Duncan Green on Social Norms

Duncan Green has a new blog post on how aid agencies can change ‘social norms’. It stirred up a couple of old debates I’ve had on social change and scope for external interventions in them. I summarize the blog post and respond to it below.

Summary: Aid agencies have gone too far in pushing for reform of social norms via the legislature route without adequate social buy-in– the current tide of populism and backlash against political correctness indicate this. Analysis on how to change norms should take as the starting point the “… the moments in people’s lives when norms are formed or reformed, and the crucibles that forge them”– this identifies the family, faith organizations, and early years education as sectors of main interest. Acting on the created analysis should involve a shift away from the current fact-heavy approach, and a greater focus on “emotion and narrative”, where we “start with the emotion and then follow up with the evidence”. Traditional partners (media, civil society organizations, and academics) should also be used mainly to change norms- this might entail a major change in current partner choices. Also, since social norm shifts are linked to critical junctures, we should look out for and act quickly when a crisis strikes.

A couple of questions

How feasible is it to use family, faith, and teachers as starting points of norm-change programs?

My bet is not very much: religion and family in any society pretty much mirror the prevailing norms of the society making it hard to use them in overturning those very norms. This shouldn’t be surprising since families provide the first and deepest indoctrination into social norms (particularly the more problematic ones) and these norms in turn draw on religion to justify themselves. In fact, the current conservative backlash against public schools in the United States and the resurgence of the home-schooling movement can be seen as a strong attempt by family and faith groups to resist an ‘indoctrination’ in liberal values including LGBT rights/values. In India, at least, the norms that liberal movements find most problematic (and would like to change) have either the implicit or the explicit and support of family and faith groups. In this scenario, it’s not very clear how far family and faith organizations can take you on the path of norm-change. The ability (and willingness) of “teachers” to change norms independent of family and faith organizations is also in question.

Should aid/dev organizations be the vanguard of norms revolution, or should we pick up the pieces?

Faced with a social norm in need of reform, every government has two broad options– go forth with the reform and resist the resultant backlash (either by reason or force), or wait for the right time and then push through the reforms. The feasibility of reform and resist in a fractious democratic polity like India is questionable: in the past couple of months we have seen a bunch of instances where the reform and resist tactic has backfired (Jallikettu in Tamil Nadu, and the 33% reservation for women in Nagaland legislature). Wait and push approach to reforms are usually dictated by compulsions of politics or external shocks (a la the 1991 Indian economic reforms)—as such the final reform could go either way. For example, compare the legislative track record in the case of the Roop Kanwar sati incident to the case of Shah Bano.

Aid agencies face similar dilemmas as to what their role in a society should be. Should they function as “vanguards of revolution” engaged in a siege at the frontiers of social norms, or should they let other popular movements (arising organically or otherwise) do the heavy lifting and then come in to clean up? Green’s arguments imply a subtle, yet perceptible, shift from the former to the latter, because the end goal that evidence-based aid/dev organizations desire when they bombard policy makers with “stats and facts” is (whether they realize it or not) the top-down imposition of policy and invested follow-through, in other words being the “vanguard”. If aid/dev agencies are to retreat from the vanguard, where should they draw the line and how long are they willing to wait– sati? female genital mutilation? child marriage? In other words, should aid agencies wait till a large enough organic movement evolves (with or without their assistance) before applying pressure on countries to act against patently ‘wrong’ existing norms?

What can be done, then?

Pedagogy of the oppressed shows a way. Coming up in Part 2.