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How Do You Address Social Norms in Your Projects?

July 8, 2010 3:23 pm

Welcome to Day Three of the e-consultation on social norms and value chains!

In the last two days participants shared many interesting examples of ways that informal rules and codes of conduct affect access, relationships and behavior in value chains. Instead of viewing social norms as negative influences that must be overcome, we've agreed that social norms can provide important benefits, such as building social networks, managing risks and strengthening group organizations. So the general consensus is that project designers and project implementers should be aware of both the social norms that affect implementation AS WELL AS the purpose that is served by the social norm.

Several ways to gather this information were mentioned, from bringing the different groups together to engage in dialogue and identify common interests, to revealing attitudes through simulation exercises, to the use of participatory market mapping approaches. Good old-fashioned observation was also mentioned, but with the caveat that the observer has to be able to somehow let go of preconceptions. If you have used other tools and techniques to gather information about social norms, please share that information with the group.

For this third day we would like to learn how you use information about underlying norms to better design and implement your projects. Suppose you know that there are unwritten rules that can affect your project, then what do you do? How do you use information about social norms in project design and project implementation? How do you adjust your strategies?

One example from yesterday came from rural financial markets in Senegal and Niger, where the emphasis is on family and established contacts. This means that those in the "out" groups and new arrivals to the area were not able to access financial services. How could you, as a project implementer, expand access to financial services in support of value chain development?

What kinds of approaches could be used to address this and other issues you have encountered in your work?

Comments (11)
Apr 30, 2010   05:05

 I found a case that can contribute to this interesting and rich discussion. Note that it agrees with the recommendation made by others here (e.g. embroidery case in Pakistan) of using a male-female mutual understanding and collaboration strategy instead of an only-female empowerment strategy that assumes that women will then stand up, defend their rights and champion changes in traditional social norms.


"In Western Province customary systems of tenure determine access and use of land. The Barotse Royal Establishment (BRE), the traditional authority for the Lozi people, administers land rights. The Litunga is the owner of the land and grants land rights to his subjects via his representatives: the district chiefs, Indunas (district councillors) and the elected village headman. Right to land is determined by residence and land is also granted to incomers, Lozi or not.

On maturity a women is traditionally given land by her father. She holds this land in her own right and the produce of this land is hers alone. Women retain rights to land in their home village even on moving to the husband’s village. In that event she may continue to cultivate this land if it is nearby. Married women are allocated land by their husbands, however the land remains his and he will have some input in decision-making over the produce. Traditionally when a man dies the land allotted to his wife or wives reverts to his successor.

[Concern Worldwide] recognise the importance of access to, and control of, land for marginal farmers and in particular, women marginal farmers. Traditional tenure can impact on women marginal farmers in regards to control and disposal of crops. Women usually indicated that decisions to sell were taken jointly; however, the problem of husbands ‘stealing’ crops to sell (and spend on beer or girlfriends) was also raised. Increased land rights are commonly advocated as a solution to this problem47. This may overcome some problems for women (such as incentives to invest or access to credit), however, the fieldwork suggests that improved outcomes for women and household food security may also be possible by working with men and women towards gender equality to encourage joint decision-making."

Taken from "Unheard Voices: Women Marginal Farmers Speak Out" A Zambian Case Study, page 14, by Concern Worldwide, 2009:$File/full_report.pdf

Apr 29, 2010   18:25

I appreciate Lucho raising the issue of Nature-centred vs Anthropo-centered approaches. At EvoVentures International (EVI), as the focus of our work is the connection between enterprise development and the environment (natural resources, energy, etc), we are becoming more and more aware of this.  We are developing a model we call ReValue Chain Analysis, where we look at understanding how values are attributed differently at different points in the system depending on whether something is considered at its market value alone, or the environmental service it is providing. By simply looking at a natural resource as "raw material" we are often not looking at it the way another group does.  In several of our simulation training programs, people have requested that we not use the term "raw material" for an input into business at all as they do not see any materials as raw.  In some instances, groups will only reap as much as they need to immediately sustain. I wonder if services become more useful to focus on than products in this context. I also wonder if the value to communities can be thought of in a different way - triple bottom line thinking could maybe be explored more as a market-based incentive, or maybe even only the third bottom line.  Interesting, as this would mean rethinking some ways that we do things, or evaluate them, in ways that are particular foreign in many of our own markets.  Someone mentioned to me recently that they thought that Spirit-based Nature could be an interesting concept to explore in terms of natural resource-based market development (I'm still trying to wrap my head around this...)  As part of the Payment for Eco-System Services work that EVI is exploring, such as our work in vetiver market development in Haiti, we are trying to look at different ways to value natural resources, so that these values can be fed into market systems with income and expense implications (which seems to be a growing area of focus by an increasing number of organizations and research vehicles). This becomes interesting in trying to include obvious environmental value (in terms of carbon sequestration, soil erosion control, etc) which in itself is not actually so obvious and is difficult to measure, versus additional (what many of us may think of as perceived) spiritual value that is valued very differently by different groups.  It seems that it could be interesting to explore this much more, particularly with a growing awareness among market actors that environmental outcomes are leveraging new markets, financing opportunities, etc., and that we could use this to further understand often hidden value given to natural resources and resulting product flows in different social contexts.     

Margie Brand

Apr 29, 2010   17:43

I really appreciate the discussion taking place here.

At EVI, we have been exploring the concept of the Tall Poppy Syndrome, Crab Mentality, and Sheep Herding as they drive behaviour of value chain actors in ways that is has often been hard for us to understand.  We are in the process of exploring tools to be able to understand these within a particular context and to use this understanding to guide us through various processes to be able to use community and culturally-appropriate incentives or disincentives as drivers of positive economic behaviour change.  As is generally accepted, the Tall Poppy Syndrome describes a social phenomenon in which people of genuine merit are resented, attacked, cut down, or criticized because their talents or achievements elevate them above or distinguish them from their peers. Some societies are thought to appreciate the successful, seeing them as an example to admire and attempt to emulate, versus others where many resent success of their fellows.  Many of our development strategies were (and probably still are) based on the former, without recognition that if societies are not falling along the spectrum of appreciating success, that these become largely ineffective or short term.  The Crab Mentality describes the situation in which members of a (often disadvantaged) community are seen as undermining the success of community members. The image is drawn from the observation that a crab clawing its way out of a bucket can easily escape but is continually pulled back down by his fellows ("if I can't have it, neither should you").  We are using the Sheep Herding analogy to describe and analyze with local communities where and when it naturally seems to be “safer” to stay in the middle of the herd rather than doing anything that places you at the edge - which means you could be eaten by the wolf. I think of Jeanne’s black and white sheep analogy to describe lead firms taking initial change steps, and how the Sheep Herding concept really allows us to understand why some cultures and communities are particularly, often unconsciously, averse to behaving in this way.  In South Africa, we see a huge difference in this Tall Poppy Syndrome and Crab Mentality among different cultural groups, as we did in our work in Tanzania, and realized that we needed to take this down to even a tribal perspective in many instances.

We are working on ways to validate signals with the local community by exploring things such as what is success, what makes people not fit into the community, what happens when people do not fit in, etc. We are exploring using analogies relating to sport, and individual or group success in these contexts (as sport, particularly soccer, seem to be a commonly accepted form of individual success for the success of the group stretching to even remote areas) and trying to create analogies with business and longer-term community success.  We are trying to understand more about how communities (groups at whatever level) can start seeing longer term benefit to individual success, but instead of highlighting this success at an individual level, highlighting this at a community level – what market structures can be set up that require individuals to excel but feel comfortable doing so as this allows the community to recognize their overall community growth - or alternatively with communities coming up with their own intentional validation of individual success.   

We’re not sure what will come of the tools that we are exploring, but it seems interesting to try to understand this more and link these directly to action at a market development level.

 Margie Brand

Apr 29, 2010   13:36

Thanks, Laura, for sharing so much great information!

In your post you mentioned "observational research along with qualitative methods that take an anthropological look at norms/roles." This reminded me of a question that I meant to ask about tools for gaining insights on social norms:

Do any of you use (and realize that you are using) ethnographic tools to gain insignts on social and community norms? Please share your insights about this.

Apr 29, 2010   15:50

I am using institutional ethnography as my qualitative methodology to study how markets are informally regulated for my study here in Guatemala (that is for PhD). Institutional ethnography provides a framework to do an ethnographic study on the market as an institutionit is providing me a framework to identify and analyze the power relations in the market. This methodology was developed over a couple of decades by a sociologist to look at educational systems and health provision systems in a first world context and follows the paper trailwhat forms get filled, who fills them, which forms define decisions, etc. In a third world context where the forms are few and far between, it has still provided me a starting point to look at the avocado market.

One of the issues being faced by Mayan micro producers is that production is falling. A couple of producers interviewed were interested in finding out why their production had fallen, and as they are also micro coffee producers they were familiar with soil analyses. So I accompanied them in the process of accessing a soil analysis. First we had to download the application for a soil test, fill it out, find out how to take a soil sample, drop it off to the office and wait for the results. Accompanying the 2 producers along this journey revealed who has access to information.

Along the formal channels within the government of agricultural extension, I am told that there is access to technical assistance for micro producers. This whole exercise illustrated there is no technical assistance for producers who are illiterate, do not know how to use the computer, do not have bus fare to pay for the journey to drop off the soil sample, do not have the $4 to pay for the sample and do not understand the technical codes of the components of soil. IDE in Bangladesh had an incredible project that included a mobile soil analysis provider who hired people and micro producers were able to improve yields, decrease chemical fertilizers which resulted in higher incomes. This idea would be a great response to the micro producers here in Guatemala.

The paper trail for exporting and importing what are the forms, where do the forms go, how forms are expedited (corruption), how forms are changed to reduce taxes has shed light on the importance of social networking within a specific groupand if you are not part of that group, you are out of the loop for exporting. Yet development projects are identifying that exporting hass avocados and working with micro producer associations is a big opportunity to be developed. NGO and Govt. resources do not exist with criollo avocados which is a strong local market facing some serious problems now because these resources are being dedicated to developing the hass market which locally excludes micro producers.

I have also followed the trail of how stats are produced. For instance, I accompanied the ministry of agriculture employee who is responsible for posting the prices of products on the weband from this the Bank of Guatemala makes projections that are posted on revenue generatedwell this poor fellow was terrified to get out of the truck in the market which is the heart of the Guatemalan economy operating informallyand where lots of thieving happens and the occasional murder. He leans out of his car and asks someone who is a bit friendly what the price is. I downloaded the price from the net, went to the market and found a $2 difference in the unit pricemultiplied by an estimated 50,000 units, this would affect any official stat considerably.

All in all, following the paper trail and stats has provided me incredible insight to who is running things and how, and who is excluded as well as insight into significant constraints and bottlenecks impeding the participation of micro producers in an existing market that is operating informally.

Mary Morgan
Economic Development Consultant

On Thu, 29 Apr 2010 13:36:48 -0400
Impacts of Social Norms

Apr 29, 2010   14:10

No! But I would love to learn about these tools. Does anyone know of good resources (books, websites?). What I have found to date does not seem to fit the economic development agenda too well, is too theoretical for me as a non-specialist, or is solely about gender.

On Apr 29, 2010, at 1:36 PM, "Impacts of Social Norms

Apr 29, 2010   09:50

Sorry to jump in late on this discussion...


A look at behavior change theories can guide analysis and understanding of social norms. Karen Glanz and Barbara K. Rimer have published extensively on this. They explain theories that are relevant to individual behavior change, individuals and influencers, and communities. Community organization theories, organizational change theories and diffusion of innovation theory are a good place to start, and observational research along with qualitative methods that take an anthropological look at norms/roles can help program designers understand why systems/roles are the way they are, along with providing insights about barriers to change.

The Western orientation/temptation to add efficiency and technology to traditional processes often does not work for the simple reason that people perceive risk in doing something new/different, especially when neighbors, friends and family members have also been doing something like farming a particular way for generations. When you are a subsistance farmer, even a small change can seem fraught with risk and the potential reward of a higher yield or better market price may seem too abstract. Identifying and engaging credible "champions" of change who are respected and trusted sources of information and who can advocate for small incremental changes that are seen as less risky is one potentially effective strategy.

Abt Associates has developed its own unique integrated Agricultural Behavior Change (AgBC®) approach to ensure a clear understanding of existing barriers and incentives to behavior change. This participatory, demand-driven approach identifies and addresses the environmental, economic, cultural and sociopolitical constraints to achieving food security as it improves knowledge, shifts attitudes, and facilitates the adoption of environmentally-friendly practices, technologies and products. We combine the expertise of our agricultural, environmental, climate change experts with our behavior change communication professionals to change the way people work, communicate and participate in a market-driven economy. AgBC® goes beyond traditional development assistance as it motivates and enables people to make lasting changes that improve quality of life because they understand and embrace the necessary changes. Simply put, they buy-in to the fact that the benefits (usually economic) of the change will outweigh the risks.  

Change is the most difficult thing we ask of people. We are asking people to give up what they know. In essence, we are asking them to give up their reality or their "normal". You have to have a pretty good sales tactic for that. You have to be persuasive, consistent in message, targeted and be able to show real positive change for people to move. You have to understand why they make the choices they do, which requires a lot of field work and a deep understanding of the societal, environmental, gender, and financial climate. To get people to change successfully and sustainably, we have to find the incentives provided by the markets. So whether we're talking about getting people to change a simple agricultural practice or to invest their profits into seed inputs, we need to work at all levels and bring in the expertise of agriculturalists, sociologists, economists, communicators, etc.

Abt Associates' Behavior Change Team


Apr 29, 2010   11:57

Hi Laura
Many thanks for the fascinating post about the relationship between behavior chance and social norms. 
To pick just one point out from many, I appreciated the link to perceptions and avoidance of risk.  Mike Field discussed earlier the importance of getting at the purposes of different social norms.  Clearly, reducing risk is a very high priority for vulnerable communities and food insecure households.  I like that you go one step further in asking VCD practitioners to think about the incentives for changing norms, and how these might be communicated to different market actors. 

I see Abt Associates have a variety of resources on your website
Would you mind pointing us to any publically available tools / methodologies that you use or recommend?

regards Mike Albu

Apr 30, 2010   12:50

Hi Mike,

Although these are not Abt's tools, here are a couple of tools available to the public, which you might find useful.  

This one describes observation research:

The Creative Brief, which is used by advertising companies througout the world, is also a useful tool for developing messages and ensuring that the message is targeted and meeting the right audience.

Creative Brief

1.     Target Audience(s)

Whom do you want to reach with your communication?  Be specific.


2.    Objective(s)

What do you want your target audiences to do after they hear, watch, or experience this communication?


3.    Obstacles

What beliefs, cultural practices, pressure, misinformation, etc. stand between your audience and the desired objective?


4.    Key Promise

Select one single promise/benefit that the audience will experience upon hearing, seeing, or reading the objective(s) you’ve set?


5.    Support Statements/Reasons Why

These are the reasons why the Key Promise/Benefit outweighs the obstacles; the reasons that what you’re “promising”/promoting is beneficial.  These often become the messages.


6. Tone

What feeling or personality should your communication have?  Should it be authoritative, light, emotional…?  Pick a tone.


7.    Channels

What channel(s) or form will the communications take?  Television?  Radio?  Press?  Poster?  Point-of-purchase?  Flyer?  Stakeholder dialogue?  Trainings?  Market Information Systems? All of the above?


8.    Openings

What opportunities (times and places) exist for reaching your audience?


9.    Creative Considerations

Anything else the creative people should know?  Will it be in more than one language?  Should they make sure that all nationalities are represented? Etc.


Apr 29, 2010   09:12

(This message was originally posted by Lucho Osorio)

Reading David Sturza's message describing the case in Thailand reminded me about the importance of taking informal rules into account when facilitators of pro-poor market development are assessing the feasibility of new business models.

Even if the new business model is created in a participatory way, this does not automatically mean that it will have more chances of success; simply because sometimes the informal rules are influential at an unconscious level or because it is very hard to talk about them openly (e.g. security reasons). These rules simply go off the radar... until tensions and conflicts start to come out of the "informal" closet once the business is operating.

I would like to contribute by highlighting a tension that that is in many cases critical for the success of new busines models (and consequently, for pro-poor market development):

- Nature-centred vs Anthropo-centred. That is; nature as a live organism seen by people as integrated to them and rich in mistical meanings VS nature as a resource separated from humans and available to be exploited using a rational/economicistic/technological approach

A corolary to it is:

Informal/social/hidden meanings vs objective/rational/explicit meanings

This tension can help to explain the common complaints of "westerners" about the "weird" believes of indigenous people who do not allow the exploitation of natural resources in their communities, despite the "enormous potential for profit and development".

Taussig has analysed contemporary rituals centering on evil figures in South America and he talks about "pacts with the devil in order to increase productivity in the […] plantations. " (Narotzky, 1997, New Directions in Economic Anthropology, Pluto Press)

This tension grows as the engagement of marginalised farmers with markets grows.

One experience I can share from my work in Practical Action relates to the coca rituals that peasants in the High Andes of Cusco perform when they engage in key moments of the production processes of potatoe (e.g. cultivation and harvesting). For them the mountains are gods (the Apus) with overwhelming power and they offer coca leaves to them to ask for their benevolence and fertility in return.

I would dare to say that the relationship between the farmer and the potatoes is one of love. The potatoes are not just a nutrient or a commodity to make a profit from. In our projects we have used this special connection to mobilise some processes of change:

- to create incentives for farmers to engage with agriculture research centres with the aim of understanding and protecting the biodiversity of their more than 3,000 varieties of potatoes for future generations (as a way of partially compensating for the need to specialise in a few potato varieties with high demand in gurmet markets driven by tourism)

- reviving the label "Kamayoq" (who were the wise agricultural advisors to the Inca Emperors) to enhance the position, recognition and influence of community-based agriculture extensionists. The Kamayoq had a magical connection with the earth and this belief permeates the relations between them and their farmer clients.

Despite these achievement, things have not been easy; especially when it comes to interactions between farmers and private buyers from the city centres. Language barriers (Quechua and Spanish respectively); stigma about the backwardness of indigenous populations (prevalent in Latin America) and preconceptions related to the tension proposed above have been major challenges.

Probably too late to keep my head down now!  Sorry for such long email (I did delete lots of other stuff before posting it) but I get excited with these conversations. I am learning a lot with all your stories/ideas... Please keep them coming!

Lucho Osorio   (Practical Action)  

May 19, 2010   07:10

Although the eConsultation on informal rules is over, we are continuing to analyse the contributions and will be incorporating insights and examples into the Wiki pages in the near future.

Lucho - please elaborate a little on your reference to Michael Taussig's work on "peasant economics".  What, in practical terms, is the lesson which we value-chain development practitioners can learn from his studies.

thank you