In recognition of World Humanitarian Day, we chatted with Dr. Cristina Bicchieri, the S. J. Patterson Harvie Professor of Social Thought and Comparative Ethics at the University of Pennsylvania. In partnership with UNICEF, she teaches Social Norms, Social Change I and II on Coursera. Professor Bicchieri’s two-part course contains theoretical and practical content alongside interviews with UNICEF aid workers and their firsthand experiences using her teachings in the field.
What is a social norm?
Social norms are the informal social rules we live by. They comprise three elements. The first element is empirical expectations, which means we expect a large number of, if not all, people in our reference network to follow the rules. The second is what I call normative expectations, which means we believe most people think we should obey the rules. These first two elements, however, empirical and normative expectations, don’t always work in enforcing norms, so the third necessary element is the conditional preference for conformity given those expectations. Ultimately, social norms are rules supported by expectations and conditional preferences. What’s important is that we can measure all of these elements and therefore measure if expectations have a causal influence on behavior.
What sparked your own interest in social norms and change?
I have been interested in this topic for a long, long time, especially because I have lived for many years in foreign countries. Besides a personal interest in the topic, I was also unhappy with traditional definitions of social norms that made them unmeasurable. So it has been an intellectual investigation of the concept, but also a personal challenge because I felt here I am, in a different world, within a different culture, and I have to learn anew the norms that regulate social interactions. How do we learn these unspoken, unwritten, informal norms? As I say in the introduction to my 2006 book The Grammar of Society, norms become very important to you when you come to live in a different culture. They’re something you have to learn through trial and error.
Why did you decide to teach this course on Coursera?
For several years now, I have been doing a training called “Social Norms, Social Change” for UNICEF participants here at the University of Pennsylvania. The training was not only on the theory of social norms and collective behavioral change, but also addressed lots of applications, and provided tools about how to measure and change norms. We started receiving requests from UNICEF participants all over the world who wanted this training done in their countries, but at the beginning we were a small group and could not be everywhere at the same time. Therefore, together with UNICEF, I decided to create an online course so everybody can learn the same content, wherever they happen to be.
What advice do you have for people who want to enact positive social change?
First do a good diagnostic. You’ll see a common, collective pattern of behavior. You want to understand what motivates people to act as they do. Why do people defecate in the open even if they do have a latrine? Why do young mothers refuse to nurse their newborns immediately after birth? Why is corruption endemic in some populations but not in other, quite similar ones? The second step is to do good measurement. We measure social expectations, but also check if they affect behavior. The third step is deciding how to intervene. Interventions will be totally different depending on different diagnoses. Diagnosing a behavior is similar to diagnosing an illness. The symptoms may be the same, but the underlying illnesses could be very different. You must diagnose and measure before identifying the cure.
What are some examples of your views and ideas being applied to changing social expectations in the US?
I had done a lot of work with the topic of child marriage in India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and many other places when PBS Newshour contacted me for an interview about the issue in the US. Before going into that interview, I gathered a lot of information about child marriage in the US. There is such a thing. It isn’t very extensive, but definitely present. My question then was: what leads people to marry their girls so early? I identified certain social and gender norms as drivers for these behaviors. The issue here is to work on gender norms by ensuring that girls are allowed to finish school, get a job, and think that their destiny is more than just becoming a wife and mother. You need some cultural changes and interventions that aim to change traditional gender roles. This is a long term intervention.
Who should be taking your course?
Anybody who is interested in social science, norms, or how to enact social change should take this course. It’s not geared solely towards NGOs, UNICEF, and similar groups. Anybody can use the basic concepts, the measures introduced here, and all the tools provided in the course for enacting change. The tools that we can use in India and Africa can also be useful here in the US. Wherever there is a human group there are social norms, even in very small or primitive societies. Anyone who is interested in social change should take the course because the tools and means of diagnosing collective behaviors are exactly the same in developing countries as they are in Europe or America.1