Social norms and behaviours

Our research evidence suggests that many patterns of corrupt behaviour are linked to locally relevant social norms. For instance, social norms that prescribe the obligation of sharing with one’s group and reciprocating received gifts and favours translate into practices of embezzlement, bribery and favouritism when transposed into the realm of public service delivery. 

Social norms are a powerful political tool

Context-dependent social norms reflect the values that are dear to communities but often also have an influence in the decisions and practices of political elites. These elites’ bases of power and support might be built on expectations of delivering disproportionate benefits to their group, whether this is constructed on the basis of ethnicity, geographic origin, partisan identity or simply demonstrated loyalty.

Social norms are enforced by a sense of moral obligation but also by the enforcement of sanctions, which can include social shaming but also exclusion of profitable networks, or even the selective enforcement of laws against those transgressing against accepted social norms. Not surprisingly, more often than not, social norms tend to be perceived and experienced as highly binding. 

How anti-corruption interventions can benefit from understanding social norms 

These considerations have significantly sparked the interest of anti-corruption practitioners into whether social norms can be incorporated into programming decisions (see for example here). We are proud to be one of the very few research groups pioneering this field of research with our comparative work in Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda. For the work of other research groups see here and here.

In our current research projects we are continuing to fine tune our tools to identify and measure social norms through the use of vignettes and streamlined surveys that can be applied among users of public services as well as public officials.

Tackling social norms in the health sector

In particular, in our research project Addressing Bribery and Favouritism in the Tanzanian Health Sector: a Behavioural Approach, we are developing an intervention working with social networks to address the social norm of accepted use of bribery in the provision of health services. 

In doing so, we will be collecting evidence that will help us develop a strong, empirically based theory of change for anti-corruption interventions working with social norms.

How are social norms facilitating the illegal wildlife trade? 

The research and community engagement component of the cross-divisional initiative on Stop corruption from fuelling illicit wildlife trafficking along the East-Africa - Southeast Asian trading chain will explore how relevant local social norms may provide a complementary explanation to the prevalence of wildlife trafficking. 

Understanding some of the root causes that drive individuals to engage in trafficking, for instance, to fulfil the expectation of providing for one's family alongside the perception of wildlife trafficking being a victimless crime, will help us garner a better understanding of how such illicit behaviours can be more effectively curbed. 

Publications: Social norms and behavioural research