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This post is part of a learning series exploring good practice, examples, or new applications of MSD.

The bottom half of the donut, full of formal policies, difficult to change regulations and entrenched ideas about human behaviour never gets as much attention as the top half. Most market system analyses include some recognition of the beloved ‘enabling environment’ but rarely do they include the ‘other enabling environment’ of informal rules and norms. Those unspoken, sometimes even unrecognised, but nonetheless critical beliefs shape all sorts of outcomes. We think it’s time to change that, so to get you started, here’s a brief primer on diagnosing, intervening, and measuring informal norms in market systems development programmes.

Diagnosis: definitions + depth

‘Informal norms’ is a useful umbrella category, but to actually learn anything about these norms, we need to more clearly define what we’re talking about. There’s a difference between a norm such as the ‘tendency to drive rather than use public transport’ and a norm like the ‘tendency for women to do more housework than men’. Most of us would pretty quickly use public transport rather than drive if there were good enough incentives to do so. See: London. But arguably there have been incentives for men to do more housework for literal decades and the trends have not shifted much, at least in the UK.[1] In other words, some informal norms are much more deeply embedded, and much more rooted in people’s sense of identity, history, belonging, morality, values, and wellbeing than others. Of course, we often don’t know how ‘deep’ an informal norm goes, but asking the question is important.

The more ‘deeply’ embedded an informal norm is, the harder it is to understand it, especially in the relatively short time frame of a sector selection study or even a multi-week market system analysis. You can likely understand what the norm is, in that timeframe, but not why it drives behaviour – the values and history shaping that norm – or how changing that norm might impact on the rest of the system. Most of us don’t even ‘see’ or understand the informal norms driving our own behaviour![2]

But fear not, intrepid askers-of-’why?’: there are three things an MSD professional can do during their diagnostic process to improve their understanding of informal norms:

  • Talk to academic experts: There is an entire discipline that has been developing ways to understand ‘informal norms’ for over a century – I’m biased here, but yes, it’s anthropology – and that’s before we even mention sociology and history. Reading ethnographies and interviewing anthropologists and other scholars of the relevant region wherever possible is probably the easiest way to understand informal norms better. After all, these experts will have been trained in understanding and identifying informal norms – no easy task – and will have had to put in years of research.

A special note for those of you working in regions that you’re not indigenous to – be careful not to limit your academic interviewees to foreigners, or to scholars from universities whose names you recognise. Indigenous anthropologists, sociologists and historians will probably have the richest insights to offer.

  • Talk to members of the target group in your team: having people on the team who are either from the target group or have had life experiences sufficiently close to the target group to be able to genuinely understand the norm in question, can be a real asset. These individuals can help the rest of the team dig deeper, reframe questions, refrain from jumping conclusions too quickly and challenge misconceptions. In these conversations, try to encourage individuals to share reflections on real experiences, observations and stories instead of just asserting norms in a generalised form, as this helps mitigate the temptation to simply reassert stereotypes. Admittedly asking team members to play this role is a big ask – it requires a high level of self-reflection to articulate things that most of us don’t normally notice, yet alone talk about with colleagues. It is important to provide these individuals with support when asking them to play this role – particularly in ensuring that they are listened to, even if other team members don’t fully or immediately understand what is being asserted.
  • Upskill your analysts: providing your analysts with basic training on how to do qualitative research into informal norms can help. When using research to try and understand informal norms it’s important to know how to dig beyond superficial answers, analyse what is actually done as well as what is said, and avoid falling back on preconceptions and stereotypes in analysis. Combining the results of analysis with team members’ own experiences (where relevant) and with secondary research that draws on anthropologists, sociologists and historians’ work can help you triangulate and interpret results.

Intervening: feasibility over philosophy

When thinking about whether and how to intervene to change an informal norm, the first question to ask is whether you’re trying to change a norm because it’s a constraint to your overall programme goal (of increased incomes or employment, for instance) – a means to an end – or because the changed norm is the overall goal – an end in itself.

We’ll come back to ‘informal norms as a means to an end’ in a moment, but both my feasibility and my ‘development as colonialism’ alarms start to go off just thinking about a programme aiming to change norms as an end in itself, unless those norms are fairly superficial. Targeting informal norms involves making a moral/value judgement that the current informal norms are somehow dysfunctional, and then leveraging the power dynamics inherent in (all) development activity to try and change them, usually funded by external and/or political players. Yes, all development is doing that to some extent, but it can be even more of a minefield when you are targeting informal norms. Deeper informal norms, such as gender relations, are tied to and shape multiple aspects of life in ways that aren’t always visible. There are usually unpredictable and unintended effects of changing informal norms, not all of which are good. They are also notoriously difficult to change, often taking a generation or more (like the gender norms around domestic labour in the UK, cited above). The big takeaway here is that sometimes the purpose of understanding an informal norm is not to change it, but to work with or around it in your intervention strategies.

With that reality check out of the way, there may be feasible opportunities to shift or work around a norm that improves another function, or to shift norms that are more superficial. Let’s see how we might approach this:

  • Incentives and capacities: Informal norms shape people’s incentives, but when there is a strong enough incentive to do something counter to that norm, some people will do it. For example, in many contexts, some financial institutions will market their products to women, even if this breaks a norm, if they are convinced that there is evidence of strong enough demand. By working with early adopters, and especially with those players with strong incentives and capacity to break the norm, it’s possible to pilot something new.
  • Socially acceptable stories on popular information channels: If a pilot works well with early adopters, the next step is to consider how this success can be framed in socially acceptable ways. There then needs to be some mechanism for information to spread about those pilot stories – whether through word of mouth, social media, traditional media or formal dissemination through networks. These stories might simply present information about successes, or they might present the new activity differently, changing the narrative and making it seem more attractive. Using this approach, it gradually seems less ‘unthinkable’ to do the new thing, so a few more people try it. The more people that do it, the less entrenched that norm becomes, and the more likely others are to follow, until eventually the norm is not so ‘normal’ after all.

Realistically, most informal norms won’t change drastically during the timeframe of an MSD programme, but if the norm isn’t that deep and there is strong incentive to break it, change becomes more likely.

Measurement: actions speak louder than words, but perceptions can be leading indicators

As with most measurement, monitoring changes to informal norms starts with what you found out from your in-depth research in the diagnosis phase. Once you understand more about the norm you can look for an indicator that reflects that norm. It depends on the norm, but often it’s easier to use actions as a proxy for norms, than perceptions. For example, are more women applying for loan products or are more banks developing marketing which targets women? (Rather than: do more banks perceive women as potential customers.) This is also the more impact-oriented approach, as our interest in values and norms is inherently rooted in how they shape behaviour.

That said, perceptions do tend to change before actions, so monitoring these, for example through perception surveys, media/marketing analysis, qualitative interviewing or focus groups, can provide a leading indicator for changing norms.

Informal norms affect all market systems. Understanding how deeply entrenched they are, and thus the feasibility of shifting them, is a good starting point for more programmes. Intentionally deciding whether interventions should work with them, around them, or try to change them, will help you be more strategic about informal norms in facilitation. Finally, if you do try to change norms, monitor shifting perceptions as a leading indicator of changing norms, but keep an eye on actions to really assess whether an informal norm has changed or not.


[1] See, for example, the recent study by UCL on gender and domestic chores. Though I have to confess, my own household falls squarely into that 7% minority.

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