“Philosophy isn’t useful for changing the world,” parents of philosophy students and Karl Marx tell us (at least about non-Marxist philosophy). Cristina Bicchieri’s new book Norms in the Wild provides an impressive antidote against this worry. It stands to change of social practices as Che Guevara’s Guerrilla Warfare stands to political revolutions. Bicchieri combines hands-on advice on how to change social practices with compelling theoretical analyses of social norms. She draws heavily on her influential earlier work on norms, but the book doesn’t presuppose familiarity with it. Many of her examples stem from her work with UNICEF and other NGOs; they include female genital cutting, open defecation, child marriage, and many more. I cannot do full justice to Bicchieri’s rich book here, but will instead focus on three points.
1. Bicchieri offers a detailed and helpful botanization of collective behavior. Purely behavioral definitions of the relevant categories are inadequate. We must look at preferences and beliefs in order to know, e.g., whether something is a social norm.
2. Intentionally changing social norms is a complex process that requires several steps and extensive diagnostics. Simple information campaigns or provision of resources are unlikely to be successful.
3. Trendsetters and scripts often play a crucial role in norm change. Any approach that doesn’t look at psychological mechanisms and variables that are unevenly distributed across the population is inadequate.