic bags and pick up after little fido. That is a pretty big shift to doing something basically pretty unpleasant, for the public good. What enabled that change? Was it a successful public information campaign? A shift in attitudes to public spaces? Something else entirely?

What’s your theory of change?

All 3 of these relate to some aspect of norm shifts – changes in the long-term underlying attitudes of people towards others. The Romero campaign put a champion of social justice at the heart of the Church’s role as a norm shaper. Modern Slavery successfully reframed/revived a long-standing human rights issue by adding the word ‘modern’, a law, and some government backing. Doggie bags marked a shift among dog owners from individual to collective rights and responsibilities.

Have I piqued anyone’s interest? Hope so! If not, I might have to try and persuade my students to sign up. At least that means I can get them to follow our guidelines for writing up these kinds of case studies.

Of course, it is highly likely that someone has already done something along these lines – if so, please add links in the comments.

And if you have your own candidates for case studies, feel free to add them below.

Subscribe to our Newsletter

You can unsubscribe at any time by clicking the link in the footer of our emails. For information about our privacy practices, please see our .

We use MailChimp as our marketing platform. By subscribing, you acknowledge that your information will be transferred to MailChimp for processing. Learn more about MailChimp's privacy practices here.


11 Responses to “3 advocacy case studies I would love to read (on long term norm shifts). Anyone fancy writing them?”
  1. Regarding #2: I just started to read Genevieve LeBaron’s “Combatting Modern Slavery” (https://politybooks.com/bookdetail/?isbn=9781509513666) and I wonder whether it offers some insights.
    #3 The commodification of pet/dog ownership is an important factor; rise of dog ownership combined with rise of shops that make buying accessories, including bags, easily accessible, including through online retailers; 20 or so years ago there was no simple product.

  2. Helen Schneider

    Interesting reflection on dog poo pick-up because it hasn’t become a social norm where I live within a UK National Park. Or at least picking up and disposing of safely hasn’t. Availability of bags has meant some people do pick up but then they leave the bags on the Forest, sometimes hanging from trees. Lack of bins to put them in is certainly a constraining factor. But lots of people just tip up in their cars, release multiple pooches onto the Forest, effectively creating a ‘latrine’ area around car parks which are the same areas that most people with children use for walks and picnics. So, a comparative study of where and when picking up and disposing of safely happens and where it doesn’t would certainly be interesting. Wider ownership of dogs, and owners working full-time and farming out exercising to commercial dog-walkers who are often sole traders taking multiple dogs out at the same time, and a view that a National Park is a big enough area to ‘absorb’ plenty of poo but too big an area to carry poo around with you, and ambiguous messaging by park authorities are all probably key influencing factors. While this might not be considered an important ‘development issue’, it is an interesting case in terms of human behaviour change (or not).

  3. Lucy Russell

    I’m probably stating the obvious but do you know there’s a statue of Oscar Romero on Westminster Abbey and a (colourful) copy in St Albans cathedral. “His statue, which stands over the Great West Door of Westminster Abbey, was unveiled during the 1998 Lambeth Conference, one of ten 20th century martyrs honoured in this way.” I remember taking a visiting Guatemalan Bishop to its unveiling.

  4. Lucy Russell

    On the dog pooh front: did people’s behaviour change because they became aware of the detrimental impact? or extent of the problem? because they were shamed (with all those markers in parks showing the extent of the poo)? because the authorities imposed it and made poo bins available? Or a mixture of the above. You might want to talk to Oxfam’s own Public Health team about behavioural change, they have a long term understanding in their work to get people washing hands and using the loos in camps to stop potential disease. Just a thought.

  5. Melinda

    I have often thought the same thing about sneezing into your elbow, this is a public health shift that has happened in the past 15 years. I am amazed, at least here in Canada, what a normative shift it has been for the younger generation and how their behaviour has also had the effect of shifting the behavior of older folks. I know that if you sneeze into your hands, as everyone used to do, my kids will look at you as if you just vomited on your feet and back away swiftly…

  6. Kimberly Clarke

    My local Facebook page for the last couple months has featured endless rants about dog poo (and feral teenagers). Has it (dog poo) gotten worse again, or has tolerance for anti-social behaviour peaked recently? (Also see general litter rants.) I’m pretty sure the feral teenagers are a constant (apart from one of them being mine at the moment).

  7. Carol Burns

    There is a lot of research in the Public Health/ Health Promotion field on things such as seat belt use, drink driving, use of sun cream especially in Australia to combat skin cancer. The framework used could inform some of the other research on shifting norms.
    On Romero, whilst it is a fantastic achievement that he was canonised and all credit to Julian and Clare’s work and the many other campaigners, but how much is it a norm shift when a middle aged cleric is canonised, it will be interesting to see how Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement and fierce anti nuclear campaigner fares in her path to canonisation

  8. David

    #2 was a Theresa May pet project. That’s what happens when you get a powerful politician interested.
    While #1 sounds like an achievement, the fact that they had to convince a group of old men that someone had performed a miracle (when, obviously, they hadn’t) just goes to show how bonkers the whole thing is.