Social cohesion is a term that has been widely used in various fields of study, such as psychology, sociology, political science, and public health. But what does it mean exactly, and why is it important for individuals and societies? In this article, I will explore the concept of social cohesion along with its dimensions, benefits, challenges, and implications for policy and practice.
What is Social Cohesion?
Social cohesion can be defined as the quality of social relationships and the sense of belonging and solidarity among members of a group or a society.
It involves shared values, norms, identities, and goals, as well as trust, cooperation, and mutual support. Social cohesion can be observed at different levels, such as families, communities, organizations, and nations.
Social cohesion is not a static or fixed state, but rather a dynamic and ongoing process that can change over time and across contexts. It can be influenced by various factors, such as economic conditions, political institutions, cultural diversity, social inequalities, and environmental challenges. Social cohesion can also vary depending on the perspective and experience of different groups and individuals within a society.
In this article, I will explore the concept of social cohesion from different perspectives, levels, and dimensions. I will also present a framework that can help us understand and assess social cohesion in different contexts. Finally, I will discuss the benefits and challenges of social cohesion for human well-being, social development, and resilience.
Definitions of Social Cohesion
Social cohesion is a complex and multidimensional concept that has been defined in various ways by different scholars and organizations. However, there is no consensus on a single or universal definition of social cohesion. Some of the definitions that have been proposed are:
- Social cohesion is the characteristic of society that shows the interdependence in between individuals of that society (Durkheim, 1897).
- Social cohesion is the desire of individuals to maintain their affiliation with a group, and this drive is measured by influence and initiative, task competence, and especially like-dislike (Festinger, Schachter, & Back, 1950).
- Social cohesion is the capacity of a society to ensure the well-being of all its members, minimizing disparities and avoiding marginalization (Council of Europe, 2008).
- Social cohesion is the ongoing process of developing a community of shared values, shared challenges and equal opportunity within Canada, based on a sense of trust, hope and reciprocity among all Canadians (Jeannotte, 2003).
- Social cohesion is a cohesive society that works towards the well-being of all its members, fights exclusion and marginalization, creates a sense of belonging, promotes trust, and offers its members the opportunity of upward mobility (OECD, 2012).
As you can see, these definitions share some common elements, such as the importance of social bonds, trust, inclusion, participation, and well-being. However, they also differ in some aspects, such as the scope, level, and dimensions of social cohesion. For example, some definitions focus on the society as a whole, while others emphasize the community or the group. Some definitions highlight the values and norms that underpin social cohesion, while others stress the outcomes and opportunities that result from it. Some definitions consider social cohesion as a characteristic or a state, while others view it as a process or a goal.
Perspectives on Social Cohesion
Social cohesion has been studied from different perspectives and disciplines, such as sociology, psychology, political science, and urban planning. Each perspective has its own theoretical and empirical approaches, methods, and tools to analyze and measure social cohesion. Some of the main perspectives are:
- Theoretical and empirical studies: These studies aim to provide a general overview and understanding of social cohesion, based on existing literature, theories, and data. They often propose definitions, dimensions, indicators, and models of social cohesion, and examine how it is related to other concepts, such as social capital, social integration, social identity, social conflict, and social resilience.
- Experimental studies: These studies aim to test and verify the hypotheses and assumptions of social cohesion, based on controlled experiments, simulations, and interventions. They often manipulate or measure the factors and variables that affect social cohesion, such as group dynamics, leadership styles, rewards, norms, values, attitudes, behaviours, and outcomes.
- Social network analysis studies: These studies aim to explore and visualize the structure and patterns of social cohesion, based on network theory and graph analysis. They often use mathematical and computational methods to represent and analyze the relationships and interactions among individuals, groups, and organizations, and how they shape and are shaped by social cohesion.
Three Levels in Social Cohesion
Social cohesion can be examined and understood at different levels of analysis, depending on the unit and scope of interest. Three main levels can be distinguished:
- Level of the individual: This level focuses on the personal and psychological aspects of social cohesion, such as the motives, attitudes, feelings, and behaviours of individuals towards their group or society. It also considers the benefits and costs of social cohesion for the individual, such as the sense of belonging, identity, satisfaction, well-being, and empowerment, or the pressure, conformity, exclusion, and marginalization. Some of the factors that influence social cohesion at this level are the degree of liking, identification, participation, recognition, and legitimacy of the individual.
- Level of the community: This level focuses on the interpersonal and social aspects of social cohesion, such as the bonds, ties, networks, and interactions among individuals within a group or a society. It also considers the characteristics and outcomes of social cohesion for the community, such as the shared values, norms, goals, trust, reciprocity, solidarity, and cooperation, or the conflict, diversity, fragmentation, and polarization. Some of the factors that influence social cohesion at this level are the group size, structure, climate, dynamics, performance, and success.
- Level of the institutions: This level focuses on the structural and political aspects of social cohesion, such as the rules, policies, systems, and organizations that regulate and facilitate the social cohesion of a group or a society. It also considers the role and impact of social cohesion for the institutions, such as the social order, stability, integration, development, and resilience, or the social disorder, instability, disintegration, decline, and vulnerability. Some of the factors that influence social cohesion at this level are the social environment, governance, law, democracy, equality, and justice.
Social Cohesion Framework
Based on the previous sections, the social cohesion framework consists of four main components:
- Definition: This component refers to the conceptualization and operationalization of social cohesion, based on the purpose, scope, and perspective of the analysis. It involves choosing or developing a definition of social cohesion that is relevant, clear, and consistent, and that captures the essence and dimensions of the concept.
- Measurement: This component refers to the quantification and evaluation of social cohesion, based on the data, methods, and tools of the analysis. It involves selecting or creating indicators and scales of social cohesion that are valid, reliable, and comparable, and that reflect the levels and factors of the concept.
- Analysis: This component refers to the interpretation and explanation of social cohesion, based on the results, findings, and implications of the analysis. It involves identifying and understanding the patterns, trends, and relationships of social cohesion, and how they are influenced by the context and the variables of the concept.
- Action: This component refers to the intervention and improvement of social cohesion, based on the goals, strategies, and recommendations of the analysis. It involves designing and implementing actions and policies that can enhance and sustain social cohesion, and that address the challenges and opportunities of the concept.
How can we measure social cohesion?
There is no single or universally accepted way to measure social cohesion, as different indicators and methods may capture different aspects and dimensions of the concept. However, some common indicators that have been used in previous studies include:
- Social capital: the resources and benefits that are derived from social networks, such as information, support, trust, and civic participation.
- Social inclusion: the extent to which people have access to and participate in the social, economic, and political opportunities and institutions of a society, regardless of their background, identity, or status.
- Social mobility: the ability and opportunity for people to change their social position and status within a society, based on their skills, education, and achievements.
- Social identity: the sense of belonging and identification with a group or a society, based on common characteristics, values, and interests.
- Social harmony: the absence or reduction of social conflicts, tensions, and violence within a group or a society, and the presence or promotion of dialogue, cooperation, and peace.
What are the benefits of social cohesion?
Social cohesion can have positive effects on both individuals and societies, as it can enhance well-being, resilience, and performance. Some of the benefits of social cohesion include:
- Psychological well-being: social cohesion can provide people with a sense of meaning, purpose, and belonging, as well as emotional and social support, which can improve their mental health and happiness.
- Physical health: social cohesion can foster healthy behaviours and lifestyles, such as physical activity, nutrition, and preventive care, as well as reduce stress and chronic diseases, which can improve their physical health and longevity.
- Social development: social cohesion can facilitate social learning and innovation, as well as social capital and inclusion, which can improve their skills, education, and employment opportunities.
- Economic growth: social cohesion can stimulate economic activity and productivity, as well as social mobility and equality, which can improve their income, wealth, and living standards.
- Political stability: social cohesion can enhance political participation and representation, as well as social harmony and trust, which can improve their governance, democracy, and security.
What are the challenges of social cohesion?
Social cohesion is not a given or guaranteed outcome, but rather a complex and contested goal that requires constant effort and attention. There are many challenges and threats that can undermine or weaken social cohesion, such as:
- Social diversity: social cohesion can be challenged by the increasing diversity and complexity of societies, in terms of culture, ethnicity, religion, language, gender, age, and other factors, which can create differences and divisions among groups and individuals.
- Social inequality: social cohesion can be challenged by the persistent and growing inequality and exclusion of societies, in terms of income, wealth, education, health, and other factors, which can create gaps and grievances among groups and individuals.
- Social change: social cohesion can be challenged by the rapid and unpredictable change of societies, in terms of technology, economy, environment, and other factors, which can create uncertainty and instability among groups and individuals.
- Social conflict: social cohesion can be challenged by the potential and actual conflict and violence of societies, in terms of politics, ideology, identity, and other factors, which can create hostility and fear among groups and individuals.
How can we promote social cohesion?
Social cohesion is not a one-size-fits-all or top-down solution, but rather a context-specific and participatory process that requires the involvement and commitment of various actors and stakeholders, such as governments, civil society, private sector, media, and individuals. Some of the strategies and actions that can promote social cohesion include:
- Building social capital: social cohesion can be promoted by strengthening and expanding social networks and relationships, such as through community engagement, volunteering, and social media, which can increase trust, cooperation, and reciprocity among groups and individuals.
- Fostering social inclusion: social cohesion can be promoted by enhancing and ensuring social access and participation, such as through inclusive policies, programs, and services, which can reduce disparities and marginalization among groups and individuals.
- Enhancing social mobility: social cohesion can be promoted by improving and enabling social opportunities and outcomes, such as through quality education, training, and employment, which can increase skills and achievements among groups and individuals.
- Nurturing social identity: social cohesion can be promoted by developing and celebrating social diversity and commonality, such as through intercultural dialogue, education, and events, which can increase awareness and appreciation among groups and individuals.
- Supporting social harmony: social cohesion can be promoted by preventing and resolving social conflicts and violence, such as through dialogue, mediation, and reconciliation, which can increase peace and security among groups and individuals.
Social cohesion is a multifaceted and multidimensional concept that refers to the quality and strength of social relationships and the sense of belonging and solidarity among members of a group or a society. It can have positive impacts on various aspects of individual and societal well-being, such as psychological, physical, social, economic, and political. However, it can also face many challenges and threats that can undermine or weaken it, such as social diversity, inequality, change, and conflict. Therefore, it is important to promote and maintain social cohesion, by adopting various strategies and actions that can build social capital, foster social inclusion, enhance social mobility, nurture social identity, and support social harmony. Social cohesion is not only a desirable goal, but also a necessary condition for sustainable and resilient societies.