Working with Social Norms to Achieve Systems Change

Maybe the most important lesson to emerge from the application of systems lenses on complex market system challenges is the importance of social norms on decision making. This blog explores one team’s experience with their own learning journey around social norms. Of particular importance is how the team leaned into the complexity of social norms to gain critical insights into how housing investment decisions are being influenced. From those insights they were able to develop an innovative pilot that leverages social norms to catalyze changes that are expected to result in improved housing outcomes. Join the Market System Symposium to hear more about the learnings from this exciting case.


In Peru – like much of the world – housing is a process, not a purchase. For low-income families, the process of building or upgrading a home can often take decades. With this protracted timeline, families’ decisions – about the design, who to hire, where to cut costs, etc. – have a significant impact on the quality and resilience of the home. Social norms, and the social networks through which information and influence flows, are often major determinants of these decisions.

Habitat for Humanity’s Terwilliger Center for Innovation in Shelter applies market systems development approaches to the challenge of ensuring affordable and quality housing for the base of the pyramid, working with the private sector to pilot new products and solutions. But we also recognize that understanding and documenting the social norms around owner-driven construction is key to designing more effective interventions. As the Terwilliger Center developed our housing market systems program in Peru, we intuited as hunches or assumptions a variety of social norms, but also understood that formally documenting these and understanding their strength and prevalence would allow us to design a more effective market systems development program.

Analyzing social norms and social networks appears a daunting task at first, but one that the Terwilliger Center’s team in Peru was eager to take on to better understand their local market. They worked with MarketShare Associates, using two of their tried-and-true tools to simplify this analysis and provide actionable findings: a value network analysis and a social network analysis and mapping process.

The value network analysis (see Figure 1) functions as a lite-version of a much heavier (and more expensive) social network analysis. It was ideal for a program team looking to map the connections between various social actors and households as they try to access information about construction materials, services, and practices.

The social norms mapping process identified social norms (see Figure 2) – the informal rules governing “normal” behavior – and mapped them according to three criteria: 1) prevalence, 2) strength, and 3) relevance. Prevalence refers to the extent to which a norm is present and common across a given group, while strength is the extent to which a social norm influences behavior and sanctions against breaking a given norm. Relevance, the third criteria, was how much the norm hinders specific programming or behavioral change objectives that the Peru team pre-identified.

Our social network analysis of the housing construction sector showed that households had a limited number of influencers. Outside of family and friends, the study found that masons had the strongest influence on household construction decisions. These results pointed to an opportunity to influence household decision making and promote improved construction practices by influencing masons.

How then to influence masons and promote better construction practices? Governments and nonprofits often seek to improve access to formal training to promote professional behaviors with a social good – in this case improved construction practices and material choices amongst masons. But, as figure two shows, the norms analysis found that social recognition is more important to both households and masons than formal training and credentials. Moreover, this norm had both the highest strength and highest prevenance, indicating that access to formal training was unlikely to result in any behavior change.

As one mason made clear: “Training only helps you when you are employed in big companies and not for family housing.”

These norms developed, and persist, in part because households use word-of-mouth referral systems to find a socially recognized mason to build their home. But the system does not guarantee a mason who will build to the highest standards of durability and quality. In other words, social recognition is divorced from the actual quality of the mason.

But what if we could somehow tie social recognition to quality?

From this hypothetical, Guardian Constructor (“Trusted Builder” in English) was born. The Terwilliger Center and our partners in Peru vet mason’s and recognize them as a Guardian Constructor for their work. With this branded designation, developers and financial institutions providing housing credits can confer social recognition on highly skilled masons.

At the same time, it prototypes a new way of building capacity, as developers hire architects and engineers to provide additional support to the masons – specialized on the job training that aligns with existing norms. A Guardian Constructor, in tandem with these technical partners, provide design, titling, and other critical – yet often missing – services to low-income households, while offering reassurances to financial partners about the quality of their investment.

Currently the team is in the prototype and field-testing stage of this intervention, working with an urban developer, two construction technical service providers, and six financial intermediaries. Longer term, the team also hopes to incorporate Guardian Constructor into the Peruvian government’s housing subsidy program.

The Terwilliger Center recognizes that in many countries, including Peru, solving the affordable housing crisis is as much about addressing the “soft challenges” of existing norms as it is the “hard challenges” of technology and construction. And while most norms present as immoveable challenges, finding ways to work around or with them – like amplifying social recognition for masons who apply sound construction practices – is a way to use them as leverage for larger-scale systems change.

Sheldon Yoder is a Sr. Technical Adviser for Applied Innovation at Habitat for Humanity’s Terwilliger Center for Innovation in Shelter