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How Change Happens$

Duncan Green

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9780198785392

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: October 2016

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198785392.001.0001

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Shifts in Social Norms Often Underpin Change

Shifts in Social Norms Often Underpin Change

(p.47) 3 Shifts in Social Norms Often Underpin Change
How Change Happens

Duncan Green

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter discusses the importance of social norms—the explicit or implicit rules specifying what behaviours are acceptable in society. What people see as normal, desirable, or aberrant determines their sense of right and wrong, and can both drive and hold back the search for social justice. Norms come in all shapes and sizes, whether social, legal, or moral; and they exhibit a subtle contradiction, which they share with institutions like the state or transnational corporations: they are both static and changing. At any given moment, most norms appear fixed; people see them as a ‘given’, a pre-existing, eternal, social reality. With this sense of fixity, norms provide stable standards of conduct to guide the choices of those subject to them. Yet, at the same time, norms are a continuously evolving system. Even law—the most codified, formal subset of norms—is constantly changing.

Keywords:   social norms, socially acceptable behaviours, social justice, standards of conduct, social reality, law

Over a beer in a remote corner of Bolivia, Miguel Rivera, a Chiquitano activist, reflected on his own discovery of ‘power within’. ‘A sense of our rights came from outside, from political leaders and ILO Convention 169’, he told me. ‘It was important, it made our indigenous part wake up.’1 It wasn’t the kind of conversation you have every day and, to be honest, I didn’t entirely welcome it. I had trekked deep into the Bolivian interior to find out how social change happened in the exotic (to me) world of Latin America’s indigenous movement, and here was a grassroots activist quoting the stuffy, Geneva-based International Labour Organization (ILO), telling me his people’s success was partly down to those international talking shops of which I had been so dismissive.

At least the setting lived up to expectations. The Chiquitanos are best known outside Bolivia from the 1986 film The Mission, which recounts how, in exchange for protection by the Jesuits from Brazilian slavers, the Chiquitanos became (and remain) adept Baroque musicians and built extraordinary white-and-orange churches that still attract tourists.

Of all the stories of change I have witnessed over the last thirty-five years, that conversation with Miguel in the sweltering heat of the summer of 2006, and my subsequent visit to the Chiquitano community, was one of the most influential in shaping my thinking. On page 69, to conclude this first part of the book, I use it to illustrate the power and systems approach.

(p.48) Miguel educated me about the importance of social norms—the explicit or implicit rules specifying what behaviours are acceptable in society. What people see as normal, desirable, or aberrant determines their sense of right and wrong, and can both drive and hold back the search for social justice.

Norms come in all shapes and sizes, whether social, legal, or moral, and they exhibit a subtle contradiction, which they share with institutions like the state or transnational corporations: they are both static and changing. At any given moment, most norms appear fixed; people see them as a ‘given’, a pre-existing, eternal, social reality. Without that sense of fixity, norms would not provide what they must, namely stable standards of conduct to guide the choices of those subject to them. Yet, at the same time, norms are a continuously evolving system. Even law—the most codified, formal subset of norms—is constantly changing, as I discuss in Chapter 5.2

How norms evolve

For much of human history, norms mostly evolved organically in local and national communities. Over the last century, however, a formal process for debating, agreeing, codifying, and implementing global norms has come into being, housed within a number of international institutions, such as the UN and the ILO so revered by Miguel Rivera.

Today that normative framework advances through a bewildering proliferation of conferences, ‘high level panels’, international targets such as the Sustainable Development Goals, treaties, and conventions. It’s a merry-go-round I often prefer to avoid, due to the prevalence of rhetoric and platitude over substance. I now think my aversion (though understandable) is unwarranted. The merry-go-round is complex and unpredictable, but undoubtedly important. The body of international agreements that has emerged captures and nudges (p.49) along the world’s evolving understanding of its condition, building our sense of belonging to one ‘humanity’.

Very little of it is ‘hard law’, enforceable in the courts. But it sets standards that national movements can use to rally for change in legislation and in public attitudes on everything from whether bribery is acceptable or parents have the right to beat their children, to discrimination against migrant workers, indigenous people, or those living with a disability, or what activity should be considered as ‘work’.

At an individual level, norms start to develop from the moment of birth, as children soak up notions of what is ‘natural’ from the behaviours and words of those around them. As an institution (albeit a hugely varied one), the family is probably the greatest forging ground of the values and norms that shape a person’s life. Within a few years, schooling starts to play a central role in transmitting society’s wider understanding of norms. When activists ignore these early years, they miss a huge trick. Faith organizations, which invest large amounts in education, have been rather more on the ball. St. Francis Xavier, the founder of the Jesuit order, once said ‘Give me the child until he is seven and I will give you the man’.

The extent to which norms have changed over time is extraordinary. Two hundred years ago, slavery and colonization were seen as the natural order of things (at least in Europe); men ‘owned’ women and slaves. States were unencumbered in their conduct of war; today they are partly circumscribed by rules. Entire bodies of international law—human rights, environment—did not even exist a century ago. As these timelines suggest, normative change is deep and slow, often measured in generations or centuries. For that reason, it sometimes passes relatively unobserved and unappreciated by activists or politicians who think in the three- or four-year cycles of elections and campaigns.

I first became fully aware of the importance of norms in the mid-1990s, when researching for a book for Save the Children.3 Philippe (p.50) Aries’ paradigm-changing book Centuries of Childhood4 showed me just how much of what I considered ‘natural’ was in fact historically determined. In 1724, the great British novelist Daniel Defoe saw nothing wrong with saying all children over the age of four or five should earn their own bread.

Hundreds of conversations with children across Latin America further transformed my understanding of the nature of childhood and the roles, rights, and responsibilities of children. Of course, working children complained of exploitation and the difficulties of combining work and school, and street kids were often drugged up and miserable, but what struck me most was their sense of agency. Working children told me how much they valued contributing to their family’s welfare; street kids laughed while boasting about their ability to get what they could from the various organizations intent on ‘rescuing’ them (‘the food’s better there, but they make you pray’). As the father of two young children of my own at the time, it felt very personal.

When the book was published, I learned that challenging norms about something as deep as our attitudes towards children can provoke very powerful reactions. Trade unions accused me of justifying child exploitation, street child organizations of undermining their work. They preferred a notion of childhood as an innocent ‘walled garden’ in need of protection even if, as Aries shows, that garden is a recent and Western historical construct.

Norms, gender, and power

Women’s expected roles have undergone extraordinary change over the last century. Was the main factor behind this shift the right to vote, employment outside the home, the invention of the washing machine, (p.51) girls’ education, new forms of contraception, access to information, or the women’s movement? The answer of course is all of the above and more. In a complex system full of feedback loops and surprises, each of these factors has both shaped and been shaped by evolving norms on women’s roles.

Globalization is one such driver of change. At 7.30 am every morning, the streets of Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, light up as a Technicolor tide of young women in vivid saris emerge from the slums en route to the many mouldering factories that line the streets of the city. The women remain there until well into the night, cutting and stitching clothes for export.

Observing thousands of these laughing, engaged, and eager women on the move, I struggled to maintain my activist’s disapproval of globalization and its ‘exploitation’ of cheap labour. Subsequent conversations in their shantytown huts confirmed how highly prized jobs in the garment factories were. The women certainly complained about the low wages, long hours, and workplace dangers affecting millions of women in Bangladesh’s garment industry. But they also insisted that earning an income brings a redistribution of power at home: women can now leave the house without male permission; they exercise more of a voice in household decisions; girl children are more valued than before.

The factories did not head for Dhaka intent on liberating Bangladesh’s women. As is often the case in a complex system such as the global garment trade, the evolution of gender norms was an accidental by-product of structural changes in the economy. Also influential were urbanization and the spread of television, with its soap opera portrayals of ‘modern’ and largely urban women. The introduction of cable television in rural India in the early 2000s led to significant reported increases in women’s autonomy, a fall in the acceptability of domestic violence and decreases in preference for male offspring. Researchers also found increased female school enrolment, decreased dropout rates and fewer births per family. The correlation was striking—between 45 and 70 per cent of the difference between rural (p.52) and urban areas in these three indicators disappeared within two years of cable’s introduction.5

‘Critical junctures’, such as wars or political and economic crises, can help shift norms, when an upheaval in traditional routines opens the door to new thinking. In the US, the experience of blacks and whites fighting alongside each other in the Second World War helped galvanize the civil rights movement. Increased attention to inequality in recent years suggests that the 2008 financial crisis may have changed attitudes.

International agreements like those described by Miguel that evening in Bolivia can both reflect and lead changes in public attitudes. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), adopted in 1979 by the UN General Assembly, is often described as an international bill of rights for women. It defines what constitutes discrimination against women and obliges states to commit themselves to a series of measures, including:

  • to incorporate the principle of equality of men and women in the legal system, abolish all discriminatory laws, and adopt appropriate ones prohibiting discrimination against women;

  • to establish tribunals and other public institutions to ensure the effective protection of women against discrimination; and

  • to ensure elimination of all acts of discrimination against women by persons, organizations, or enterprises.

CEDAW and the agreements that emerged from the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo and the 1995 World Conference on Women in Beijing created a normative framework that national movements have used to exert steady upwards pressure on respect for women’s rights in public attitudes and in (p.53) legislation. At the time of writing, 189 countries worldwide have ratified CEDAW.6

South Asia’s We Can campaign (mentioned in Chapter 2) is one such movement that seeks to propagate the norms established in CEDAW by promoting ‘power within’ and ‘power with’.7

Norm changes and the state

We Can largely bypasses the formal world of state action, but states too can reinforce emerging norms. In 1993, the Indian government introduced a law calling for one third of village council leader positions in village councils (Panchayat) to be reserved for women. At the time, sceptics argued that influential men would place their wives in the position and manage from behind the scenes. However, researchers subsequently found that adolescent girls in villages with female leaders in two election cycles were more likely to want to marry after age 18, less likely to want to be a housewife or have their occupation determined by their in-laws, and more likely to want a job requiring education. Parents were less likely to believe in-laws should determine girls’ occupations. The gender gap in adolescent educational attainment was erased and the gender gap in time spent on household chores closed by eighteen whole minutes, reflecting girls spending less time on these activities.8

Part of the art of outstanding political leaders such as Gandhi or Mandela lies in their ability to go beyond merely reflecting public norms and instead influence them for the better. Even the endless repetition of simple messages, which may be one of the most off-putting aspects of politicians’ daily lives, helps challenge old norms (p.54) and cement new ones. Of course, politicians can also reinforce norms that should change, for example, by whipping up hatred against ethnic or religious minorities or desperate migrants.

Leadership in changing norms is not just the preserve of politicians. Role models, celebrities, any number of public figures can play a part. Acts of individual courage can be pivotal moments, as when Princess Diana stood up against the panic and prejudice towards people living with HIV and AIDS in the early years of the pandemic in the UK.9

Governments use norms to try to shape people’s personal behaviour. Particularly in the richer countries, this includes a daily avalanche of ‘nudges’ regarding diet, smoking, drink driving, and more. In the US, telling high users of energy how their consumption compared with that of their neighbours prompted them to use less.10 In the UK, telling residents that most neighbours had already paid their taxes, led payment rates to rise by around 15 per cent.11

But government is rarely the original source of new norms. In fact, the ideas for many of what we now consider the core features of the state (social protection, education, healthcare) were incubated by activists before being taken up by the state, as were the rules of war and the principles of child rights. A similar process is now occurring regarding environmental stewardship, data transparency, and disabled people’s rights.12

Sometimes norms change because they get backing from a powerful constituency that spots an opportunity to further its own interests, as when businesses became aware of the ‘pink pound’ and suddenly developed a deep interest in gay rights. For politicians the incentive is (p.55) votes. After decades of activism on gay rights and equal marriage, polls in 2011 finally showed US public support for same-sex marriage exceeding 50 per cent for the first time. In just one week in April 2013, six US senators performed U-turns and declared their support for marriage equality.13

A study of how governments come to adopt and implement new human rights norms identified five stages: repression (of those promoting the norm); denial (refusal to acknowledge the issue); tactical concessions (just enough to keep critics quiet); prescriptive status (starting to adopt the spirit of the new norm by ratifying international treaties, changing domestic laws, or setting up new institutions); and rule-consistent behaviour (putting mechanisms in place to ensure the new norms are respected).14 Large corporations facing pressures on labour rights or environmental safeguards go through much the same journey. In words attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, ‘First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.’

To try and identify what factors drive change in government policies on violence against women, Laurel Weldon and Mala Htun painstakingly constructed the mother of all databases, covering seventy countries over four decades (1975 to 2005). It included various kinds of state action (legal and administrative reforms, protection and prevention, training for officials), as well as a number of other relevant factors (the presence of women legislators, GDP per capita, and the nature of the political regime).

Their findings bear out the importance of pressure from below: ‘Countries with the strongest feminist movements tend, other things being equal, to have more comprehensive policies on violence against (p.56) women than those with weaker or non-existent movements. This plays a more important role than left-wing parties, numbers of women legislators, or even national wealth. These movements can make the difference between having a critical legal reform or funding for shelters or training for the police, and not having it.’15 Htun and Weldon also found that governments, like US energy users and UK taxpayers, are particularly susceptible to unfavourable comparisons with their neighbours.

When combined with leadership from political authorities and the international mechanisms of the UN, activism can form a crucial pincer movement. In the words of one Filipina activist, ‘How do you cook a rice cake? With heat from the bottom and heat from the top. The protests, the marches, the uncompromising position that women’s rights are human rights, full stop. That’s the heat from the bottom. That’s Malcolm X and the suffragists and gay pride parades. But we also need the heat from the top.’16

Norms, culture, and faith

Norms overlap with another blind spot in the thinking of many activists—culture, both the arts (literature, music, cinema, theatre, painting) and, more broadly, the ideas, customs, and behaviour of a particular people, which plays a vital role in shaping values and internal narratives. I am convinced that in the UK the writers JK Rowling and JRR Tolkien are among the most powerful influences on future generations of activists. Culture also binds society together; starting a conversation about the fates of football teams in the British premiership is a sure-fire bonding exercise in many parts of the world.

(p.57) Cultural attitudes vary between and within countries. Research by social psychologist Geert Hofstede and others has used interviews and surveys about attitudes to compare culture across nations. They have identified six ‘dimensions’ that show variation between national cultures: the extent to which people accept inequality, the tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity, individualism vs. collectivism, the distribution of emotional roles between genders (interestingly, men’s roles appear to vary more than women’s), long-term vs. short-term orientation, and indulgence vs. restraint. These dimensions have been applied in business (e.g. for designing marketing campaigns), education, and healthcare.17

While culture in no way predetermines actions or attitudes, it can heavily influence such things as the authority of leaders, the desirability of risk taking, or the relative standing of young and older people. We activists should see cultural difference, not as a source of frustration (‘why can’t he just hurry up and say what he means?’), but as a source of strength, since in any ecosystem diversity is a sign of good health.

Perhaps most central to the realm of culture, and often underestimated by activists, is faith. I am a lifelong atheist, but decades of working in Latin America, including eight years for the Catholic aid agency CAFOD (Catholic Agency for Overseas Development), have left me with an abiding respect for the role of faith in social change. In Latin America, I saw the power of liberation theology to move thousands of church activists, nuns, and priests, to confront military dictatorships, often at huge personal cost. When I worked at CAFOD, I used to receive messages such as ‘Sorry [Sister] Pat can’t make the meeting—she’s been arrested again’ (for chaining herself to the railings outside the Ministry of Defence, in protest at nuclear weapons). I acquired a deep respect for indomitable nuns everywhere.

Along with the family and education, religion is one of the most powerful forces in shaping an individual’s norms and can be a (p.58) powerful catalyst of ‘power within’ and ‘power with’. While secularization has been a notable feature of European life for the past fifty years, in much of the rest of the world religious institutions remain at the centre of community life. In many communities, people trust their local church, mosque, or temple more than any other institution. Numerous countries have seen a rise in religious fervour, perhaps because faith can bring solace and security, especially when livelihoods and cultures are challenged by globalization or emigration from settled rural communities to the chaos of the shantytown.

Although public attention often focuses on conflicts between faiths, perhaps more remarkable is how much they have in common. The so-called ‘golden rule’, expressed in Islam as ‘No man is a true believer unless he desireth for his brother that which he desireth for himself’ (Azizullah—Hadith 150), has remarkably close parallels in the scriptures of every major religion. When representatives of nine world faiths—Bahá’ís, Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jains, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, and Taoists—attended a World Faiths and Development Conference in 1998, they revealed a startling degree of consensus about some of life’s deepest truths:

  • Material gain alone cannot lead to true development: economic activities are inter-related with all other aspects of life.

  • The whole world belongs to God. Human beings have no right to act in a harmful way to other living creatures.

  • Everyone is of equal worth.

  • People’s wellbeing and their very identity are rooted in their spiritual, social, and cultural traditions.

  • Social cohesion is essential for true development.

  • Societies (and the world) must be run on the basis of equity and justice.18

(p.59) These essential affirmations underlie attitudes, beliefs, and personal behaviour, including activism. In southern Africa, I have come across many powerful and charismatic women who run community projects helping those living with HIV or orphaned by AIDS. Most are active church-goers and draw on their faith for inspiration and comfort in what is often an exhausting and thankless task.

However, a profound ambiguity characterizes the interaction between faith and politics. Marx saw religion as ‘the opium of the people’, blinding us to the true nature of our oppression (today football probably plays a similar role), and Gramsci saw it as a means through which elites could construct and maintain their domination. Yet Durkheim portrayed it as a way of building a collective identity that promotes social cohesion and stability.19 Religion can encourage or discourage activism, promote conformity or challenge it, foment love or hatred.

Nowhere is this contradictory role more evident than in relation to women’s rights. Fundamentalists of virtually all religions view the emancipation of women as profoundly disturbing, giving rise, for example, to the curious alliance of the Vatican, the Iranian government, and the US government to block international progress on sexual and reproductive rights.

But the traffic is not all one way. Despite the opposition of their respective religious hierarchies, women activists in both Muslim and Christian communities have reinterpreted Islamic and Catholic scriptures in accordance with women’s rights, leading to a new approach to the faith. In 2004 women’s organizations in Morocco won a remarkable victory when parliament unanimously approved a new Islamic Family Code that radically strengthened the rights of women. The reforms included the right to decide legal matters without the guardianship of a male, equal responsibility over the household and (p.60) children, and the need for consent from both husband and wife to dissolve a marriage.20

Throughout the campaign, activists opted to work within the framework of Islam, arguing that the conservative interpretation enshrined in family law ran counter to the true spirit of the Koran. According to activist Rabéa Naciri: ‘We chose not to separate the universal human rights framework from the religious framework. We maintained that Islam is not opposed to women’s equality and dignity and should not be presented as such…Islamic law is a human and historical production, and consequently is able to evolve, to fulfil the current needs of Muslim men and women.’21

Such examples are inspiring, but largely ignored by many activists. I call this ‘the flipchart problem’. When I raise the importance of faith and faith-based organizations in discussions within Oxfam, colleagues nod, but somehow the issue never makes it to the flipchart that becomes the record of the conversation. Some of this is due to the failings of many faith organizations, from gay rights to contraception, but a lot also derives from our personal ‘cup half empty’ feelings about religion. On a visit to the Philippines a few years ago, Filipino staff were describing Oxfam’s fascinating work on women’s rights among the Muslim communities of Mindanao. What about working with the Catholic Church as well, I asked (after all, far more Filipinos are Catholic than Muslim)? ‘No way’, came the response, ‘we’re all lapsed Catholics and have no intention of going back to the fold!’ Surely it’s time to get over that one.

Are norms neutral?

Human rights activists often defend themselves against charges of imposing alien values on other cultures by arguing that anything the (p.61) UN agrees must, by virtue of its global nature, be a universal norm. I have never found that argument entirely convincing. The process by which new norms are set of course reflects the relative power (visible, invisible, or hidden) of the forces at play. In the UN and elsewhere in the international system, it is largely Western norms that ‘trickle down’, with little evidence of the reverse taking place. How many Western leaders have been influenced in their understanding of rights by a conversation with someone in Africa, Asia, or Latin America?

In discussing norms, we also need to be self-aware. How would you describe your own normative framework, which shapes everything you think, do, and say? If forced, I guess I would go for ‘confused Western liberal torn between a set of “West is Best” norms on rights and democracy, and deep moral relativism.’

Some of the cruder forms of support for democratization and market liberalization by US think-tanks give substance to the charge that Western powers use normative change as an instrument of foreign policy. Such was the case in the so-called ‘colour revolutions’ in the former Soviet Bloc,22 experiences that were used to justify crackdowns on grassroots organizations in many countries, which we will examine in Chapter 9.

Norms, however, act like a complex system: the way they evolve is seldom linear or imposed. They are fiercely debated, compromises are struck, modifications are made. The prospect of norm shifts can provoke a violent backlash. When women get paid jobs for the first time they can face greater domestic violence; gay rights activists are brutally persecuted in many countries across Africa, some even suffering murder and the horrors of ‘corrective rape’.

Moreover, as the balance of power shifts in the international system, the normative traffic is becoming less one-way. During the prolonged debate on the global ‘sustainable development goals’ agreed (p.62) in 2015, developing countries were able to override opposition from the Western powers and introduce goals on reducing inequality. Similarly, the increased role of regional bodies in norm-setting, as evidenced by the African Union’s 2003 Women’s Protocol,23 may help correct power imbalances.

Female genital mutilation

The movement against female genital mutilation (FGM) is a good example of activism to transform a destructive social norm. Female genital cutting, which involves full or partial removal of a girl’s external genitals, serves no medical purpose and has many harmful consequences. Yet the practice is widespread. The UN estimates that worldwide 125 million women and girls are currently living with the consequences of FGM. A further thirty million girls are at risk of being cut in the next decade across twenty-nine known practising countries in Africa and the Middle East.24

This centuries-old practice now faces a major normative shift driven by pioneering national and grassroots campaigners, such as Efua Dorkenoo, a Ghanaian-British academic and midwife who wrote one of the earliest reports on FGM, published in 1980, and campaigned tirelessly up to her death in 2014.25

The World Health Organization (WHO) rejected a UN request to investigate FGM in 1958, arguing that it was a cultural, rather than medical, issue. When campaigners reframed FGM as a health rights issue some decades later, they gained the adherence of a group of (p.63) powerful and ‘neutral’ champions: doctors. In 1997, WHO, UNICEF, and the UN Population Fund issued an influential joint statement calling FGM a violation of the rights of women and girls to ‘the highest attainable standard of health’, helping to persuade at least fourteen African countries to outlaw FGM. Yet prevalence remains high in half a dozen countries, where over 90 per cent of women are still mutilated.26

Researchers Gerry Mackie and John Lejeune27 studied national movements against FGM in Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Senegal, and Sudan, and compared them to an earlier normative campaign against the Chinese practice of binding women’s feet to enforce chastity and fidelity by limiting women’s physical mobility.

Like FGM, foot-binding was both medically unjustifiable and deeply entrenched in urban and coastal China at the beginning of the twentieth century. First, reformers spread the word that the rest of the world did not bind women’s feet, making the natural-foot alternative seem feasible. Second, they explained the advantages of natural feet and the disadvantages of bound feet. And finally, they formed ‘natural foot societies’ whose members pledged not to allow their sons to marry women with bound feet, as well as not to bind their daughter’s feet. The reformers’ strategy brought a thousand years of practice to an end in a single generation.

Anti-FGM movements in Africa face similar obstacles: families carry out FGM in order to ensure the marriageability and status of their daughters, so a family’s choices depend on those of other families in their community. If a single family ends FGM, their daughter may (p.64) never be able to marry. In other words, FGM is a classic collective action problem, in which everyone must move together to reach a solution (not unlike climate change requiring all nations to curb carbon emissions).

In Senegal, reformers found a solution. When a relatively small critical mass of first movers conditionally resolved to abandon FGM, these families had a strong incentive to recruit the remaining members of their community to join them, until a tipping point was reached and whole communities abandoned the practice. Four thousand Senegalese villages have declared themselves FGM free.28

In Egypt, campaigners adapted the ‘positive deviance’ approach discussed in Chapter 1. Rather than focus on the 97 per cent of Egyptian women who were being subjected to FGM, the ‘somersault question’ became what could be learned from the 3 per cent who were not. Getting them to testify on camera unlocked a wave of energy for the anti-FGM movement, and worked far better than being lectured at by ‘experts’ and outsiders.29

Making the commitment public helps: in 2000, the Ethiopian development organization KMG began holding public weddings of couples who chose to break with the tradition. As many as 2,000 people attended the first wedding, where 317 girls who had not undergone the practice served as bridesmaids. During the ceremony, the bride and bridesmaids wore signs that read: ‘I will not be circumcised. Learn from me!’ The groom wore his own placard saying: ‘I am happy to marry an uncircumcised woman.’ Thanks to such campaigns, backed by government action, younger mothers in Ethiopia are nearly 80 per cent less likely to have a daughter cut than older mothers. (p.65) Reported support for cutting halved from 60 per cent in 2000 to 31 per cent in 2005.30

Interestingly, where activists emphasized health concerns, which was so effective at the international level, some parents turned to medical practitioners for a ‘safer FGM’. Where activists stressed human rights (in both Senegal and Ethiopia) parents abandoned it altogether.

The researchers concluded that parents decide to perform FGM because failure to do so brings shame and social exclusion to girls and their families. Once an alternative is perceived to be feasible and people realize the community might be better off without FGM, a more basic norm comes to the fore—to do what is best for their children—and communities abandon the harmful practice.

The FGM campaign contains numerous insights for activists: the importance of building power within among both girls and women, and their families and friends; the value of positive deviance and social learning (seeing is believing); the need to find a countervailing norm, such as a daughter’s health and, as ever the importance of collective action—power with.


To test these ideas, let’s contemplate how norms might shift on one of the most pressing issues of our times—climate change. What would it take for driving a car or exceeding personal emissions of X tonnes of CO2 per year to become as socially unacceptable as smoking or child abuse? A combination of academic research and UN negotiations could affect public understanding of personal responsibility and exert pressure for governments to act. Public personalities from sports stars to intellectuals could stand up and ‘take the pledge’. National (p.66) leaders could respond with laws, regulations, and public messaging, motivating schools to teach about climate change and environmental responsibility. Government regulations might include carbon pricing, which would help drive technological breakthroughs in renewable energy. Faith groups could emphasize stewardship and personal responsibility; in 2015 some of the most encouraging progress on climate change came from a Papal Encyclical on the Environment31 and an impassioned appeal for action from a network of Islamic scholars.32

All this could be backed by activist organizations pursuing a range of tactics from litigation against carbon polluters, to using culture to spread the word, to We Can-style viral citizen-to-citizen networking. Major weather events provide obvious and semi-predictable ‘critical junctures’ that can galvanize interest from both the public and decision makers. Faith groups, businesses, academics, and civil society organizations could join forces in broad coalitions, abandoning the go-it-alone purism that has undermined efforts to date.

Far fetched? It pretty much describes how major norm changes have always come about. Anyone interested in bringing about change should surely pay close attention to the way such norms are established and evolve over time. We campaigners and lobbyists often prefer to focus on the tangible—laws and policies, spending commitments, public statements of this and that. It’s understandable: we are driven by the desire to measure our impact (and thus prove our effectiveness), by a frustration with the vagueness of ‘talking shops’ about rights and norms, or by sheer impatience at the slow pace of normative change. Whatever the cause, neglect of ‘invisible power’ is a big mistake. We can still focus on the tangible to communicate and to (p.67) campaign, but norms should lie at the heart of our deeper understanding of how change happens. And the norm changes we contribute to are likely to be our activism’s greatest legacy.

Further Reading

Bibliography references:

P. Ariès, Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life (New York: Random House USA, 1965).

A. Betts and P. Orchard, Implementation and World Politics: How International Norms Change Practice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).

J.W. Busby, ‘Bono Made Jesse Helms Cry: Jubilee 2000, Debt Relief, and Moral Action in International Politics’, International Studies Quarterly, vol. 51 (2007): 247–75.

J.W. Busby, Moral Movements and Foreign Policy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

T. Risse, S. Ropp, and K. Sikkink (eds.), The Persistent Power of Human Rights: From Commitment to Compliance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013). (p.68)


(1) Miguel Rivera, Interview with Duncan Green, Bolivia, 2006.

(2) Wayne Sandholtz and Kendall Stiles, International Norms and Cycles of Change (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).

(3) Duncan Green, Hidden Lives: Voices of Children in Latin America and the Caribbean (London: Cassell, 1998).

(4) Philippe Ariès, Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life (New York: Random House USA, 1965).

(5) Robert Jensen and Emily Oster, ‘The Power of TV: Cable Television and Women’s Status in India’, NBER Working Paper No. 13305 (Cambridge, MA: The National Bureau of Economic Research, 2007), http://www.nber.org/papers/w13305.

(6) UN Women, Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, 1979, http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/cedaw.

(8) Lori Beaman, Esther Duflo, Rohini Pande, and Petia Topalova ‘Female Leadership Raises Aspirations and Educational Attainment for Girls: A Policy Experiment in India’, Science 335, no. 6068 (2012): pp. 582–6.

(9) ‘What Everyone Should Know about HIV’, http://www.hivaware.org.uk/about/princess-diana.

(10) ‘Nudge Nudge, Think Think: The Use of Behavioural Economics in Public Policy Shows Promise’, The Economist, 24 March 2012, http://www.economist.com/node/21551032.

(11) Leo Benedictus, ‘The Nudge Unit – Has it Worked So Far?’, The Guardian, 2 May 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2013/may/02/nudge-unit-has-it-worked.

(12) Duncan Green, ‘What’s Next for the (Rapidly Growing) Global Disabled People’s Movement?’, From Poverty to Power blog, 27 August 2014, http://oxfamblogs.org/fp2p/whats-next-for-the-rapidly-growing-global-disabled-peoples-movement/.

(13) Duncan Green, ‘How Change Happens: What Can We Learn From the Same-Sex Marriage Movement in the US?’, From Poverty to Power blog, 20 August 2014, http://oxfamblogs.org/fp2p/how-change-happens-what-can-we-learn-from-the-same-sex-marriage-movement-in-the-us/.

(14) Duncan Green, ‘How Change Happens: What Can We Learn From the Same-Sex Marriage Movement in the US?’, From Poverty to Power blog, 20 August 2014, http://oxfamblogs.org/fp2p/how-change-happens-what-can-we-learn-from-the-same-sex-marriage-movement-in-the-us/.

(15) Mala Htun and S Laurel Weldon, ‘The Civic Origins of Progressive Policy Change: Combating Violence against Women in Global Perspective, 1975–2005’, American Political Science Review 106, no. 3 (August 2012): pp. 548–69, http://journals.cambridge.org/repo_A86U0PVC.

(16) Kavita Ramdas, ‘Radical Women, Embracing Tradition’, Transcript, TED website, April 2010, https://www.ted.com/talks/kavita_ramdas_radical_women_embracing_tradition/transcript?language=en.

(17) ‘National Culture’, the Hofstede Centre, http://geert-hofstede.com/national-culture.html.

(18) Wendy Tyndale, Key Issues for Development. A Discussion Paper for the Contribution by the World Faiths Development Dialogue (WFDD) to the World Bank’s World Development Report 2001 (Oxford, World Faiths Development Dialogue, 1998), http://siteresources.worldbank.org/DEVDIALOGUE/Resources/WFDD2001.pdf.

(19) Emma Tomalin, ‘Sociology, Religion and Development: Literature Review’, Working Paper No. 4 (Birmingham: University of Birmingham, 2007), http://epapers.bham.ac.uk/1505/1/Tomalin-_Sociology%2C_Religion_and_Development-_A_Literature_Review.pdf.

(20) Alexandra Pittman and Rabéa Naciri, ‘Winning Women’s Rights in Morocco’, IDS Research Summary, October 2008.

(21) Duncan Green, From Poverty to Power: How Active Citizens and Effective States Can Change the World (Oxford: Oxfam International, 2008), p. 67.

(22) Susan Stewart, ed., Democracy Promotion and the ‘Colour Revolutions’ (online eBook, London: Taylor & Francis, 2013), http://www.tandfebooks.com/doi/book/10.4324/9780203722985.

(23) Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa, African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, http://www.achpr.org/files/instruments/women-protocol/achpr_instr_proto_women_eng.pdf.

(24) This figure underestimates the real number of girls affected, because other countries (e.g. Indonesia) are not included. ‘What is FGC?’ Orchid Project website, http://orchidproject.org/category/about-fgc/what-is-fgc/.

(25) Stella Efua Graham and Scilla MacLean, eds., Female Circumcision, Excision, and Infibulation: The Facts and Proposals for Change (London: Minority Rights Group Report 47, 1980).

(26) Alison Brysk, ‘Changing Hearts and Minds: Sexual Politics and Human Rights’, in The Persistent Power of Human Rights: From Commitment to Compliance, edited by Thomas Risse, Stephen Ropp, and Kathryn Sikkink (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), pp. 259–74.

(27) Gerry Mackie and John LeJeune, ‘Social Dynamics of Abandonment of Harmful Practices: A New Look at the Theory’, Special Series on Social Norms and Harmful Practices, Innocenti Working Paper No. 2009–06 (Florence: UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre, 2009), http://www.unicef-irc.org/publications/pdf/iwp_2009_06.pdf.

(28) Alison Brysk, ‘Changing Hearts and Minds: Sexual Politics and Human Rights’, in The Persistent Power of Human Rights: From Commitment to Compliance, edited by Thomas Risse, Stephen Ropp, and Kathryn Sikkink (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

(29) Richard Pascale, Jerry Sternin, and Monique Sternin, The Power of Positive Deviance: How Unlikely Innovators Solve the World’s Toughest Problems (Boston, MA: Harvard Business Press, 2010).

(30) Alison Brysk, ‘Changing Hearts and Minds: Sexual Politics and Human Rights’, in The Persistent Power of Human Rights: From Commitment to Compliance, edited by Thomas Risse, Stephen Ropp, and Kathryn Sikkink (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

(31) Jimmy Akin, ‘Pope Francis’s Environmental Encyclical: 13 Things to Know and Share’, Catholic Answers website, 18 June 2015, http://www.catholic.com/blog/jimmy-akin/pope-francis%E2%80%99s-environmental-encyclical-13-things-to-know-and-share.

(32) The Economist, ‘Islam and ecology: In almost perfect harmony’, http://www.economist.com/blogs/erasmus/2015/08/islam-and-ecology.