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Measuring social norm change: where do we go from here?

In June 2016, I had the pleasure of joining a select group of social norm measurement aficionados, including researchers from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, John Hopkins University, the University of California, San Diego and practitioners from Care USA, Promundo, and Tostan.


Our aim was to share our respective experiences of measuring social norm change, progress thinking on common challenges, and consider whether there is need for a community of practice on measuring social norm change.

The work we are all engaged in is extremely wide-ranging.  Presentations covered measurement of social norm change relating to intimate partner violence on tea estates in Sri Lanka, the development of instruments for measuring gender inequality and empowerment across diverse country contexts, the use of social network analysis to understand group behaviours relating to maternal and child health and, of course, Itad’s experience of measuring social norm change on the Voices for Change project in Nigeria.  Despite this diversity, the challenges we reported were surprisingly similar.

Hearing about others’ work helped put Itad’s work on Voices for Change in context.  In some ways, it is unique.  Designed as a project to strengthen the evidence about what works for social norm change, we have been able to pursue a comprehensive approach to measuring social norm change.  But more commonly, organisations are trying to measure social norm change with more limited resources, both human and financial.  Some in the group had developed stream-lined approaches, which were both rigorous and insightful.  In doing so however, they were faced with impossible choices about what to include and what not.  Just what questions would give the best possible insight to changing attitudes, behaviours and social norms?  We agreed that more work was needed to determine the core measurements and to develop practical tools to aid practitioners in determining whether a social norm was at play, and if so, how measure it in a manageable way.

Over the course of the meeting, each of us recalled the difficulties we had experienced in determining what norms or behaviours to measure and how to best measure them.  We contemplated whether it was feasible to generate tools which could be used in different country contexts.  It seemed a bit unrealistic at first – after all, isn’t each and every context unique? But early findings from the Global Early Adolescent Study started to make us think otherwise.  This study is researching how gender norms regulate behaviour of urban poor adolescents in 15 countries, including Burkina Faso, Vietnam, Scotland and the USA.  After a first phase of data collection, the research team had concluded that “there is a global script of what it is to be a girl or a boy”.  Nancy Perrin, from John Hopkins University, introduced us to her work using Item Response Theory which recognises that individuals’ attitudes and behaviours cannot be measured in a black and white or binary way.  Instead, by exploring different degrees of an attitude or behaviour we can define a scale which best represents what we are trying to measure.  Could this be a way to generate measures that can be used internationally whilst capturing local nuance?

Our discussions generated a number of other key issues relating to the conceptualisation of social norms, the delivery of social norms programmes and the measurement of social norm change which would benefit from further exploration and testing.  What is the added value of a social norms approach?  How do we work on social norm change at scale?  Where is power in the social norms framework?  Can the social norms conceptual model be simplified to be better communicated to non-expert audiences?  We didn’t have time to delve into these challenging questions over the course of the two day meeting.  Instead, they now form the group’s ‘to do list’.  We didn’t reach a conclusion on whether a new community of practice on social norms measurement was needed, but we did agree that there were benefits in continuing to meet to explore these issues and develop joint initiatives to progress the theory and practice of social norms change.  Expect an update later this year on where we get to!