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24 Mar, 2024

The Chicken-and-Egg Dilemma: Social Norms and Social Structures

Author: Dr. Shambhavi Sharma; Public health researcher (BDS, MPH) & Research Officer – SRHR at PCI India

In the midst of ongoing discussions surrounding social norms, many find themselves entangled in a web of questions. Are we referring to descriptive or injunctive norms? How do we measure them? Is it about individual agency or the intention to exercise agency within existing frameworks and societal structures? What about the cultural lens shaping qualitative measurement tools? Within this maze of considerations, one may wonder:

Where do we even begin?

For instance, can we objectively scale and measure the existing range of say, patriarchy? Can someone be “less patriarchal” or “more patriarchal”? What does it mean to be “somewhat” or “sometimes” patriarchal? What’s the transferability of this alleged patriarchy scale?

As we contemplate the feasibility of quantifying patriarchy, or intersectionality in the South Asian diaspora, or gender norms, or fertility norms; we uncover a deeper truth: Norms don’t exist in isolation.

They reside within the virtual fabric of structures and systems, which become tangible through participatory individual actions. When we situate these norms within existing programs, whether it’s the WASH initiative, SRHR, livelihood endeavors, or sustainability and environmental health efforts, we observe that the same individuals operate within these structures. However, these structures are also alive. They aren’t rigid, and the norms encountered within these structures are far from unidirectional. By unveiling the dual nature of structures, we understand how rules, laws, and norms shape behaviour as much as the actions of individuals who uphold, reshape, and reconstruct them (Giddens, 1999).

This perspective assigns interpretive responsibility to the individual while acknowledging the perpetual influence of culture. The tendencies of individual actions, whether in compliance with or deviance from cultural norms (Zaidi et al., 2016), often converge and collectively reshape and construct culture, giving rise to meta norms that shape and co-create social structures.

Consider a scenario where an individual intends to ride a bicycle to work, having the agency to make this healthy and eco-friendly choice. Yet, this agency is curtailed by the absence of designated cycle paths enroute. Additionally, the apprehension of being perceived as an outlier in a new workplace may discourage the individual from pursuing this option. Despite recognizing biking as a positive behaviour, the individual faces a dilemma: conform to the perceived norm or embrace the risk of being different. This might lead most to choose the path of least resistance and ultimately abandon the idea.

This contrast between affirmative action and the potential negative perception illustrates how societal structures and personal agency interact, often leading individuals to negotiate with themselves– perhaps biking to work sporadically or not at all, to avoid contesting the norm (Heilman & Herlihy, 1984). Then again, if they stumble upon a like-minded individual, it could reignite their initial intent.

Whichever scenario is exercised, this brings us to a critical realization: the reciprocal nature and relationship of norms with societal structures. Whether individuals deliberate within themselves or find in new agents to be empowered, the dynamic interplay between individual agency and societal expectations is undeniable. This cycle of norms and structures—vicious in its interdependence and symbiosis—demonstrates the complexity of enacting change.

To attempt to navigate this cycle, I contend that hope is indispensable. Serving as a catalyst for breakthroughs, hope encourages individuals to challenge norms and inspires collective efforts to remodel societal structures. In essence, initiating change with hope at its core is imperative. It represents the most poignant starting point, fostering the belief that both individual actions and structural reforms can lead to visible, meaningful outcomes.

[Author’s Note: The author’s sense of hope is derived from the concept of “applied hope” by Amory Lovins- “..but in the pragmatic and grounded conviction that starting with hope and acting out of hope can cultivate a different kind of world worth being hopeful about, reinforcing itself in a virtuous spiral. Applied hope is not about some vague, far-off future but is expressed and created moment by moment through our choices.”]


Giddens, A. (1999). Elements of the theory of structuration. The Blackwell reader. Contemporary social theory, 119-130.

Heilman, M. E., & Herlihy, J. M. (1984). Affirmative action, negative reaction? Some moderating conditions. Organizational Behavior and Human Performance33(2), 204-213.

Sax, J. L., & Lovins, A. B. (2007) Blue Planet Prize.

Zaidi, A. U., Couture-Carron, A., & Maticka-Tyndale, E. (2016). ‘Should I or Should I Not’?: an exploration of South Asian youth’s resistance to cultural deviancy. International Journal of Adolescence and Youth21(2), 232-251.


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Centre for Social and Behaviour Change (CSBC), Ashoka University

The Centre for Social and Behaviour Change is a leading Indian institution that drives behavioural change measures for people and communities in need.

Project Concern International (PCI), India

Project Concern International, India has been working since 1998 to co-create and scale sustainable solutions to complex development problems rooted in community realities .

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