How can we measure social cohesion?

2 December 2019


Reported by Kate McNeil, CSaP Communications Coordinator

In late November, policymakers and academics gathered for the third session in a series of workshops on cohesive societies co-hosted by CSaP and the British Academy. Anthony Heath, Emeritus Professor of Sociology, Emeritus Fellow of Nuffield College at the University of Oxford led a conversation on measuring social cohesion alongside Ed Humpherson, a CSaP Policy Fellow alumnus and Director General of the UK Statistics Authority.

In envisaging how to describe socially cohesive communities, Professor Heath described social cohesion as a process of pro-social behaviour, in which people are willing to help each other to the extent of overcoming free rider and collective action problems. Mr Humpherson presented alternatives to this description, asking workshop participants to consider whether they thought of social cohesion as “sugar or glue” – a background force that sticks together a community, or an active process focused on transactions and interactions between neighbours. The question of whether cohesiveness should be viewed as freedom from conflict or as a social good was also raised.

Throughout the discussion, Professor Heath proposed that there were multiple indirect approaches to measuring complex latent concepts such as social cohesion, each of which involves trade-offs. These approaches include the use of measurement indicators based on academic theory, a dashboard multiple indicator approach akin to that used to develop the social mobility index, and reliance on assessments of public opinion. Measures of agreement on shared British values and identities, field experiments of pro-social behaviours such as lost wallet experiments, community responses to disasters, and emigration rates were proposed as potentially useful indicators for tracking degrees of social cohesion in a society.

Challenges to the successful implementation of some of these approaches include social desirability biases, the development of appropriate weighting of different factors, cost of data collection, comparability of data collected over time, Goodhart’s law, and weak validation procedures. Questions of scale – and whether we should concern ourselves primarily with cohesiveness at the neighbourhood, regional, or national level – were also raised. Here, Professor Heath argued for an emphasis on local geographies at the neighbourhood level while also acknowledging that commuter villages and online communities are some of the many challenges to measuring cohesion in a society where individuals are no longer bounded to local places in their day-to-day interactions with others.

Throughout the event, participants and speakers alike emphasized the difficulties involved in measuring abstract concepts such as social cohesion. This is furthered by the fact there is no single ‘opposite’ to social cohesiveness which can easily be measured, with both bunkered societies and internally cohesive groups in conflict with one another existing as anti-cohesive alternative forms of social behaviour. However, hope for potential future solutions to this measurement challenge, and other similar challenges such as measuring deprivation, can be derived from our past successes in other areas of the history of statistics. While both GDP and HDI are now commonly accepted metrics for tracking the economy and development respectively, each is relatively new, suggesting that the future development of a tool which generates a single numeric indicator of social cohesion is not outside the realm of possibility.

This was the third workshop in our series on social cohesion co-hosted with the British Academy. Past workshops include a session hosted by Professor Sarah Curtis on drivers of social cohesion and Professor Tariq Modood’s workshop on multiculturalism.

Photo credit: Toshiyuki IMAI -