Social cohesion has become an important public goal in many countries across the globe, not only in the Western hemisphere, but also in Asia. Despite the growing political and academic interest in the concept, there is as yet no generally accepted definition of social cohesion. As a result, empirical insights are lacking. Against this backdrop, the Bertelsmann Stiftung has initiated the “Social Cohesion Radar” and now plans to extend this project to South, Southeast and East Asia.
Social cohesion as a political and social goal
Asia has experienced massive economic and societal developments in recent decades: The immense growth of economies and populations is accompanied by rapid urbanization, growing inequality and the emergence of new and sometimes politically demanding middle classes. At the same time, the view of traditions has changed profoundly: mobility, education, prosperity and closer integration into global cultural and economic flows influence the social fabric in South, Southeast and East Asia. This set of massive transformations is challenging social cohesion or at least redefining the bonds among members of Asian societies. In order to assess these complex effects and grasp their consequences, appropriate theoretical and methodological concepts of social cohesion are necessary.
Social cohesion is an elusive concept triggering positive associations. It describes a desirable quality that makes a society liveable, sustainable and resilient. Moreover, social cohesion is often viewed as a prerequisite for economic success and a functioning democracy. Therefore, social cohesion is increasingly being measured and analysed in numerous countries and by various transnational organisations such as the OECD, the World Bank, and the Council of Europe, as an important indicator of prosperity and quality of life.
Despite the popularity of the concept of social cohesion, there is as yet neither a uniform definition of the term nor a generally accepted set of indicators for social cohesion. Political actors on both the national and the transnational level pursue different approaches and promote competing scientific concepts. As a result, despite the importance of this topic, evidence-based insights are sorely lacking.
Our definition of social cohesion
A clear and operational definition is a prerequisite for empirical research as well as for public policies addressing the issue of social cohesion. Against this backdrop, the Bertelsmann Stiftung has initiated a project called the “Social Cohesion Radar” in order to encourage research and to promote public debate.
According to the definition applied by the Social Cohesion Radar, social cohesion is a descriptive attribute of a collective and expresses the quality of social cooperation. A cohesive society is characterized by close social relations, emotional connectedness, and a pronounced focus on the common good. We distinguish among three domains of social cohesion – social relations, connectedness and a focus on the common good – which, in turn, are comprised of a total of nine dimensions.
Each of these domains is, in turn, divided into three dimensions: social relationships are measured by the strength of social networks, the degree to which people trust one another and the acceptance of diversity. Connectedness is measured in terms of the strength of people’s identification with their country, the degree to which they trust institutions and their perception of fairness. A focus on the common good manifests itself in the level of solidarity and helpfulness, people’s willingness to abide by social rules and the extent to which they participate in society.
This definition reflects a consensus among numerous scholars and think tanks with respect to the essential dimensions of social cohesion. It underscores the ideational and relational nature of social cohesion. Ideational, in this context, refers to cognitive and affective aspects, such as a feeling of belonging, while relational aspects concern the social relations between members of the society and between the groups that make up that society.
This definition of social cohesion consciously excludes material wealth, social inequality and well-being, although all of these factors may play a role in other definitions of this phenomenon. This is intended to simplify the concept; for our purposes, measures of cohesion should capture a specific quality of a society, rather than favorable living conditions in general. What is perhaps more important: by excluding from our definition material resources and their distribution, we are able to analyze the extent to which material wealth and inequality affect social cohesion. This is, after all, one of the most urgent questions for social policy. By proposing this “streamlined” concept of cohesion, we are, in general, able to distinguish more precisely between the conditions, components and consequences of cohesion.
As an extension of the Social Cohesion Radar series of the Bertelsmann Foundation, the study on social cohesion in South, Southeast, and East Asia will be of interest for policy makers, governments, academics and the general public of the region. It can serve as a “diagnostic” tool to monitor the resilience of present-day societies in Asia and will set the stage for learning from the experiences of other countries in overcoming difficult societal challenges. The project will further promote public debate and will encourage academic research on the topic of social cohesion. Last but not least, it can serve as the basis for formulating targeted policy measures towards promoting social cohesion and thereby, a happier life for everyone.
For more information on the Bertelsmann Social Cohesion Radar see: www.social-cohesion.net.