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Everything You Need to Know about Social Norms and Corruption

By Cheyanne Scharbatke-Church and Diana Chigas

Did you know …

… that social norms can act as the brake to sustainable behavior change? … that social norms eat attitudes for breakfast? … that social norms are not just an expression? … that there is a body of research around how social norms influence behavior?

Do you know why you – an anti-corruption or integrity practitioner/policy maker – should care?

In 2013 we didn’t know the answer to any of these questions – but we do now! And we think you should too. So that it doesn’t take you five years, we have condensed our learning into a practical and easy to read guide aimed at anti-corruption and integrity practitioner/policy makers. As the first in our Social Norms, Corruption & Fragility Series, Understanding Social Norms: A reference guide for policy and practice:

  • Provides practical guidance on what social norms are

  • Explains why they should matter to anyone working to diminish corruption in fragile and conflict affected states

  • Describes how social norms influence corruption

  • Offers a step-by-step worksheet for initial analysis of the role of social norms

When we started working on corruption issues, we didn’t know this is where we would end up. It has been a long and unexpectedly tricky journey.

The Story

Our interest in corruption, social norms and fragility began years ago when, as peacebuilding practitioners, we became curious about corruption’s contribution to conflict. With 50 years of experience in peacebuilding between us, we observed that corruption was part and parcel of most conflict environments in which we worked. In these environments corrupt acts were rarely the aberration; they were normal—so normal in fact that there was no sense of shame associated with blatant abuses of entrusted power for personal gain (i.e., corruption) perpetrated by people at all levels of society.

Yet, we were puzzled by most anti-corruption programming in fragile states; our experience had shown that effective peacebuilding programming needed to be based on a robust conflict analysis. Applying this to corruption, we thought it would be important to understand not only the enablers of corruption (i.e., conditions in the environment that allow corruption to happen) but also the factors that drive (i.e., cause or motivate) patterns of corrupt behavior in these contexts. At the time, this did not appear to be common practice in the anti-corruption community.

We thought it would be important to understand not only the enablers of corruption, but also the factors that drive patterns of corrupt behavior.

We also found a significant mismatch between the social dynamics in conflict contexts and the technocratic and formulaic anti-corruption programming we encountered. Our observation aligned with much of the research being published at the time, challenging the effectiveness of classic anti-corruption programming and questioning the assumptions and approaches informing it (see here, here and here). We concluded that one reason for the mismatch lay in the kind of analysis that served as the basis for such programming—analysis of “gaps” in accountability, transparency, or monopoly, for example. This kind of analysis did not delve into the drivers, but instead focused largely on the enablers.

The First Phase

International Narcotics and Law Enforcement at the U.S. State Department provided the funding for us to develop and test an analytic method that fostered strategic programming. Using causal loop mapping, a systems approach to analysis, we developed a corruption analysis methodology specific to fragile states that could be the basis for more relevant and effective anti-corruption theories of change. Because these are contexts in which, as many scholars have noted, corruption is not the exception but rather the rule, our analytic method needed to help understand what kept that rule in place (see here, here and here).

Image Source: World Bank Photo Collection via Flickr

Although we had integrated social norms as one factor in our initial draft methodology, this fell victim to the scale of the project in the first case study in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). By the time we had completed it however, it was clear that social expectations had a big influence on the behaviors of criminal justice system actors and citizens engaging in corrupt practices. Our understanding of how social norms influenced behavior, however, was insufficient.

Digging in Deeper

Integrating social norms into our corruption analysis methodology has proven to be a far bigger lift than we had anticipated. The state of the literature does not lend itself to practice. The primary method of norm identification – large-scale surveys – are generally not feasible for the average anti-corruption agency. And for situations of endemic corruption, social norms alone will almost never be the answer – they need to be understood in relation to other factors.

The state of the literature does not lend itself to practice.

We were struck by how difficult it is for non-specialists—from development workers to local anti-corruption practitioners (including us)—to understand and use the concepts effectively. We would frequently lament that no practitioner on the ground would have the time or the patience to try to understand the literature and integrate social norms change aspects into their anti-corruption programming. Bridging this gap for practitioners and policy makers seemed to us to be a needed contribution to the field.

Understanding Social Norms: A Reference Guide for Policy and Practice

Understanding Social Norms: A Reference Guide for Policy and Practice is a comprehensive exploration of the role social norms play in endemic corruption in fragile states.

P5_Reference Guide_SNAC
Download PDF • 5.95MB

We have tried to develop guidance that is relevant to fragile and conflict-affected contexts, building on our own experience in peacebuilding and development and through ongoing discussion and testing with practitioners and researchers working in anti-corruption and governance in in these contexts. Future publications will offer guidance on data collection and diagnosis of social norms, social norm change strategies and monitoring and evaluation frameworks.

Be in touch!

Are you working on social norms that catalyze corrupt patterns of behavior? Be it research or practice, please be in touch. In the future we will be conveying opportunities to share lessons and practice and we will want to be in touch.


About the Authors

Cheyanne Scharbatke-Church is Principal at Besa: Catalyzing Strategic Change, a social enterprise committed to catalysing significant change on strategic issues in places experiencing conflict and structural or overt physical violence. She has significant experience working on anti-corruption and state legitimacy in the DRC and Uganda. As a Professor of Practice, she teaches and consults on program design, monitoring, evaluation and learning. Cheyanne is also the Corruption in Fragile States blog series editor.

Diana Chigas, JD, is the Senior International Officer and Associate Provost at Tufts University and a Professor of the Practice of International Negotiation and Conflict Resolution at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. Diana has worked with governmental and non-governmental organizations on systemic conflict analysis, strategic planning, and reflection and evaluation to improve the impact of peace programming. Diana has over 25 years’ experience as a facilitator and consultant in negotiation and conflict resolution, as well as supporting and evaluating social change programming in conflict-affected countries. Her interest in corruption emerged from her experience supporting peacebuilding programming, where corruption has consistently been a key factor hindering effectiveness and driving conflict.


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