July 19, 2019 | 8:56 am | Jeffrey "Bart" Bingenheimer, PhD, MPH

The Learning Collaborative to Advance Normative Change is a network of experts committed to facilitating collaboration between organizations and individuals working on adolescent and youth norms-shifting interventions. Members are working collectively to build knowledge and tools to promote and guide effective social norm theory, measurement, and practice. To this end, we have developed a series of blogs to clarify some of the key concepts in social norms work.

In our previous blog, we discussed the use of qualitative vignettes for social norms measurement. In this, our ninth blog of the series, we take a look back on the Learning Collaborative’s special supplement in the Journal of Adolescent Health, “Advancing Social Norms Practice for Adolescent and Youth Sexual and Reproductive Health: The Why and the How.”

 

The recent Learning Collaborative special supplement to the Journal of Adolescent Health, “Advancing Social Norms Practice for Adolescent and Youth Sexual and Reproductive Health: The Why and the How”  includes five empirical papers, one review article, and four commentaries. As the supplement’s guest editor, it fell to me to write an editorial that somehow synthesized these ten varied papers. The common theme I settled on, which became the title of the editorial, was “Veering from the Narrow Path.” In this blog, I revisit the “narrow path” and what it means for the field of social norms to veer away from it.

 

What is the “narrow path”?

Since the 1990s, one of the most prominent approaches to social norms arose in the fields of social psychology and communication studies. At the risk of oversimplifying, this approach works as follows: Individuals are more likely to do “behavior X” to the extent that they believe that others in their reference group do X (or perceived descriptive norms) and/or that others in their reference group approve of people doing X (or perceived injunctive norms).  There’s plenty of scientific evidence to support these propositions. One advantage of this approach is that it lends itself to empirical research; another is that it leads naturally to interventions that use communications to influence people’s perceptions of how widespread or widely approved a behavior is. The approach has been used with mixed results on a wide range of behaviors and settings, from binge drinking among college undergraduates to electricity use by household residents.

Yet this social psychology/communications approach has limitations, two of which are particularly important here. First, the approach is narrow in that it deals with one behavior at a time, ignoring the reality that many behaviors (including those related to adolescent and youth sexual and reproductive health) are closely related. It can be misleading to study condom use without also considering sexual activity across a diverse set of partnerships. Second, in attempting to isolate a given behavior from a complex set of interrelated behaviors, the approach tends to ignore other aspects of social context. For one thing, it may be useful to think of descriptive and injunctive norms as both individual perceptions that exist within an individual’s mind as well as informal rules that exist within groups. For another, these informal rules can be deeply embedded within larger social systems of institutionalized roles, relationships between roles, and social power.

 

If not the “narrow path”, what is the path forward?

All of the papers that appeared in the special supplement departed in one way or another from this narrow approach. Some did so by measuring norms at a collective level rather than as individual level perceptions. Others did so by examining how norms that are explicitly about a given behavior may influence not only that behavior but also other related behaviors. Some of the commentaries also sought to place social norms within a larger social context, including gender dynamics, institutions, and power, and arguing that in some instances structural change may be a prerequisite for changes in social norms.

This departure from the “narrow path” is a useful and important development in the field, but there is a risk that the advantages of this approach from social psychology and communication studies will be lost, including significant strides made in measuring and studying the impact of interventions on social norms. Maintaining scientific rigor while moving to a broader approach to social norms will require effort from all members of the social norms research and implementation community.

 

This is a very exciting time to be part of the community of scholars and practitioners studying social norms related to a wide range of behaviors, populations, and settings. It was my pleasure and privilege to serve as guest editor for the Learning Collaborative’s special supplement to the Journal of Adolescent Health, and look forward to continuing to observe and, hopefully, contribute to the processes by which our understanding of these phenomena and our thinking about how most effectively to intervene become deeper, more sophisticated, and always based on sound science. To join the Learning Collaborative, please contact Cait Davin (cait.davin@georgetown.edu).

 

Jeffrey “Bart” Bingenheimer, PhD, MPH, is a Professor in the Department of Prevention and Community Health at George Washington University. An expert in the social determinants of health-related behavior, social epidemiology, and the quantitative methods for studying both, his current research focuses on the influences of gendered family, peer group, and community contexts of behavioral risk factors for HIV, STIs, and pregnancy among adolescents and young adults in Ghana.

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