NormingSetting rules of behaviour and communicating about them

Norms are rules of behaviour that are recognised and respected by the community. They may take the form of laws or social norms. They can be created and enforced by justice system actors as well as authority figures in schools, workplaces, or religious and other communities. Norms may also be generated bottom-up, as a function of what people do in practice.

Why is this a fundamental dispute resolution practice?

Setting pro-social norms and communicating about them can influence people’s behaviour and prevent legal problems from arising. Compliance with norms results from (formal or informal) monitoring and enforcement. In some cases, norms are internalised, meaning that they influence human behaviour even in the absence of external sanctions. Once established, norms can help to facilitate decision-making and avoid the tensions and stress of personal responsibility.

What are the active ingredients of norming?

Clear communication about and enforcement of rules of behaviour in a given community.

A widely held association between legal consequences or negative emotions (i.e. embarrassment, anxiety, guilt, or shame) and the prospect of norm violation.

What are people actually doing to make this happen?

Community members
Community members are generating social norms by engaging in patterns of imitative behaviour that form the foundation of cooperative relationships. They are also helping to sustain and enforce those norms by collectively approving or disapproving of behaviour in their community.
Community members
Mediators and judges
Mediators and judges ​are regulating both legal and social norms and making (or facilitating) dispute resolution decisions on the basis of those norms. They are then following up to ensure that those decisions are respected and/or enforced. This can be achieved through legal or non-legal sanctions.
Mediators and judges
Justice leaders
Justice leaders are ensuring that the law is used to enhance good social norms and undermine bad ones. They are also monitoring formal and informal justice systems to ensure that norms are applied fairly.
Justice leaders
Innovators are helping people to understand existing norms and challenging those that are in conflict with human rights. They may for example develop a legal chatbot or one-stop-shop dispute resolution platform that helps people understand which laws apply to their situation. They may also design media campaigns that gradually change community attitudes about domestic violence or child sexual abuse. Innovators can also support norm development by creating community mediation or restorative justice centers that enable people to design and implement their own justice norms.
More about Uganda

What indicators can be used to monitor this practice?

Patterns of behaviour
Legal and non-legal sanctions
Rule of law

What makes norming difficult?

Behavioural barriers

The complexity of legal language and the inaccessibility of most courts and legal texts mean that legal norms in particular are not always well understood. This may result in unintentional violations of the law – particularly when legal norms are not compatible with local practice and social norms.

Decision-makers may also be reluctant to apply norms in a fair and consistent way because they stand to benefit personally from making decisions on a more subjective basis. This may result in unfair dispute resolution outcomes for the individuals under their authority. 

Cost barriers

In tight-knit communities, people tend to observe social norms instead of the law because the former have lower transaction costs and are typically as effective as promoting cooperative behavior.

More Resources

  1. Robert Ellickson, Order Without Law: How Neighbors Settle Disputes (1994)
  2. Lisa Blomgren Amsler, The Evolution of Social Norms In Conflict Resolution, Journal of Natural Resources Policy Research (2014)
  3. Jon Elster, Social Norms and Economic Theory, Journal of Economic Perspectives (1989)
  4. Jon Elster, Rationality and Social Norms, Logic, Philosophy, and Methodology of Science (1989)
  5. Eric Posner, Law and Social Norms (2002)