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World Bank

What are Social Norms? How are They Measured?

This report is based on a review of 173 different publications and articles on social norms in global development, and discusses what the social norms are and how they are measured. The first half of this report lays out an overview of what social norms and other social practices are, with special attention to child well-being, especially child protection. The second half of the report provides some principles for measuring social norms and their change, and summarises different approaches to measuring social norms.

Content Overview

Section 1: What are Social Norms?

1) This section introduces how development programmes tend to conceptualise social norms as merely independent to an individual, or one way dependent, where one person’s action depends on others’. It argues how social norms are also interdependent in many ways, where what one does depends on what others do, and what others do depends on what one does.

2) The section elaborates how social norms are both descriptive (doing what others do) and injunctive (doing what others think one should do). It explains how a social norm has to do with beliefs about others, that is, social expectations, and are held in place by the reciprocal expectations, approval and disapproval, of the people within a reference group and other social influence.

Section 2: How Social Norms are Measured?

3) By introducing the challenges of measuring social norms, this section proposes how to identify a social norm by asking the following questions:

    • Who is the reference group?
    • What is typical in the group?
    • What is approved of in the group?
    • Has the reference group changed?
    • Over time is the old norm less typical in the group?
    • Over time is the old norm less approved of in the group?
    • Over time is the new norm more typical in the group?
    • Over time is the new norm more approved of in the group?

4) Next, this section offers general considerations on measuring social norms. This includes measuring one’s beliefs about others, their social expectations; and how to recognise social norms and their change in ordinary conversation or in focus groups. Included in this section are example questions to ask in a focus group setting, and some lessons about survey data to measure social norms.

5) This section later introduces the Fishbein and Ajzen’s (2010) Reasoned Action Approach (RAA), a model of human behaviour as determined by personal attitude, perceived social norm, and perceived behavioural control.

6) Included in this section are two case studies of measuring social norms:

    • One, a field experiment on school harassment by Paluck and Shepherd (2012) that gathered social network data to map the reference group, and measured empirical expectations, normative expectations, personal attitudes, and behavioural outcomes.
    • Second, a review of the matching-game method, that intended to incentivise sincere answers to questions about beliefs about others in a population.
Date published
  • 2015
  • Gerry Mackie
  • Francesca Moneti
  • Holly Shakya
  • Elaine Denny
Published by UNICEF