What is social cohesion?

The Scanlon Foundation Research Institute has been formed to ‘conduct and lead research on social cohesion’. This short paper seeks to sketch out a definition of the term social cohesion relevant to the Institute and explore the context of applying the term in Australia. 

The Scanlon Foundation Research Institute has been formed to ‘conduct and lead research on social cohesion’. This short paper seeks to sketch out a definition of the term social cohesion relevant to the Institute and explore the context of applying the term in Australia. 

One of the earliest mentions of the term ‘social cohesion’ in Australian politics was in Gough Whitlam’s ‘It’s Time’ speech, launching the Labor Party’s 1972 election campaign. While the term had been used a handful of times prior to this by Australian politicians, this was the first instance where a major political figure used the term in a mainstream setting. 

Talking about urbanisation and city life in Australia, Whitlam said, “We can double and treble social benefits, but we can never make up through cash payments for what we take away in mental and physical well-being and social cohesion through the break-down of community life and community identity.” 

Almost half a century later, use of the term has been incorporated into an everyday lexicon for public officials, policy-makers, and academic researchers. Yet it is difficult to find a more succinct statement drawing together the various threads surrounding social cohesion than Whitlam’s pithy construct.

More recently, in his outgoing speech as head of the Australian Public Service, Martin Parkinson noted his admiration for parliamentarians ‘remarkable commitment to an open economy and social cohesion, despite immense pressures the other way.’ 

As a reader, we know exactly what Parkinson means when he says social cohesion--strong social bonds infused with a sense of togetherness. Yet in many respects, this is striking given there is no standalone definition when using the term social cohesion.

This is both a strength and a weakness. For an organisation like the Scanlon Foundation Research Institute, this can create opportunities to shape a broad research agenda, drawing together otherwise disparate threads. Yet this can also create some difficulty when communicating research aims and outcomes. 

Defining the term 

There are multiple, and somewhat contested, definitions of the term social cohesion. The breadth, intention and tone of the term depends heavily on whether the audience is a policy or academic community. 

While using different terms, Émile Durkheim’s Suicide (1897) is the early marker in sketching the concept. According to Foncesa, Lukosch, and Brazier, Durkheim contends there are two “coins” to social cohesion:

(1) the absence of latent social conflict (any conflict based on for e.g. wealth, ethnicity, race, and gender) and (2) the presence of strong social bonds (e.g. civic society, responsive democracy, and impartial law enforcement).

Thinking back to Whitlam’s words 75 years later, it is clear thinking about social cohesion through presence and absence has persisted.

Moving out of academia, the policy community has latched onto the term, albeit much more recently. As Markus and Kirpitchenko highlight in their contribution to Social Cohesion in Australia, “the first definition of social cohesion as a policy tool (as opposed to academic concept) was suggested by Judith Maxwell”:
“Social cohesion involves building shared values and communities of interpretation, reducing disparities in wealth and income, and generally enabling people to have a sense that they are engaged in a common enterprise, facing shared challenges, and that they are members of the same community.”

Writing in 2003 about his experience in the Canadian Federal Government’s Social Cohesion Research Network, Dick Stanley defines social cohesion as “The willingness of members of society to cooperate with each other in order to survive and prosper”. 

Stanley’s concise definition contrasts to others which seek a more expansive domain for social cohesion. For example, the Council of Europe defines social cohesion as “the capacity of a society to ensure the well-being of all its members, minimizing disparities and avoiding marginalization” and goes on to list five associated characteristics. 

The OECD goes further again, saying “A cohesive society works towards the well-being of all its members, fights exclusion and marginalisation, creates a sense of belonging, promotes trust, and offers its members the opportunity of upward mobility.”

Here in Australia there is a more limited engagement with the term in this expansive version. For example, few would immediately consider wealth and income disparities in relation to social cohesion. 

While these themes are not formally excluded from social cohesion in Australia, a quick glance at the premier academic book on the topic, Jupp, Nieuwenhuysen, and Dawson’s Social Cohesion in Australia, shows how social cohesion has come to be associated with Australia’s diverse population. 

The chapters note Australia’s diverse society, inter-ethnic marriage, cultural and religious practices of recent migrants, the Cronulla riots, and the intersection of migrants and Australian institutions such as education, sports, and the media. 
For the Institute, this is instructive when applying social cohesion to an active public research agenda. 

What social cohesion isn’t

For the Scanlon Foundation Research Institute, there must be boundaries for what social cohesion can and cannot encompass. 

Social cohesion is not synonymous with multiculturalism. While there are some parallels, multiculturalism is a civic project to bring people together and generate social cohesion. This does not rule out engaging with multiculturalism. For example, the Mapping Social Cohesion survey has found a core understanding of Australian multiculturalism is the idea of a ‘two-way street’ for migrants and existing citizens. Linking this to a deeper understanding of social cohesion may be appropriate for future research. 

Some might understand social cohesion to mean a sense of homogeneity, a form of strict unity. Yet common bonds do not automatically imply a similarity of language, ethnicity, religion, or lifestyle. For the Institute, promoting social cohesion is not a wistful imagination of past assimilation practices. 

Conceptual commonalities and tension

When applying the term social cohesion, there are a number of sources of conceptual commonalities and tension to consider. For the Scanlon Foundation Research Institute, these will be important when undertaking or commissioning research. 

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1. Social cohesion focused on the adoption of new group members into a collective population, or social cohesion focused on all group members. 

For the Institute, this is not a barrier as research into recent migrants and their belonging in Australia is an important component part of the agenda. However it will be important to note this distinction when considering the type of research considered by the Institute. 

Too often research in Australia focused on all members of a group has been relegated behind research on new group members. This can limit the ability of research to cast light on key concepts, such as the notion of a shared vision across members of a community. 

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2. Social cohesion as a process as opposed to social cohesion as an outcome. 

The Institute has a strong position that social cohesion is a process to be continued, as opposed to an end point or destination. This is based on broad agreement across different definitions and ideologies. However some may note this allows for an endless conversation without a strong goal. Any research agenda must be wary of this risk. 

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3. Social cohesion crosses different spheres of public life, such as economic, political, and socio-cultural. 

For the Institute, it is worth considering how different spheres of public life will intersect with the research agenda of social cohesion. There are important considerations around the role of individuals and state institutions, how much emphasis to place on common values, and the role of social and civic capital in fostering cohesion. Different research perspectives will shed different evidence on these questions. 

Recent Australian examples of applied social cohesion

The Scanlon Foundation’s Mapping Social Cohesion has become the standard tool to assess social cohesion in Australia. Based on an annual representative survey of the Australian population, the report asks over 60 questions examining trends in public attitudes to social cohesion. Social cohesion is measured using five domains: Belonging, Worth, Social justice and equity, Participation (political), and Acceptance and rejection.

Within the Australian Government, there are two major applications of social cohesion. 

One is the more traditional approach, where social cohesion is a foundation for social harmony. The Australian Government supports this through initiatives such as Harmony Day and various grant programs. In addition, the term is used more generally as a part of politicians engaging in public debate. It has become a common refrain from the Prime Minister down, to signal support for building a cohesive society. 

However more recently, applying social cohesion has also been incorporated into action on curbing radical behaviour, typically called Countering Violent Extremism. For example in the Department of Home Affairs, the senior executive who heads the Countering Violent Extremism Centre is also responsible for citizenship and social cohesion policy. 

This type of application of social cohesion is not restricted to the Federal Government. In 2015, the Victorian Government established the Social Cohesion and Community Resilience Taskforce. This Taskforce approved a strategic government framework to ‘further strengthen Victoria’s social cohesion and build and empower resilient communities to prevent the development of racial, ethnic and religious intolerance that can lead to violence.’These recent examples show that social cohesion can be applied in a variety of political domains. 

To the Institute, social cohesion is not about having diversity but about how the community operates together in a diverse society. To this end, Dick Stanley’s concise definition, “the willingness of members of society to cooperate with each other in order to survive and prosper”, is a standard the Institute supports.