Does ‘Identity’ Matter? Expanding Communication Horizons In Saving Lives

Deepak Gupta & Anusha Agarwal 


Identity plays a fundamental role in shaping individual beliefs, attitudes and behaviours within a family, community or society at large. Social norms, attributed as unwritten rules that govern behaviour in a particular group or a defined culture, are deeply intertwined with identity constructs such as ethnicity, gender, sexuality, religion, and socio-economic status. Social scientists, including communication ‘gurus’, invariably explore multifaceted role of identity in addressing social norms and driving behaviour change across various contexts, drawing upon psychological, sociological and anthropological perspectives.

Understanding ‘Identities’ To Address Social Norms

Identity encompasses multiple facets that individuals use to define themselves and establish a sense of belonging within defined social groups. These facets include, but are not limited to, cultural, ethnic, religious, national, gender, sexual orientation and occupational identities. Social norms, on the other hand, represent shared expectations and rules that guide behaviour within a given social context. These norms are often influenced by prevailing cultural values, traditions and power dynamics.

Identity shapes social norms in several ways. Firstly, individuals derive their sense of identity from the groups to which they belong, adopting norms and behaviours that align with their perceived group identity. For example, members of a religious community may adhere to specific dietary restrictions or dress codes as part of their religious identity. Similarly, adherence to gender norms may be influenced by societal expectations associated with masculinity and femininity.

Moreover, social norms can reinforce and perpetuate existing identity constructs, creating a feedback loop wherein adherence to normative behaviours strengthens group cohesion and identity. Non-conformity to these norms may result in social stigma, ostracisation, or even violence, leading individuals to internalise and reinforce normative behaviours as part of their identity.

Behaviour Change & ‘Identity’

Behaviour change interventions often leverage identity-related factors to promote desired outcomes. By appealing to individuals’ sense of identity and belonging, interventions can effectively influence attitudes and behaviours associated with social norms. For instance, campaigns promoting environmental sustainability may emphasise the role of individuals as stewards of the planet, tapping into their identity as environmentally conscious citizens. Furthermore, interventions that align with existing identity constructs are more likely to be accepted and adopted by target audiences. For example, public health campaigns aimed at reducing smoking rates may resonate more with individuals who identify as health-conscious or as role models for their families.

While identity can be a powerful tool for addressing social norms and driving behaviour change, it also presents challenges and ethical considerations. As research reflects, identity-based interventions must be sensitive to the diversity and complexity of individual identities within a given population. Oversimplified or normalised representations of identity may further perpetuate stereotypes and reinforce inequalities. Moreover, interventions that seek to challenge entrenched social norms may face resistance from individuals whose identities are closely tied to those norms. For example, efforts to promote gender equality may be met with opposition from individuals who perceive such changes as a threat to their traditional gender roles and identities.

Identity plays a crucial role in shaping social norms and driving behaviour change within society. By understanding the interplay between identity constructs and social norms, policymakers, practitioners, and researchers can develop more effective interventions that resonate with target audiences and promote positive social change.

However, it is essential to approach identity-based interventions with nuance, sensitivity and a due recognition of the diverse identities and experiences within communities. By harnessing the power of identity, local governments can work towards creating more inclusive, equitable and sustainable societies.

Maternal & Neonatal Health (MNH) – South Asia: Need A More Holistic View Of ‘Addressing Identities’ Issues

Maternal and neonatal health (MNH) remains a critical public health challenge in South Asia, with persistently high rates of maternal mortality (nearly half of global maternal deaths, i.e. a quarter of a million occur in South and South East Asia) and neonatal mortality (22 deaths per 1000 live births, circa 2022). Efforts to improve MNH outcomes often face barriers rooted in social norms and behavioural patterns influenced by identity constructs such as gender, ethnicity, religion, and socioeconomic status. Communication experts constantly examine the role of addressing ‘identity’ in managing social norms and behavioural change for MNH in South Asia. Drawing upon interdisciplinary research and case studies from the region, social campaigners explore the complexities of identity-based factors affecting MNH outcomes and propose strategies for leveraging identity to promote positive change.

Maternal and neonatal health (MNH) is a key indicator of a population’s overall well-being and development. Despite significant progress in recent decades, South Asia continues to experience high rates of maternal and neonatal mortality and morbidity, with disparities persisting along socioeconomic, geographic and identity-based lines. Social norms and behavioural patterns deeply rooted in cultural, religious and gender identities contribute to these disparities, posing challenges to efforts aimed at improving MNH outcomes.

Identity constructs such as gender, sexuality, ethnicity, religion and socio-economic status influence access to healthcare, decision-making processes and health-seeking behaviours related to MNH in South Asia. Patriarchal norms, for example, often dictate women’s roles and autonomy within the household, impacting their ability to access prenatal care, skilled birth attendance, and postnatal services. Similarly, cultural beliefs and practices surrounding childbirth and neonatal care may vary based on religious or ethnic identities, affecting the utilisation of essential MNH services.

Studying Identity For MNH Interventions

Understanding the interplay between identity and MNH outcomes is crucial for designing effective interventions that address the underlying social determinants of health. Qualitative research methods such as ethnographic studies, participatory action research and gender analyses can provide insights into the diverse identities and experiences shaping MNH behaviours and decision-making processes in South Asia. These studies can very well highlight the importance of context-specific approaches that recognise the heterogeneity of identity within communities.

Addressing Identity For Behavioural Change

Interventions aimed at improving MNH outcomes must engage with identity-based factors to promote meaningful behavioural change. Culturally-sensitive communication strategies, community mobilisation efforts and gender-transformative approaches can challenge harmful social norms and empower individuals to make informed health choices. For example, peer support groups for pregnant women may provide a platform for discussing and challenging gender norms related to childbirth and maternal care.

Varied case studies from South Asia demonstrate the effectiveness of identity-sensitive interventions in improving MNH outcomes. In Bangladesh, community health workers trained as ‘shasthya shebikas’ have successfully addressed cultural barriers to MNH by providing culturally-appropriate care and counselling to pregnant women and their families. Similarly, in India, the ‘Janani Suraksha Yojana’ incentivises institutional deliveries among marginalised communities, addressing socio-economic barriers to accessing skilled birth attendance.

It is prudent to mention that studying and addressing identity is essential for managing social norms and behavioural change for maternal and neonatal health in South Asia. By recognising the diverse identities and experiences shaping MNH outcomes, policymakers, practitioners, and researchers can develop more effective interventions that promote equity, dignity, and empowerment within communities.

Moving forward, a concerted effort is needed to integrate identity-sensitive approaches into MNH programming and policy-making, ensuring that every woman and newborn receives the care and support they need to thrive.


Dr. Deepak Gupta, Sr. Consulting Adviser with the UN System in Asia (Strategic Comm. & Public Health)

Anusha Agarwal, Management & Development Graduate: Innovative Campaigns Expert 

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