Shifting norms, or just talking about doing so?

A good blog post should start with a hook; some catchy, identifiable single incident, used to spark a wider discussion. To individualize in that way can be vital. But this is not a post about a single story. Rather, it is a post about groups, scale, mass and humanity at large.

The World Health Organisation estimates that 35% of women experience sexual or other violence over the course of their lives. In many, many countries, the proportion is much higher. Each of those is a life affected, an individual harmed, but the statistic itself should be horrifying.

It is also the case that while each of those attacks is perpetrated by an individual, groups and societies are an essential part of the reason this keeps happening. It is social norms that sustain individual attackers, that provide them with the justification for their crimes and that fail to provide social and legal sanctions against them.

What is the contribution of new media here? Countless campaigns have been run online to set new norms in this area. Last year, UN Women invited supporters to #orangetheworld, as part of its 16 Days of Activism campaign. The American Association of University Women went all in as part of the same campaign, encouraging readers to change Facebook profile pictures, follow the Twitter account, share a poster on Facebook, write a blog, upload pictures to Flickr, tweet themselves, and watch and share videos. The Contexts blog has compiled a now-dated, but still useful list of feminist hashtags. These are without doubt good things to do, and in some small way they surely help to advance their campaigns. #HeForShe and #BringBackOurGirls surely sparked discussions and redirected attention (see also Chiluwa & Ifukor, 2015).

Yet the development mainstream remains unconvinced. A useful new DfID report examines social norms around violence against women and girls, and efforts to shift them. In particular, it highlights a number of campaigns, using different media, deployed by activists on the topic. Among them are famously effective efforts such as Soul City, the GREAT campaign, Bell Bajao and others. These campaigns use physical actions, training, radio soap operas, booklets and almost every medium bar new ones. The report never mentions Facebook, nor Twitter, offering only the skeptical judgment, “Social media and mobile technologies are other obvious ways to reach large numbers of people and prompt debate, but there is a dearth of studies examining the impact on social norms.” The need to evaluate properly, and for social media to be no more than an element in wider campaigns that foreground the right voices and address the right audiences, is a point made eloquently by a range of scholars, including Laura Seay (in Taub, 2012) and more pugilistically by Evgeny Morozov (2013). As this blog has argued before, the principal focus remains, and should remain, face-to-face efforts – at least until new media advocates can more convincingly demonstrate the effectiveness of their campaigns.



Bonus: There is much else of use in the DfID report, including sensible breakdowns of how to measure social norms. For more on the often-overlooked topic of pinning down precisely what a social norm is, and why it is more than a commonly held belief, Betsy Paluck’s work is essential: 2009, 2016.


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  2. Emma Söderström

    Most often, talking about doing so.. unfortunately.

    Shifting social norms usually means challenging them, and for example He for She has received quite a lot of criticism for upholding norms for masculinity (Men rescuing/helping/standing up for women is already a very established social norm) rather than challenging/dismantling masculinity.

    I think your comments are very relevant, since all communication can both enforce and challenge norms and social media efforts need to be grounded in research about men’s sexual violence against women to really make a difference. The same goes for face-to-face efforts. The analytical background is more important than the medium.

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