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October 1, 2023


‘Normalization of Deviance’ refers to the situation where people become so used to operating in a system where what’s wrong and improper becomes the normal way of behaviour

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The ‘Normalization Of Deviance’ In Kenya – Kenya Forum Archive

The ‘Normalization Of Deviance’ In Kenya – Kenya Forum Archive

Professor Diane Vaughan

It’s an ugly term but the ‘Normalization of Deviance’ is an apt description for many aspects of the way we live in Kenya and a confronting theory that all of us should consider.

In part at least, the ‘Normalization of Deviance’ is a factor in everything from high level and widespread corruption, to bad driving, poorly constructed blocks of flats, bent police officers and much else besides.

And don’t just blame the other guy – most of us are involved in it.


Coined by an American, Diane Vaughan, a Professor of Sociology at Columbia University, the term the ‘Normalization of Deviance’ refers to the situation where people become so used to operating in a system where what’s wrong and improper becomes the normal way of behaviour such that in the eyes of those involved it becomes accepted, the right and the usual way of doing things.

Prof. Vaughan defined the ‘normalization of deviance succinctly’: “Social normalization of deviance means that people within the organization become so accustomed to deviant behaviour that they don’t consider it deviant”

I would add to that definition that it’s not just people within an ‘organization’, it’s many of us, most of us indeed in Kenyan society, and yes, I include myself as being one of the ‘many’.


There is possibly no clearer example of the ‘normalization of deviancy’ than the current saga of the alleged massive fraudulent behaviour involved in the National Youth Service (NYS) scandal.

IF, and I stress ‘IF’ because everyone is or should be innocent until proved guilty, but if many of the some 60-plus people now arraigned or arrested in the on-going investigation into the fraudulent expenditure of Sh9 billion by the NYS were involved it means that senior officials, managers, accountants, auditors, ‘suppliers’ and banks were all to a greater or lesser extent, involved with, or had some knowledge of a massive fraud.

If the allegations turn out to be true the NYS scandal was not just one crooked purchaser getting together with one bent supplier, it was widespread and undertaken with knowledge aforethought by many people in the organization, in short, the ‘Normalization of deviancy’ in the NYS.


One of the problems where the deviant becomes the norm is that rules and regulations can only combat it up to a point.

The Kenya Bureau of Standards has announced that from 2021 all construction firms will have to adhere to the European Codes relating to building standards. Out will go the old British building codes in use in Kenya for the last 49 years.

So all will be well then? No more regular news stories of blocks of flats collapsing? No more properties built without proper access to water? No more site workers falling to their deaths because they weren’t issued with a safety harness? Well the answer to those questions, as things stand, is “no”

No set of regulations, British, European or Kenyan are without flaws but if the man from the Ministry, or the local County office is prepared to turn a blind eye to building irregularities, or take “something small” to overlook them, if that is the deviant norm then the regulations will not work.


Today it is reported in the newspapers that the Auditor General is investigating the National Irrigation Board over the some Sh20 billion of expenditure for the year 2015-16 that cannot as yet be accounted for. Only the ‘Normalization of Deviance’ within the organization can account for the possible disappearance of Sh20 billion in one year!


And it’s not just the ‘big men’, or the big organizations that stand accused, it’s most of us.

A young woman I know was raped and bore a child as a result. She was (unusually) ultimately successful in bringing the rapist to justice but at every stage of the court proceedings, she told me, she had to pay a bribe for the case and it’s relevant files to move to the next stage.


And how many times have you read or heard that there would be fewer fatal motor accidents in Kenya, “if only there weren’t so many holes in the road”. Maybe so (although one could argue that more accidents would happen at a higher speed) but there would also be far fewer ‘accidents’ if drivers didn’t overtake on the brow of a hill crossing the yellow line, or overtook on the pavement, or drove the wrong way around a roundabout, or jumped a red light. In Kenya, deviant driving is the norm.


And I repeat, I’m not just blaming ‘them’ or you’: I am involved.

A couple of years ago I was in a car containing five people, all of us parents on the way to watching our children taking part in a sports competition. Just outside Naivasha we were pulled up by the police for speeding, as were many other people. We weren’t speeding and the police had no speed gun but that didn’t matter. In prospect, at the very least, was a wasted day sitting outside a dusty and dirty police station. One of the five knew a local farmer. The local farmer knew the local police chief. The local police chief made a phone call. The payment of a Sh9,000 ‘fine’ (no receipt) and we were on our way.

Late one night, taking my mother-in-law to the airport, battling through the traffic, concerned that we would miss the flight, the police pulled me up on the Ngong Road. This time there wasn’t even an attempt to claim that I had in any way infringed the law. The officer just leaned into the passenger seat window and said, “Christmas is coming”. Sh500 and we were on our way, it was much cheaper than missing the flight.


Among the police we know that the deviant is the norm but as Koigi Wa Wamwere writes in today’s Star newspaper we are hardly being serious about the so-called “war on graft” so long as ‘traffic officers are collecting bribes in daylight without fear or shame’.

Prof. Diane Vaughan suggested that a solution to the ‘Normalization of Deviance’ is better education, being clear about standards, rewarding whistle blowers and greater transparency.

Vaughan is right but again only up to a point. What deters deviant behaviour is the fear of being caught and the penalty that may result. But how can we achieve that when we are all involved?

This article first appeared in the Kenya Forum on 2nd June, 2018


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