What do aid agencies need to do to get serious on changing social norms?

Earlier this week I spent a day with Oxfam’s biggest cheeses, discussing how we should react to the rising tide of social-normsnationalism and populism (if you think that’s a Northern concern, take a look at what is going on in India or the Philippines). One of the themes that emerged in the discussions was how to engage with social norms – the deeply held beliefs of what is natural, normal and acceptable that underpin a lot of human behaviour, including how people treat each other and how they vote.

It’s pretty common to hear progressive types (in which category I include Oxfam) worry that while they have been busy having geeky conversations on the evidence on this or that intervention/project, or the case for this or that policy change, they have ignored the tide of disillusionment with politics-as-usual that underpins the rise of populism. We need to engage the public in a wider conversation aimed at encouraging progressive norms, or opposing exclusionary ones.

Fair enough, but what struck me is just how much would need to change for that to become reality. What would a ‘guide to shifting norms’ cover? Here are a few thoughts; please add your own.


There doesn’t seem to be much evidence on how to change norms. Eg what lies behind the increasing acceptance of the rights of people with disabilities? Or the age at which we deem chlldhood to end? Or even why dog owners routinely pick up their pooches’ pooh in my local park, something that was unimaginable a generation ago? How do deliberate attempts at change interact with the forces of demographic, technological or cultural change that also help drive norm shifts? This is one area where we really do need more research, both historical and current.

One of the areas of research I have come across is on violence against women, and a fascinating paper that showed that independent feminist movements are one of the strongest explanatory factors behind progress. A Filipina

Female Food Heroes, Tanzania
Female Food Heroes, Tanzania

activist memorably described the best way to change laws and policies on gender rights as being like cooking a rice cake – you need simultaneous heat from the top (eg via the machinery of the UN) and heat from the bottom (from women’s movements).

As that paragraph suggests, up to now, a lot of work on norms has revolved around legislative change, whether through international laws and conventions, or at national level. One way of looking at the current populist backlash is that such a legal approach has overreached – the laws on issues such as racism or hate crimes have become so removed from the actual norms inside people’s heads that it is prompting a backlash, eg against ‘political correctness’. We need to find other, non-legal ways to close the gap.

We also probably need to involve more people from the disciplines that really ‘get’ norms – those that delve inside people’s hearts and minds, like psychology and anthropology, rather than the current intellectual dependence on economics, law and political science, which seem to have a pretty impoverished understanding of what goes on inside people’s heads.

What those disciplines could help us do is completely rethink our approach to ‘power analysis’. Although we pay lip service to ‘power within’ in terms of people’s sense of individual rights and agency, the kind of power analysis we use to design our projects and campaigns usually reverts straight back to the formal power of money and political influence. A ‘power within’ analysis would look at the moments in people’s lives when norms are formed or reformed, and the crucibles that forge them. I suspect that that would lead us to give priority to 3 arenas in particular: the family, faith organizations, and early years education (Aristotle: ‘give me a child until the age of 7 and I will show you the man’).


How to put this knowledge to good use? Engaging seriously with norms would require different research, different messages, and different partners.

Firstly it would mean moving beyond the standard approach to trying to persuade the public by amassing a pile of fake rolexstats and evidence (memorably satirised by an Australian critic as ‘bad shit; facty, facty’ papers). One Oxfam big cheese suggested ‘start with the emotion, then follow up with the evidence’. Getting good at emotion and narrative is a whole skill in itself, and would require its own brand of evidence in terms of testing to identify the narratives that actually succeed in getting through to people. We do that on fundraising, and a bit on campaigns, but we would have to get both more imaginative on our narratives and more rigorous in our testing of them.

If you buy my earlier para on the forces driving norm formation, we would also need far more engagement with faith organizations, parents (especially mothers) and early years teachers. Our traditional partners (media, civil society organizations, academics) could also play a role, perhaps more in changing norms rather than their initial formation, but this would definitely entail a big shake-up of our partners. One example from our current work is the Female Food Heroes TV programme in Tanzania, which works to change norms around the roles of women in agriculture. Elsewhere there is evidence of the impact of soap operas on gender norms. More of that please!

Beyond the individual, societal norm shifts are often linked to critical junctures – eg look at the impact of war on women’s rights. Getting serious about norms would mean developing the ability to sense and respond to such moments as windows of opportunity.


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26 Responses to “What do aid agencies need to do to get serious on changing social norms?”
  1. Ian Falkingham

    Yesterday’s Film Programme on Radio 4 talked about whether cinema has any impact on people’s politicss and social norms. Included the screenwriter of I, Daniel Balke talking about how the film had been used to start conversations with key groups. One union even arranged a screening for employees at the Department for Work and Pensions.
    Then develops into a more general discussion on how art, especially popular art impacts (or does not impact) society’s views. How have the slew of comic book movies changed views on LGBT people for example (answer: more than you think!).


  2. Caroline Sweetman

    Hi Duncan, I think this is a 7 out of 10 – it’s a good analysis as far as it goes but it has a big contradiction at its heart in terms of the role of research in convincing the hearts and minds of the part of society that is educated and open to learning about how change happens. You’re so right to say a strong groundswell of opinion that wants change is needed – which is then expressed through grassroots civil society becoming active – and you’re right to say that this civil society (including the women’s movement) uses the existence of international laws and norms in their activism to get national level change. That’s why everyone progressive needs to be loyal and supporting and fight for the UN at this moment of massive cuts to its work. We desperately need not to underestimate the importance of international frameworks that give civil societies at national level a tool to use to hold their governments to account on rights issues, from violence against women to wider democratic freedoms. You then rightly talk about the research that shows that this combination works, highlighting the amazing research by Mala Htun and Laurel Weldon into violence against women across many countries which shows the importance of a strong women’s movement (which as Editor of Gender & Development, where we published a version of their research, I’m delighted to see and I hope lots of readers click through to read it).. BUT…. far from saying this means research that is ‘facty facty’ does not convince, you need to see how it has convinced you!!! It obviously isn’t intended to convince people who don’t read journals, but both kinds of people (both country AND Western) are important in making change happen. WE NEED GOOD RESEARCH – and then people like you, through your blog, ‘domesticate’ it and start the long conversation to help change happen. And people like you/we/us are the people who need to keep supporting grassroots civil society organisations, and the UN, to pursue that other, complementary, channel of change.

    • Duncan Green

      Good correction Caroline, which is also why I quoted the ‘lead with emotion, follow with evidence’ comment. Interesting tension there – at the moment I fear there is often an unhealthy and patronising division between ‘facts for the grown ups’ and ‘really simplistic stories for the rest’. We need to sharpen up the second without abandoning the first.

      • Caroline Sweetman

        I think people always need evidence – all kinds of people – and we all also need emotion. Facts can come from noticing what’s happening next door and how it challenges what we do ourselves, as well as facty facty articles. And some people find the latter impenetrable, so it’s important that the evidence that comes from hard academic research gets into popular form – which is where many of the challenges lie. Musing won’t sort this, but great that more are thinking about the complexities of it all. I’m still thrilled that social norms are having their day in the sun!

  3. Ken Smith

    Well ,I’d always thought ‘give me a child until the age of 7 and I will show you the man’ was from St Ignatius of Loyola and the Jesuits which proves your point about the importance of family, faith and early years education I guess

  4. Caroline Sweetman

    Part 2 – on social norms – I take it for granted that change involves change to social norms – Pierre Bourdieu knew this and his work is ever so old – he saw it as people seeing other people behaving in ways that didn’t chime with social norms – ‘social pioneers’ if you like – and making other people talk over the garden fence as it were…. in his terminology, this is the process in which ‘doxa’ (common sense ideas about life) are changed and challenged, via ‘discourse’. We just need to go back to these ideas – they’re in most fields – Bourdieu was a sociologist. Another obvious one is Gramsci and his idea of challenging hegemonic ideas via the media – but I don’t need to lecture you on all this, we just need to dust off these ideas and get the people who haven’t focused as much as they always needed to on social norm change, to get up to speed. PS let’s not conflate excitement about social norm change with work which actually relies on NOT changing social norms – you mention women in the role of mothers – there is a timely article in the new issue of Gender & Development by Sophie Giscard D’Estaing – who talks about how work in Europe to counter and prevent violent extremisms (CVE/PVE work) has used women consciously in those roles in ways that put them at risk of all kinds – for example expecting them to inform on their sons and husbands. In fact what is needed is to enact the Women Peace and Security agenda which strengthens women’s civil society activism in the public spehere to prevent extremism in a way that doesn’t perpetuate gender inequality – we need to beware of working in ways that rely on social norms and end up as another form of instrumentalising women and placing them at risk. As always, human rights, equalities and peace are complementary goals that demand a route of travel away from social norms that fix people in rigid categories.

  5. Hi Duncan

    I think there is more evidence out there on changing social norms than you are giving credit for – but it’s also incredibly complex and depends a lot on the types and drivers of the norms you are trying to change. Let me give a plug to the work of Cristina Bicchieri of UPenn with whom UNICEF has worked for several years including on the development of a number of learning events – now including a two part MOOC with Part I on understanding/diagnosing social norms and part 2 on influencing them.
    Here’s a link to the MOOC part 1: https://www.coursera.org/learn/norms part 2: https://www.coursera.org/learn/change (and even though part 1 says beginner it’s actually quite tough but worth it!)

  6. Susan Watkins

    A caution re promoting norm change at long distance: In our fieldwork in rural Malawi, we observed NGO trainings on HIV prevention aimed at changing the norms of young people (but almost always focused on young women). The NGOs called for “resisting peer pressure”, “making independent decisions.” But in a context where one’s safety net is founded on normative obligations of redistribution and reciprocity, as is the case generally in Africa, to go it alone would be perilous. Moreover, the intimate behaviors that outsiders wish to change, are central to life’s joys and and meanings. Take sex- in Malawi, good sex is “sweet sex”, i.e. an exchange of fluids–which of course doesn’t happen if a condom is used (see Tavory and Swidler on the semiotics of condom use, American Sociological Review 2009), Transactional sex, much condemned by prevention programs, often observe these norms–the man provides the woman with a material resource, the woman responds by agreeing to have sex. The exchange, however, can create a patron-client relationship, such that a woman can rely on the man in the future (Swidler & Watkins 2007) And see also a new book by Anne Esacove: “Modernizing Sexuality: U.S. HIV Prevention in Sub-Saharan Africa”, 2016, Oxford.

    I agree with Caroline Sweetman that “people always need evidence – all kinds of people – and we all also need emotion. Facts can come from noticing what’s happening next door. ” Malawians did observe what was happening when AIDS came: how could they not, when in the early years they were going to an average of 3 funerals a month? Our best evidence of norm change comes from an ethnographic study conducted between 1999 and 2017. Because local responses to our survey questions appeared to be riddled with social desirability bias, we commissioned a set of villagers to keep diaries of conversations they overheard in public spaces, such as on a mini-bus, or guys talking at a bar: we now have about 1300 journals, each with about 5 conversations, from early in the epidemic to the present (1999-2017). The conversations are amazing: in one, a man who had been visiting a friend who was dying of AIDS then tells another friend that after seeing the man suffer, he realized he, too, had to change his behavior. “Only because I have seen for myself, some of my friends have died because of this
    disease AIDS, and I do care for my life. AIDS troubles a lot! I didn’t say anything.
    He kept on, saying, For example, there was a certain army pensioner who was living
    up there in my village…. He was very sick indeed, going to the hospital, no treatment,
    private hospitals—just wasting money and then he came home and was sick
    until he became like a very little young child. I was going to see him during the whole
    course of his suffering. You could liken him to a two-year-old child when he lay down
    sick…. And the way I had seen him suffering, that’s when I came to my senses, that
    indeed AIDS troubles a great deal before one dies.”

    Such real-life and emotional responses to the epidemic are inherently domesticated, which seems to me to be likely to be far more effective than stories developed in London or Washington for a film. But you can’t learn what people say to each other about AIDS or human rights (e.g. “women have too much freedom these days”) if you’re in London or Washington.

  7. Laura Ahearn

    As an anthropologist, I cheered upon reading the following passage: “We also probably need to involve more people from the disciplines that really ‘get’ norms – those that delve inside people’s hearts and minds, like psychology and anthropology, rather than the current intellectual dependence on economics, law and political science, which seem to have a pretty impoverished understanding of what goes on inside people’s heads.” But as Susan notes, drawing on the research of such disciplines will require a substantial reorientation along many lines, including, for example, how (action) research is conducted, what counts as evidence, and how (and where and by whom) projects are designed and implemented. This is not just complicated; it requires a profound rethinking of all aspects of the development enterprise. It is so true, as Susan maintains, that “you can’t learn what people say to each other about AIDS or human rights…if you’re in London or Washington.”

  8. Businesses are keen to understand customers and their social context. In my work as a facilitator of market change, I’ve gained from their insights and techniques. There are some popular books about emotional underlay of change, such as ‘Switch’ by Chip and Dan Heath.

  9. Masood Ul Mulk

    While thinking about changing norms I cannot forget a meeting our organisation was having with a joint donor mission in a remote Hindukush region. The donor wanted to hear about what we had attained in Gender and Development. An intern from Harvard who sat in the meeting was amusingly saying that at Harvard they were still talking about women in development. In the middle of this discussion we got a call from one of our drivers driving in a neighbouring district that a mullah had grabbed power and declared Shariah where all vehicles were to drive on right side of the road instead of the left which the law said. Little change can be brought about if the context is not understood and the message not thoughr throgh.

  10. Nicholas Colloff

    Three minor observations. The first is that in my experience most ”grassroots based organizations” are not so we need to get much smarter (and less uptight) about supporting people engaged in communal activities who do not fit our playbook of civil society – faith based organizations, often better known as mosques and churches, for one, messy opinionated, shoestring social movements for another. Two the evidence you see depends on what emotional frame holds it, so we need to talk about emotions – how they operate, how they relate to evidence and how to change them – shifting the debate on gay marriage in the US is a good example when discussion of ‘rights’ got reframed as Bill and Ben loving each other and would it not be fair if they could be just like you? Third we need a better visual sense and how to play to the gallery – Gandhi’s salt march or ML King ditching his wordy, worthy speech on Capitol Hill to paint a dream being good examples. Perhaps we could also talk about changing hearts and minds (or God forbid) inspiring people arther than changing social norms (makes you want to go to sleep almost immediately)!

  11. Michalene Morelli

    The majority of Kathryn Sikkink’s body of work is devoted to analyzing strategies through which the international community are able change norms, not just policy. http://carrcenter.hks.harvard.edu/people/kathryn-sikkink
    Ryan Goodman and Derek Jinks also have several books out on the subject.
    There is also Jefferey Legro’s “Rethinking the World,” which analyzes how and why societies sustain major changes.

  12. Hi Duncan,

    Near the end of your essay, you write, “Elsewhere there is evidence of the impact of soap operas on gender norms. More of that please!” To that end, I’d like to share several examples of impact Population Media Center has achieved using entertainment-education serial dramas. As a result of PMC’s Ethiopian drama, Yeken Kignit (“Looking Over One’s Daily Life”), researchers saw a 34.7 percentage point increase among men and 13.1 percentage point increase among women in the belief that women are fit to hold public office. Similarly, Cesiri Tono (“Fruits of Perserverance”), a drama that has aired in multiple countries including, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, and Mali, has shown results that in Mali, listeners’ belief that it is acceptable for women to work outside of the home was 53 percent higher than it was before the broadcast. As a result of PMC’s drama in Senegal, Ngelawu Nawet (“Winds of Hope”), listeners were 6.3 times more likely to state that women should be 18 years old or older before marriage. PMC’s serial drama Ruwan Dare (“Midnight Rain”) in Nigeria also resulted in significant changes in attitudes about the ideal age of marriage with post-broadcast results indicating that listeners were twice as likely as non-listeners to say that a woman should delay getting married for the first time until she is aged 19 or older.

    If you are interested, you can learn more about how PMC creates our dramas — which are often the most popular entertainment programs on the air in each country — by navigating here: https://www.populationmedia.org/product/serial-dramas/

  13. Hi Duncan, and readers – a project in our organization just started exploring the world of social norms and its potential applicability to anti-corruption programming. Has any of the readers here developed programs to change social norms related to corruption (or in other sectors)? Research papers, case studies, program designs and evaluations would all be tremendously useful. [here is what we got so far: http://www.blog.cdacollaborative.org/are-social-norms-an-important-missing-link-in-anti-corruption-programming/?src=fp2p%5D

  14. Martin

    Despite agreeing with much of what you say, I can’t escape a queasiness when this topic comes up. Haven’t yet properly formulated my concern but something like: I came into NGO advocacy as I believe in – and enjoy – efforts to hold power to account and to acheive change for (ideally, with) the disadvantaged and disempowered in society. When it comes to changing the actions of those with power, then I’m happy to use every tool in the book – from advertising to psychology. When it comes to influencing those without power, (when I’m also then in even more of a position of power), my ethics tell me there’s a problem with using any approach other than straightforwardly arguing my case. Why I feel uneasy with approaches from “nudge campaigning” in the UK to “human rights education” elsewhere (which actually is about changing peoples opinions rather than purely knowledge or skills but using a frame of education, which I suggest is disengenuous). Perhaps related to a Kantian imperetive of not using people as means?

    • Duncan Green

      Thanks Martin, Trouble with that argument is that when it comes to social norms, if you wait til people are already in power before thinking it legitimate to try and influence their beliefs, you have probably left it too late to have any real impact! Am not suggesting we recruit five year olds to campaign on tax evasion, but yes, we should be encouraging progressive norms towards other people, the environment etc – is that really such a terrible thing? Guess it comes down to beliefs v opinions

      • Martin

        Indeed. Perhaps it comes down to being transparent and honest about what you’re doing and why. Trivially, “I’m holding this workshop because I want to change your attitudes about the death penalty” rather than “… to teach about human rights and the death penalty”. It always struck me that if “human rights education” had a sincere education frame we should be as happy withparticipants coming away from a session with more refined arguments as to why they support it as any other outcomes. But we arent, and that isnt our aim, and I think that’s a problem?

  15. Robin

    This is just to mention a blog that refers to this post (and Duncan). Cheyanne Scharbatke-Church had circulated a blog post inquiring about social norms and corruption. She and colleagues have since written a post in their series: Corruption in Fragile States – http://www.blog.cdacollaborative.org/are-social-norms-an-important-missing-link-in-anti-corruption-programming/?src=series. In addition, a short piece offers a quick summary of some of the literature and a selection of resources they found useful on social norms and social norm change (regardless of whether the writing related to corruption or not). See – http://www.blog.cdacollaborative.org/what-anti-corruption-practitioners-should-read-about-social-norms/?src=series.

  16. Thanks Duncan. I strongly believe that providing information/facts about the consequences of a particular social norm as well as creating spaces/environment for dialogues/questioning by the community members is vital to catalyzing social change.