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Should We Care About Social Cohesion?

Updated: Feb 20, 2021

Nayah Victoria Thu is an undergraduate at Merton College, University of Oxford. She was the winner of the Politics Prize in the 2019 John Locke Institute Essay Competition.

In a world where our common future looks increasingly uncertain, humanity needs a measure of collective potential: social cohesion. Using GDP as a proxy for progress is outdated, as purely economic measures are neither sustainable nor sufficiently holistic. Academics have previously dismissed "additional indicators [as] a fundamentally political question" (Feigl, Hergovich and Rehm). However, social cohesion is neither “additional”, nor solely “political”. Instead, it provides a central focus for the necessary shift in global mindset away from perpetual economic growth. Social cohesion is imperative as humanity moves towards the ecological and societal sustainability embodied in initiatives such as the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Referring to the “bonds” that hold society together, social cohesion can be defined as “the willingness of members of a society to cooperate with each other in order to survive and prosper” (Stanley). This concept was born of Émile Durkheim’s attempt to define the quality lost during the “social erosion” of early industrialization. He baptized it the “consciousness collective; the belief held by citizens of a nation-state that they share a moral community, which enables them to trust each other” (Larsen). In the present day, Durkheim would notice striking parallels to his lifetime: great technological change in an increasingly connected yet polarized world. As Durkheim’s perspective can be used to defend forced homogeneity, his concept must evolve to reflect modern liberal values. The trusting community he mentions must originate organically in order to reach its full potential. While he refers to the “nationstate”, moving towards the ecological ceiling of our biosphere requires genuine cooperation on a much greater level. The infrastructure to improve measurements of cohesion should likewise be globally developed, encompassing factors such as “life satisfaction, trust, prosocial behaviour, suicide and voter turnout” (OECD). Social cohesion’s utilitarian value lies in determining the factors necessary for the future prosperity of the human race.

Reimagining Development

Humanity needs to start measuring and appreciating the social qualities required to move into ecological and societal balance. In On Liberty, Mill argues for the ability of any person to do what they want provided they do not hurt others. Today, this capability to “hurt” includes future generations – redefining the individual as part of an interconnected system, where affecting others is the rule, not the exception. As “Identity is socially constructed” (World Bank), the independence and sense of fulfilment required for peace is only possible through the opportunities afforded by a socially cohesive state. It encompasses the social structure necessary for individual development and group identity, remaining deeply utilitarian in nature. It is a measure of “inclusion…trust… and mobility” (Fonesca, Lukosch and Brazier). Liberal values and cohesion are mutually supportive: respect of individual freedom makes people more willing to work together, and less likely to abuse others’ rights. In addition, the empathy and collaboration of a cohesive society increases altruism, serving general utility. Merely replacing “citizen” with “consumer” changed survey respondents’ values, causing “reduced social involvement” (Bauer, Wilkie and Kim). A holistic system to measure fulfilment and cooperation would be even more powerful than reversing this semantic change. It could transform the individual’s role from that of a narcissistic homo economicus to a cooperative member of humanity.

Cohesion and the State

Social cohesion provides a lens through which to analyse objectively the rise of countries culturally dissimilar to the West. It is a defining component of development, more important than historical similarities or differences. Locke justifies the state through tacit consent: the acceptance of state systems and benefits. High social cohesion measures citizens’ acceptance of, and willingness to work with, one another and the state, thus embodying tacit consent. As any country’s potential for development is contingent on its legitimacy and contemporary political situation, cohesion also constitutes the essence of sustainable growth. This sheds light on the significance of high trust levels present in China “across … the last couple of decades” (Ortiz-Ospina and Roser). The constituent elements of social cohesion, from prosocial behaviour to high voter turn-out, justify the Chinese government, enabling it to mobilize the population towards its common goals.

Although social cohesion is criticized as “vague enough to follow political meanderings” (Stanley), this applies to political misuse of the term, not its essence. Independently evaluating alleged social cohesion clarifies this distinction. In Greece, the “cost of protecting insiders falls largely on ‘outsiders’” (The Economist), as the bloated public sector excludes younger citizens from economic participation. While undertaken in the name of cohesion, this leads to social stratification – eroding organic trust and undermining cooperative potential. Greece is blatantly misusing the term.

Nevertheless, elements of social cohesion are open to interpretation. For example, Plotke questions whether competitive elections are the only valuable method of political representation. He broadens “representation” to include interest and “type” representation and “suggests that modern understandings of political representation are to some extent contingent on political realities” (Dovi). Explaining the importance of cohesive inclusion in representing a diverse society, he recommends the analysis of contemporary political systems. Their effect on representation can be extended to their ability to support social cohesion. For example, within Western democracies, first-past-the-post and plurality systems are markedly different. The latter cultivates a culture of compromise, while the former, used in the UK and USA, is more divisive. Countries relying on a winner-takes-all system must strengthen their true cohesiveness or remain susceptible to partisan division. Any government desirous to retain power must understand the significance of social cohesion.

Focusing on social cohesion makes any state accountable for its citizens’ welfare, no matter the form of government. The feedback loops of political participation incentivize the incumbents to do more for their citizens. This is clearly shown in the democratic process of voting, as “average life satisfaction is significantly related to the vote share [of the incumbent party]” (Ward). If social cohesion were an accepted measure of success, it would incentivize authoritarian regimes like the government of Equatorial Guinea to polish their international image by developing their country and society, instead of chasing oligarchical economic gains, touting a deceptively high GDP per capita and “spending huge sums on public relations” (Birrell) to “prove” their development. The presence of moral norms, with the “expectations of a social contract backed up by public accountability” (Raworth 125) can have tangible effects on objective measures of welfare. A Ugandan hospital’s public noticeboard and results reporting led to “33% fewer children dying under the age of five” (125). Note that the phrase “social contract” is imperfect as it does not imply common ownership of solutions, unlike the inclusive concept of “society [as] a joint-stock company” (Emerson 3). Nevertheless, social cohesion can prevent a transactional, economic worldview, holding governments accountable for all their actions.

Cohesion and Development

Social cohesion within countries is paramount to measuring the potential for successful international aid. According to William Easterly, the IMF and World Bank’s efforts to fix long-term economic issues have been less successful than their crisis control. Attempting to forge societal development using economic tools, they block the “circuitous route to a free market” (Easterly). This route implies that social cohesion must grow organically to reach the minimum level of trusting co-operation required to implement economic plans. Working through corrupt governments, organizations cannot mobilize the population or increase vertical trust required for the country’s self-sufficiency. Willingness to cooperate must be present for economic tools to successfully encourage sustainable development.

Social cohesion can correspond to social homogeneity. Economically developed Botswana, unlike many African countries, has a dominant ethnic group, language and a relatively intact traditional hierarchy. Linguistic and social diversity pose a barrier to trusting interaction. They have a negative correlation with societal development as “Countries with high social capital…tend to be linguistically homogenous” (Prospero). Perceived cultural and linguistic norms allow for conversion of social capital into tangible benefits, as outlined by Bourdieu. However, Botswana is a case of naturally occurring homogeneity, comparable to monocultural countries like Japan and Iceland. Cultural homogeneity should be seen as a possible contributing factor to social cohesion, not a desirable end in itself.

Just as social cohesion’s value lies in serving general utility, homogeneity’s value lies solely in its ability to generate social cohesion. Utility is served by social inclusion; “The process of improving the ability, opportunity, and dignity of those disadvantaged on the basis of their identity to take part in society” (Bordia Das). Durkheim attempted to artificially recreate natural homogeneity. However, he mistakenly neglected to acknowledge that marginalizing minority groups strips social cohesion of its utilitarian value. Today, modern academics recognize that “[forced] social homogeneity may be detrimental to social cohesion” (Stanley). For instance, destabilizing legal initiatives to create social homogeneity leave minorities like the Rohingya “lack[ing] basic rights” (Blakemore). This diminishes incentives to cooperate, breeding a culture of fear not conducive to the trust that forms the essence of social cohesion. With the ensuing power imbalance, authoritarian states lack the fluidity to respond to threats to their social and group identity. Considering current migratory pressure and the importance of inclusion for utility, social homogeneity becomes an unworthy goal.

Our Common Humanity

Inter-group, pro-social behaviour is arguably a greater source of legitimate power than any monopoly on physical force. Bourdieu argues that owners of social capital could become much stronger if owners of economic capital did not pit them against each other. Though such solidarity is difficult to maintain, moments of collective human identity and purpose can inspire group action. Grassroots efforts, personified in protests like Occupy and Extinction Rebellion, are imperative in raising awareness of our shared humanity. Similarly, according to Roger Griffins, counter-movements in less cohesive states succeed because they rely on shared, inextinguishable moral ideas. These commonalities establish trust, increasing group efficacy. A tendency towards self-interest does not prevent unifying goals from nurturing the horizontal trust necessary for social cohesion.

Just as the technological change and inequality of the industrial revolution worried Durkheim, so should the current power of social media merit a greater focus on social cohesion. Social media algorithms confirm, not challenge, extremist views as various groups discuss complex issues “within politically homogeneous ‘echo chambers’” (University of Pennsylvania). This creates a dichotomy between collective human identity and divisive factions, accelerating polarization. However, "egalitarian social networks, in which no individual is more powerful than another” utilize the “remarkably strong effects of bipartisan social learning on eliminating polarization" (University of Pennsylvania). By refocusing, governments and media companies can not only accelerate, but also mitigate polarization. Even technicalities such as “the shade of blue and the size of buttons” (The Economist) greatly impact people’s willingness to listen to each other and empathize with other groups. Social media can facilitate constructive interaction, as long as it aims to promote social cohesion.

Social cohesion is a fragile, long-term goal that requires a sense of our common future. Focusing on interaction and present similarities facilitates this understanding. Inter-group exchange enables cohesion to grow organically in a larger, inclusive moral community. It is infinitely preferable to denying the presence of minority groups or persecuting them in misguided attempts at creating homogeneity. Mill argued “The only people who need to concern themselves regularly about … society in general are those few whose actions have an influence that extends that far” (Mill 13). The interdependence of 21st century society means that every individual’s actions reverberate globally in some regard, solidifying the importance of a cohesive human identity and global awareness.

There is no single panacea for the challenges facing humanity. Solutions are not solely technological, political, economic or cultural, but complex webs of vertical and horizontal cooperative effort. Social cohesion is a crucial measure of our propensity to cooperate, focusing on stability and holistic development as opposed to short-term economic gain. Only by appreciating its essence can we harness our collective potential to achieve harmony within the limits of our shared planet.

For a full bibliography, please see below:

Footnotes and Bibliography - Should We C
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James Brown
James Brown
Oct 10, 2022

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