What Is Social Cohesion?

Christian Albrecht Larsen writes:

* I suggest that we define social cohesion as the belief held by citizens of a given nation-state that they share a moral community, which enables them to trust each other… The very discussion of social cohesion often implies its absence and, even more specifically, the decline of social cohesion. I suggest that we label the decline of social cohesion “social erosion”, which we then can define as fewer citizens in a given nation-state having the belief that they share a moral community that enable them to trust each other…

* In a modern globalized and multicultural world, it is difficult and problematic to cultivate a similarity of mind.

* The shift from pre-modern to modern societies can according to Giddens (1990) be described as a shift from embeddedness to disembeddedness (Giddens 1990). In such a situation, trust becomes a fundamental precondition for the ontological safety for the individual, as when by simply taking the bus you have to trust in the abilities of the experts who invented the bus, in those of the unknown bus driver, and those of all the other unknown drivers on the road. One can argue that in a “risk society” (Beck 1992) many risks can only be overcome by placing trust in unknown fellow citizens and the roles they fulfill in the social system as policemen and women, social workers, bank advisors and countless others. Even more convincing is the argument that trust in unknown fellow citizens, besides influencing individuals ability to cope with modernity, is crucial for the functioning of modern institutions such as the market, democracy, and the state…

* If we return to the definition of social cohesion provided above – the belief held by citizens of a given nation-state that they share a moral community – the point is that we are now able to specify the most important aspect of the content of the “shared moral community”. For modern (or post-modern) societies, the most important aspect is not that citizens believe they share the same religion, family values, attitude towards homosexuality or other ideals; for the everyday operation of highly differentiated societies, the most important aspect of social cohesion is that citizens believe they share the norm of not cheating each other. And fortunately, a number of international surveys allow us to measure this pivotal aspect of social cohesion.

* The overall conclusion is that no matter what part of the world one studies, one only finds few hightrust countries. So despite the importance given to trust by sociology, political science and economics, the conclusion is that by 2008-2014 the most common situation is that citizens around the globe display very little trust in their fellow citizens.

* It is well-established in previous trust research that levels in social trust are “sticky”, i.e. there is simply no quick fix to increase the level of social trust in a country.

* trust in fellow citizens has found to be rather stable over the life course. As one grows up in a given society, one forms a basic understanding of this society and it citizens. And these basic impressions from the socialization in youth are hard to shake (Uslaner 2002). This is one of the most common ways to explain the stickiness over time within countries as well as well as the stickiness among migrants (in the US context trust levels of country of origin have been found to have effects across many generations, Uslaner 2008, however, different results have been found from the Nordic context, Dinesen 2012).

Thus, when overall trust levels in a society increases overtime it is often caused by the coming a new generation with more faith in the trustworthiness of fellow citizens and the dying of a generation with less faith in fellow citizens. And the other way around, a decline in overall trust levels over time is typically caused by the coming of a new generation with low social trust and the dying of a generation with higher social trust. The classic example is the US, the best analyzed case of a decline in social trust… the American decline in trust is primarily caused by younger generations having less trust.

* Banfield might actually be right that… “there is no evidence that the ethos of a people can be changed according to plan”.

* Policy relevant implications and questions:

• Similarity of mind is difficult and problematic to create in diverse multicultural and highly differentiated societies. However, a shared perception of unknown fellow citizens being trustworthy is highly relevant in order to make such societies work.
• A shared perception of fellow citizens being trustworthy is not easily achieved. Such “societal glue” is unlikely to be created by societies simply being wealthier. On the country, the increased economic inequality often attached to economic progress is likely to lower trust levels.
• Social trust in diverse multicultural and highly differentiated societies is dependent on collective political actions aiming at creating a coherent society; this is an ongoing nation building process. Pivotal in this nation building process are a moderation of economic inequalities and the establishment of a uncorrupt state institutions.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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