Changing Social Norms: Combating Open Defecation in India




S. J. Patterson Harvie Professor of Social Thought and Comparative Ethics

Project Summary

I was a summer research assistant for the Penn Social Norms Group, a research team partnered with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The project I worked on was entitled “Changing social norms: Combating open defecation in India”. The goal of this research was to determine the societal factors that contribute to the unnaturally high prevalence of open defecation and poor hygiene in India. Some of these factors include the caste system persisting in the country, poverty crippling the ability to afford toilets, and social norms reinforcing open defecation as a “pure practice.”


My work specifically entailed researching past interventions conducted by various non-governmental organizations and the Indian government to combat open defecation. Investigating patterns amongst the successes and failures of different programs to improve sanitation in India will enable the Gates Foundation to better implement successful interventions against open defecation in the future. I read a fair deal of literature about the topic and gave presentations to advisors about previous interventions and social networks in India as part of the consulting aspect of the project. Furthermore, I helped organize the thousands of grey and peer-reviewed literature about open defecation in India to make it easier to write a literature review about past interventions, which was the end goal of my involvement in the project.


I learned a great deal from my summer research experience, as I never conducted research in a serious academic setting. Understanding the formal processes of humanities research through database searching and reference citing was an invaluable skill. Furthermore, I learned a lot about international public health from my co-workers and the problems that persist in my ancestral country, which was very personally fulfilling. As a student hoping to go into public health or health care management, it was interesting to participate in a hands-on project in the field. I know that this research experience will contribute immensely in my future academic studies at Penn to improve public health in various contexts. Furthermore, my ability to write academic papers and conduct formal research improved drastically through this experience, so I feel better equipped to take on research papers and research in courses during the school year.


I would like to thank CURF, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and my advisors Cristina Bicchieri & Peter McNally in particular for making this experience possible!