Learning to Assess Social and Institutional Norms and Networks: Key takeaways from an Agency for All-led workshop in New Delhi

Author: Shikha Rana, Sambodhi Research and Communications Pvt Ltd. | Posted: Dec 2022

To better support future evidence generation, intervention planning, and implementation, the USAID-funded Agency for All Project hosted a three-day workshop, “Assessing Social and Institutional Norms and Networks” in New Delhi in November 2022. Led and organized by consortium partner Sambodhi, the meeting’s purpose was to introduce researchers and implementers from Agency for All partners, Sambodhi, and Centre for Catalyzing Change to the complex, conceptual underpinnings of social norms and networks—and to dip their toes in the vast domains of social norms measurement! The workshop also reviewed the concept of agency, and Agency for All’s goals to better define and measure these concepts in the context of social and behaviour change interventions—specifically, in aiding the development and design of an innovative implementation research project on respectful maternity care in India.

Agency for All’s global technical and research leads—Dr. Holly Baker and Dr. Lotus McDougal (Center on Gender Equity and Health, UCSD), and Dr. Paul Bukuluki (Makerere University)—facilitated discussions and breakout activities during the event.

Workshop participants sharing their breakout activity discussion with the full group.

“This training was very timely,” Dr. Bukuluki reflected. “We know that social and gender norms are key influencers of agency to demand and claim the right for respectful maternal care. Bringing these researchers and implementers together to apply this new knowledge to their own protocols and to measure agency and social norms was exciting to see.”

Workshop participants discussing in a group

With a diverse team based in many locations all over the world, collaborating in person and developing deep trust and rapport can be challenging. “This workshop gave us the first opportunity to interact as one Agency for All team, while wrestling with difficult and nuanced topics salient to our research project,” Dr. Baker shared.

Here are six key takeaways from the workshop:

    1. Social norms are often informal, unspoken, and unwritten rules that are powerful agents in governing the behaviours of a given group. These are complex and refer to group social structures and dynamics, rather than individual attitudes.
    2. Measuring and assessing changes in social norms includes measuring either descriptive norms—what people think others in their communities are doing—OR injunctive norms—what people think others in their communities will expect them to do—OR both. Consider the sanctions people believe they will face for not complying with an injunctive norm or rewards for following them, and reference groups, or the community of people to whom an individual turn for those social normative expectations. In context of health promotion interventions, it is important that the understanding needs to be grounded within sound theoretical understandings of the varying influence of social norms.
    3. Studying social networks (and conducting qualitative social network interviews) is a powerful approach to understanding how interpersonal connection and interactions influence attitudes and behaviors.
    4. Social Network Analysisdone both quantitatively and qualitatively—primarily studies the social context and relationships in which individuals are embedded, the pattern of social interactions, and the extent to which these interactions can influence preferences, adherence or divergence from norms and decision making. While we only lightly touched on this during the workshop, there was a lot of enthusiasm for more detailed training on it.
    5. We’re still working to define and measure agency. Agency sits within the empowerment process, and involves capacity, action, and resistance: CAN (efficacy to engage in action), ACT (behavior aligned with choices/goals), RESIST (continued action in face of opposition). Understanding how to measure these complex social constructs in different people and places is a key piece of what Agency for All partners are collaborating to advance.
    6. Social and behavior change programming needs a greater focus on agency. At this point, we don’t adequately consider how power dynamics influence choice, and we lack an understanding of whether and how increased agency has cross-sector impact. To understand and increase agency, it is important to know how to measure it. Presently, most measures of agency are not widely tested or validated, are biased toward Western conceptualization, and lack ‘gold standard’ assessments.

What’s next?

“Developing a shared understanding of the complex factors that influence women’s experiences during their deliveries—and discussing ways to measure those within their social structures—is critical,” Dr. McDougal shared.

This workshop was foundational for Agency for All’s work in respectful maternity care in India. It also paves the way for a deeper understanding of the contexts within which social norms and social network approaches will be applied across all of our work.

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