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PMC Research Published in African Journal of Reproductive Health

Feb 08, 2022

Consider the story of Nachilindi, a fictional woman in Zambia, who is struggling over whether to advance her education or have a second child. Where should she turn for guidance? Whom should she trust to give her good advice? Or, how about a situation in which Nachilindi chooses to forego increasing the size of her family — because she already has achieved her preferred family size of two kids. Would an average Zambian think that was a good decision or not? How much would other people’s opinions impact Nachilindi’s choices?


As a pioneer in entertainment-education, PMC has mastered the art of storytelling to drive social and behavior change. Then what better way to test the evaluation tools than with storytelling in the form of short vignettes relevant to Zambia’s culture? In fact, these and similar vignettes — or mini-storylines — were among the hypothetical scenarios presented to select Zambians as part of recent cutting-edge Population Media Center research to test social-norms evaluation tools.

PMC’s first phase of family-planning research in Zambia used surveys and focus group discussions to measure norms among female listeners of two PMC-Zambia radio programs. Social norms have a big role in family planning there. The study assessed whether mixed-methods — quantitative and qualitative — research with these new evaluation tools effectively measures family-planning norms.

“The most important takeaway is that, in large part, the study validated the use of these tools,” says Amy Riley, an assistant professor at the Jefferson College of Population Health at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia. She’s leading PMC’s Social Norms Impact and Evaluation Project.

The prototype social-norms measurement tools “will propel PMC to be a leader in this area in the field of entertainment education,” says Riley, a mixed-methods health communication researcher currently focused on entertainment-education.

The study’s findings could influence how family-planning norms are evaluated around the world. Riley was lead author on a peer-reviewed article about the research, published in December 2021 in the African Journal of Reproductive Health.

The study is at the heart of PMC’s work. To continue to create transformational entertainment-education through radio and TV programs, it’s crucial PMC understands a country’s social norms as they evolve. Ultimately, the research will help PMC gain insights on family-planning norms that may drive population growth in Zambia, which has one of the world’s highest fertility rates.

“The story here is the evolution of PMC’s ability to effect social-norms change, make claims about that, and prove it in an innovative and entrepreneurial way,” says PMC Director of Issue Advocacy Joe Bish, who is managing the research project. “We are getting better positioned to say what happened to social norms, or not, as a result of PMC’s work. This has been a quantum leap for PMC in terms of being able to measure social norms and the impact our shows are having on them.”

To supplement the findings of the first research phase, PMC is conducting a second study in Zambia, with support from the Gaia Foundation, that should be finished this spring.


In the first round of research, which the Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment supported, Riley worked with PMC-Zambia and Pragma Consultancy, a Zambian research organization. In collecting the data, she used her tools from academia and storylines created by Chengo Musakanya, the head writer for PMC-Zambia shows.

In the study, nearly 600 young Zambian women participated in either surveys or focus group discussions based on PMC’s two radio shows there, Kwishilya (“Over the Horizon”) and Siñalamba (“Breaking the Barrier”). Sequels to the programs, supported by USAID, will be broadcast through December. Both shows address family planning, reproductive health, child marriage, and other issues.

The vignettes, most about family planning, generally asked participants what most married women 19-34 would do in the character’s situation. “There is this nuance to social norms,” Riley says. “It’s our perceptions about what other people do. We all follow social norms all the time by watching what others do.”

One reason the tools were effective is that Musakanya, who is familiar with Zambian culture, created vignettes that were entertaining and relevant to women in the study.

“Using vignettes was key,” he says. And with the surveys and focus groups, “The environment and setup were more casual than corporate. That allowed people to relax.” Surveys were done in homes, and focus groups were small.
What he learned from the research will inform how he writes episodes for the radio sequels.

“From this project, I found that we could use more focused, shorter story threads involving the main character that would still highlight the intended message without distorting the main storyline,” Musakanya says. “I realized we could make characters even more relatable and memorable, which makes it easier to get the message across.”

PMC aims to apply the same social-norms measurement tools in other African countries, with vignettes adjusted for cultural relevance.


Riley’s second round of data collection in Zambia will enable a comparison to the first-phase results. “We want to see if these tools hold over time,” she says. “Do we get the same results or something really different? If we get something different, why are social norms changing?”

The publication of the study article in the African journal will increase the credibility of PMC’s research among healthcare professionals and academics on that continent.

“It helps buttress our credibility among our peers in the social and behavior change communications community. Secondarily, it also helps with branding, marketing, and promotion — it gets our name out there in a good way,” Bish says. “Hopefully, other organizations will be inspired to seek us out for future partnerships.”

An overarching aspect of the research project is buy-in from PMC staff, so everyone understands the role of social norms in PMC’s work and has a stake in the findings from data collection. Fundamentally, “What does this mean for PMC programs and for getting funding for programs?” Riley says.

Through a set of proprietary tools, “This project aims to build PMC’s capacity to explore social norms,” Riley notes. “The idea is that these have been tested and validated and can be used across country boundaries…This really is the future of entertainment-education.”