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Another Piece of the Puzzle: Locating Values and Social Norms within Context

By Cori Simmons

In peacebuilding or development, practitioners and scholars alike hear an all-too-common (but important!) refrain: “context matters.” There is a lot wrapped up in this assertion. It calls to mind a rejection of the top-down, uniformly implemented models that have long dominated our institutions’ thinking and programming. It is also at the heart of the localization agenda, placing at the center of our work actors and organizations who know their own context best. It ultimately implores us as scholars and practitioners to be cognizant of the environment within which we work – because context does matter.

One aspect of cultural context that is often overlooked, but important for understanding social norms and behavior change, is values. Being clear about what values are and how they relate to other factors that drive behavior is important for understanding context and, therefore, designing more appropriate, effective programs.

At the Corruption, Justice, and Legitimacy Program, where we develop systems maps for corruption analyses and explore how social norms drive corruption, understanding this part of cultural context is key. It is, in fact, central to our work: solutions must align with the problem, and to understand the problem, we must assess the cultural context first and foremost.

In our ongoing work on social norms, we recently asked ourselves a new question: What exactly do we mean when we talk about values as a part of culture? Are they distinct and important? If so, where and how do they fit into this web of factors we’ve painstakingly researched, defined, and amplified in our Social Norms Reference Guide?

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Realizing it could lead to some useful insights, we decided to return to our first order definitions. Here is what we learned about values – and why they’re important.

What are values?

Values, in short, are our enduring, deeply held ideals about either our own conduct or end-states of society, possessed by either a person or group. They serve as both a constraining and driving factor on our behaviors, as well as how we see the world. Values include, for example: freedom, family security, authority, ambition, obedience, or honoring tradition.

To make sense of this definition, we found it helpful to compare and contrast them with other concepts related to behavior change and culture.

Let’s start with the distinction between attitudes and values. Attitudes, a personally held belief or judgment about something or someone, is explicitly an either positive or negative expression. Values, on the other hand, take only a positive form. Values, again, are ideals about good or just end states of the world and our own conduct, rather than positive or negative evaluations in a situation. Making it all more complicated is the fact that values can also be entwined with attitudes. Attitudes, for example, can be “value-expressive,” in that the attitude conveys or enacts some underlying value. So, the attitude is in some way driven by the value.

Consider a public official charged with registering newly arrived refugees who thinks it is wrong to falsify registrations in order to pocket the increased financial resources. This official is expressing an attitude about this situation or behavior choice: he doesn’t believe this is the right thing to do. This may be underpinned by a value – probably something like “integrity” or “honesty.” The value doesn’t say, “creating false registrations is wrong.” Instead, it asserts a positive concept which underpins the attitude, but remains distinct from the actual circumstances.

Because they are not situation-specific, values are also more integrated into our identities and our world views. In the example above, to believe that falsifying records for personal financial gain is wrong does not necessarily define who that official is as a person. That he highly values honesty and integrity, though, does.

This becomes clearer when thinking about values that are collectivist (i.e., respect for tradition, conformity, or honoring elders) versus individualistic in nature (i.e., creativity, setting own goals, or independence). A young woman who highly values respect for tradition, for example, will likely view the world and her place in it differently than a peer who strongly values independence over conformity.

How are values formed?

A natural next step, then, when thinking about context or culture is to consider how individual values connect to cultural values. The relationship between the two is an odd one, though – a classic “chicken or egg” problem. Do individual values at a critical mass form cultural values? Or, do cultural values determine individual values? It is, frankly, unclear.

What we do know, though, is that individuals (unsurprisingly) form their values through socialization – by observing and interacting with their families, peers, neighbors, leaders, etc. It is very likely, for example, that a child raised in a family and school environment that values personal achievement will grow up to value the same. Likewise, if a child is raised in an environment that highly values equality, that child is likely to have the same values in adulthood, and perhaps view the world and his own behaviors through a lens of equity.

This isn’t to say that each member of a society necessarily holds all the same values as the generation before them, or even their peers. There is value change over time and over generations – albeit, slow change. Given that values are deeply internalized, they remain relatively constant over time and are quite resistant to change. This, of course, is not good news for behavior change, when that behavior is rooted in cultural values.

How do values compare to social norms?

Social norms – the mutual expectations held by members of a group about the right way to behave in a particular situation – contrast similarly with values. Social norms are context-specific (think: at the level of behavior choice) and evaluate (often implicitly) that choice – they express “should or shouldn’t” – while values are still only positives.

A unique difference, though, is that social norms thrive, by definition, on external pressure. People who act on their values do not feel that same form of external pressure – they do it simply because they are internally compelled by their own values to act a certain way.

Direct Social Norm: The mutual expectation contains a specific behavior, i.e., a specific behavior is seen to be typical and appropriate.

Indirect Social Norm: The mutual expectation can manifest in a variety of behaviors. The social norm does not dictate the specific behavior.

For example, a common social norm we consider at CJL is the expectation within families that someone should hire extended family members into positions for which they are unqualified, or otherwise suffer slights and questioned loyalty. This form of corruption is common, and often underpinned by the identified direct social norm, “family members with jobs should hire other family members,” and likely an indirect social norm about “putting family first.” This direct norm, though, is specific to this case: a civil servant’s family expects him to hire his cousin. The value at play is probably broader. Perhaps, this civil servant values “family security” quite highly. Without the norm, maybe he would have hired his cousin anyway, compelled only by the value.

In an alternate case, if there was no social norm driving his behavior, and he valued personal achievement and integrity over family security – maybe be wouldn’t hire his cousin after all… Recognizing the difference between these two cases and the interconnectedness of values, social norms, and behaviors is a key component for understanding context. Having this more holistic lens can translate into more thoughtfully designed and implemented interventions around norms or behavior change. Without understanding which values – what deep parts of our individual and cultural identities – are at play, one is likely to miss the mark.


About the Author

Cori Simmons is a Research Associate with the Corruption, Justice and Legitimacy Program, supporting the Social Norms and Corruption project. She is a master’s candidate at The Fletcher School, studying Development Economics and Humanitarian Studies. After graduating from Suffolk University with a BA in International Affairs, Cori has worked with several agencies, including World Vision International, US Peace Corps in Togo, and Evidence for Policy Design at Harvard Kennedy School.


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