In a 2014 paper titled Norms, Conventions, and the Power of Expectations, Dr. Cristina Bicchieri opens with a question: “What is the difference between a chair and a social norm?”
Norms, she proceeds to explain, are “social constructs, like tables and chairs” – except norms require “collective beliefs” to exist, unlike furniture, which exist whether or not we believe in them. While a social norm can certainly be positive, the power that norms have within communities is what makes them even more dangerous when a group collectively perpetuates harmful practices. And unlike tables and chairs, norms are not so simple to break.
Understanding and measuring norms and how they can be changed is a major focus of Dr. Bicchieri’s research. It is also the goal of her new two-part MOOC, Social Norms, Social Change, which has just launched on Coursera through an exciting partnership between the University of Pennsylvania and UNICEF.
As the S. J. Patterson Harvie Professor of Social Thought and Comparative Ethics at Penn, Dr. Bicchieri teaches Philosophy, Psychology and Legal Studies and has recently founded a social norms consulting group at the university. She has additionally been involved in a wide range of important social projects. For the past 5 years, Dr. Bicchieri has helped train UNICEF workers on how to best implement lasting, positive change in societies where harmful practices like child marriage, gender violence and poor sanitation are commonplace. The new Coursera MOOC will replace that training program.
Outside of Penn, UNICEF, and interested learners, “Social Norms, Social Change” will be used by international groups like World Bank and CARE, and a plethora of NGOs as well. Dr. Bichierri is adamant about showing learners interviews she has conducted with international practitioners, including the UNICEF Chief of Child Protection in India and UNICEF Chief of Sanitation in Ghana – professionals who are not only leaders, but also workers with a deep understanding of their respective fields.
In an interview with OLI, Dr. Bicchieri explained that she has developed very specific standards for training and consulting on social norms – how to measure them, whether they exist or not where they’re practiced – all over the world. “I am the only one who [has developed this],” she said. “That’s why [our programs] have flourished.” From the original UNICEF training program, she exported her basic methodology, which includes lectures, a variety of examples, and testimonies from UNICEF people who have worked in the field. The MOOC will allow Dr. Bicchieri to train potential workers much faster and more precisely in her unique approach.
“You can say that Penn is [at the] forefront [of] social norm modelling and measurement and consulting,” Dr. Bichierri said. “We want to change these bad practices, and we want to understand what sort of intervention we have to do.”
In the future, Dr. Bicchieri hopes to launch a series of smaller MOOCs focusing on specific social norms topics. Before that, however, learners can look forward to a globally immersive experience in Social Norms, Social Change.
By Gloria Yuen