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Anti-corruption through a social norms lens

A social norms approach can help practitioners design effective anti-corruption reforms. Social norms in communities, families, and organisations help explain why corruption persists. The threat of social sanctions for norm violations creates pressures on officials and citizens to sustain corrupt practices. Practitioners can use various methods to diagnose normative pressures in a given context, then use social norms strategies to relieve these pressures so that collective behaviour can change.

15 October 2018
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Anti-corruption through a social norms lens

Main points

  • Collective behaviours like corruption are sustained by social norms, which are rooted in shared attitudes and beliefs. Understanding social normative pressures in a given context can help practitioners design interventions to relieve those pressures, allowing collective behaviour to change.
  • Four main types of social normative pressures help explain why corruption persists, and why standard anti-corruption initiatives often fail: sociability and kinship pressures, as well as horizontal and vertical pressures within organisations.
  • A stepwise process to diagnose social normative pressures can use tools such as a literature review, interviews, focus groups, vignettes, and others. Often the best choice is a combination of methods.
  • After recognising which normative forces sustain a given corrupt practice, practitioners should tailor their anti-corruption intervention accordingly. Sample strategies are presented for addressing each of the four main types of pressure, with suggestions for one or more methods to support each strategy.
  • Strategies should be deployed within specific contexts where there can be intensive engagement, such as within a community or sector. A locally grounded, locally led intervention is more likely to succeed and less likely to have unintended side effects.

Cite this publication

Jackson, D. ; Köbis, N. (2018) Bergen: U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Centre, Chr. Michelsen Institute (U4 Issue 2018:7)

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About the authors

Dr. David Jackson leads U4’s thematic work on informal contexts of corruption. His research explores how an understanding of social norms, patron-client politics, and nonstate actors can lead to anti-corruption interventions that are better suited to context. He is the author of various book chapters and journal articles on governance issues and holds degrees from Oxford University, the Hertie School of Governance, and the Freie Universität Berlin.

Nils Köbis

Dr. Nils Köbis is a Post-Doctoral researcher at the Faculty of Economics and Business and a member of the Center for Experimental Economics and political Decision-making (CREED) at the University of Amsterdam. Nils wrote his dissertation on Social Psychology of Corruption and his current work deals with the behavioural elements of corruption, corruption in the education sector, and meta-analysing bribery games.


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This work is licenced under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International licence (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)


Mario Purisic