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Do’s and Don’ts when Identifying Social Norms in Contexts of Endemic Corruption

By Cheyanne Scharbatke-Church, Co-Director, CJL

The unwritten rules that drive corrupt behaviour are commonly ignored in anti-corruption theories of change. If we require compulsory training on procurement rules, then the team will follow institutional procedures because staff will have a better understanding of the rules. But in contexts of endemic corruption – where corrupt practices are the norm, not the aberration – this theory of change is based on several flawed assumptions that are critical to the programme delivering results. Indeed, there may be gaps in knowledge among procurement staff. Yet the expectations of peers, the hierarchy, family, friends and kin – among others – regularly play a far more important role in decision-making. Ignoring these unwritten rules – the social norms – stymies the achievement of sustainable behaviour change because the norms driving the corrupt practices will not allow it.

There are many conceptual pieces available – including our own (self-promotion acknowledged) – for those wishing to integrate social norms into their work. But there’s much less on what one actually ‘does’. To help fill that gap, here are some lessons we’ve learnt after working with programmes over the past several years.

Three Do’s and Don’ts in Identifying Social Norms (as part of a corruption analysis)

1. DON’T: Expect social norm identification to be simple if programming is your purpose

Social norms identification as part of a corruption analysis, starts with open-ended scoping to find where possible norms may be driving corrupt practices. When these are identified, the next step is a more concrete diagnostic determining the status of descriptive and injunctive norms (the two components of a social norm) as well as norm strength. This is key information for determining the right strategy: for instance, is it a communications campaign to correct pluralistic ignorance, or the use of role models combined with dialogue sessions to change the injunctive norm?

"A corruption analysis can unearth innumerable behaviours, so having a means to draw out which behaviours require a social norms diagnostic is vital to making the diagnostic feasible."

To do a social norms diagnostic, the corruption analysis needs to deliver three things:

  • An understanding of which corrupt practices are obstructing the desired development or peacebuilding outcome, and how much they matter in the wider dynamics. It’s pointless working on corrupt practices that are inconsequential to your desired outcomes. Equally, if corruption is blocking progress, it’s pointless implementing a programme that doesn’t address the abuse of power for personal gain.

  • An ability to frame those corrupt practices in concrete behavioural terms. Nepotism, for instance, could be actioned through political interference (e.g., a call from a senior leader) or by the HR manager altering the CV to better suit her cousin – two very different behaviours. The team needs to identify the specific behaviour(s) of concern. This requires a fluency with the concept of behaviours and sufficient contextual knowledge. The same applies to understanding impediments to anti-corruption implementation: what concrete behaviours are happening that are not advancing the anti-corruption agenda?

  • An initial sense that social expectations are driving the corrupt practice. A corruption analysis can unearth innumerable behaviours, so having a means to draw out which behaviours require a social norms diagnostic is vital to making the diagnostic feasible. For example, one or two questions can be woven into interviews, such as ‘Do people feel pressure to behave in this way?’ or ‘Is there a negative consequence if one doesn’t behave in this way?’

2. DO: Narrow the scope of the initial assessment by using social norms clues

There are rarely infinite resources for conducting a corruption analysis; one can narrow the scope early on by looking for clues in the existing literature. Anthropology research is a good start. For instance, our work on civil servants, norms and corruption has used Olivier de Sardan’s social logics in Africa research. Consider, for example, the logic of ‘predatory authority’ – the idea that people in positions of power perceive that they have a right to extract undue benefits from their position to the detriment of others. From this broad ‘logic’, we devise contextually nuanced questions to test whether social norms have developed that are influencing civil servant behaviours.

There are other disciplines, possibly unexpected, that may be useful as well. In our exploration of Protected Area Management in the Philippines for instance, I sourced the initial set of indirect norms from a book on Doing Business in Philippines. One clue that I found was the cultural idea of utang na loob, meaning a debt of gratitude’. It was easy to make the link between utang na loob and possible corrupt acts – for example requiring someone who has a debt of gratitude to co-sign a falsified document, or to stay silent in the face of a corruption allegation.

Content is rarely presented in neat social norm packages that directly point to corruption, so lateral thinking is necessary. Take the Filipino cultural practice of hiya, which is a subtle mix of shame and shyness that promotes the habit of keeping quiet when around those you feel have a higher status or professional expertise. Silence is common in vicious cycles of corruption: individuals know something is wrong but opt to stay quiet. Any anti-corruption programme in this context, with a theory of change premised on individuals speaking up to those with more expertise or status, needs to consider the role that hiya may be playing as it could undermine results.

3. DO: Start open-ended but end structured

A key difference in approach between the corruption analysis and the social norms diagnostic is the move from unstructured to structured inquiry. The following lessons relate to the structured diagnostic phase:

  • Pay attention to the unit of analysis in the questions: If we ask a civil servant from the Integrity Unit of a municipal government ‘What challenges does the unit experience in conducting their work?’, the answer will probably focus on the difficulties within the institution, rather than the hurdles personally experienced by the individual. Be sure the question centres on the individual challenges and not the institutional.

  • Clarify ‘among who’: Social norms dictate a specific behaviour within a group (the reference group). It is this group that creates and maintains expectations through rewards and punishments. Knowing who holds the norms becomes key to targeting within your social norm change strategy. In the diagnostic, having standard follow-up questions that clarify ‘the who’ is important. For instance, if looking at the pressure to demand bribes, a follow-up question could be ‘Who would look down on you if you provided the service without a bribe?’

  • Focus on perceptions: In the structured diagnostic phase, one wants to understand the state of the descriptive and injunctive norms. While phrasing these questions is relatively easy in a survey, it is more difficult in a semi-structured interview, where there is often spontaneous paraphrasing to keep the conversation flowing. Be sure the questions are not inadvertently asking about an individual attitude, like ‘How do you feel about your colleagues requiring sex for grades?’ A feeling marks a personal attitude, which is different from a group expectation (aka the social norm).

We would have no do’s or don’ts without partners to engage, challenge and learn with; our sincere thank you to all of our partners.


Cheyanne Scharbatke-Church is a scholar-practitioner with a lifelong interest in governance processes that have run amuck. She has significant experience working on peacebuilding, governance, accountability and learning across the Balkans and West and East Africa. For fifteen years, Cheyanne taught program design, monitoring and evaluation in fragile contexts at the Fletcher School. Prior to that she was the Director of Evaluation for Search for Common Ground and Director of Policy at INCORE. She has had the privilege of working in an advisory capacity with a range of organizations such as ABA/ROLI, CDA, ICRC, IDRC, UN Peacebuilding Fund and the US State Department. She currently serves as the Executive Director of Besa Global, CJL’s host institution. She can be commonly found in the Canadian Rockies with her fierce daughters and gem of a husband.


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