"When we start talking about societal cohesion, it's often very reactive", said Professor Dominic Abrams, Professor of Social Psychology at the University of Kent, speaking as part of a CSaP virtual annual conference event on the state of social cohesion during covid-19.
Since the onset of the covid-19 pandemic, Dr Jane Kennedy, Head of Research and Data Hub at the London Borough of Newham, has witnessed what she described as a fantastic response from the local community, with third-sector organisations and hundreds of community volunteers pulling together to provide a response. In the Borough of Newham, one of the most deprived places in the country, there was already a high level of local social cohesion, and responding to covid-19 has encouraged the borough to be much more agile and cohesive in the way it works with local partners. However, the onset of the pandemic has also created significant challenges. The borough has been hit hard by covid-19, with high death rates, particularly in the local BAME population, and the onset of significant economic challenges. In Newham, demand for food banks is growing every day, and young people have been particularly hard hit from both educational and social mobility points of view.
Social cohesion has five key elements, according to Professor Abrams, including: cultural memory and tradition; social economy; meaning and mechanisms of social responsibility; identity and belonging; and care for the future. Professor Abrams' work suggests that policymakers tend to start talking about cohesion when confronted with a crisis, whether it be a terrorist event or a pandemic. The study of cohesion, and policies which try to foster it, have historically been dominated by a focus on community cohesion and cooperation, as well as issues of security and integration. However, Professor Abrams suggested that societal levels of cohesion fluctuate and change over time, and rhetoric about unity and cohesion is often accompanied by a narrative of conflict.
In the context of covid-19, Professor Abrams has asked: "are we all in it together?"
Findings from recent surveys of members of the public found that in May 2020, during the lockdown period, the percentage of Britons who perceived there to be growing divisions within the country on topics such as Brexit, class divides, and intergenerational relations decreased. However, the sense of division which existed back in December 2019, prior to the onset of the pandemic, has already began to return. Once again, as of June 2020, we are seeing a rapidly changing picture of increasing perceived divisions between the young and the old, the wealthy and the poor, Scotland and England, the UK vs Europe, and Leavers vs Remainers. As we manage this sense of division, Professor Abrams believes we need to do more to understand how we deal with differences and inequalities. We also need to improve our understanding of the role that building cohesion might have in addressing these problems.
While it is often pointed out that crisis brings out tensions and conflicts within society, Professor Peter Taylor-Gooby, Research Professor of Social Policy at the University of Kent, has highlighted that during covid-19, "there has been capitalism and individualism, but there has also been kindness." He noted that while there has been panic about food and that some businesses have taken the opportunity to dismiss staff and restructure, the pandemic has also brought about an expression of humanity and generosity that is not normally present in our society. For example, increases in donations to food banks have followed the same trajectory as covid-19 cases. However, he is concerned about whether this 'all-in-it-together' ideology will continue beyond lockdown, as we transition from crisis conditions towards a longer-term recession.
Having written extensively about the divisive welfare state, Professor Taylor-Gooby suggested that the welfare state has been traditionally seen as concerned with social cohesion and managing class inequalities, with capitalist market societies managing inequalities in ways that keep the system going. He believes that the ideology which underpins our society has become much more concerned with equality of opportunity in a very unequal society, rather than equality of outcome between different social groups. As we emerge from lockdown and move into a recession, Professor Taylor-Gooby noted that there are simple steps we could take if we wanted to have more equitable outcomes in our society following covid-19. He suggested that increasing the child benefit which goes to all families, making universal credit more generous, and thinking about universal basic income schemes could be ways forward. He concluded his remarks with a series of questions which challenged the audience to reflect: As we emerge from lockdown and move into recession, will the impulse to improve social cohesion grow stronger? Are we all in it together, or are we as divided as we were before?
This virtual seminar was part of CSaP’s 2020 Virtual Annual Conference Seminar Series, which will be running throughout the months of May and June. To learn more, please visit our annual conference events page.
This session on social cohesion is also part of a collaboration between the British Academy and CSaP which has explored the idea of social cohesion in a series of workshops held throughout the 2019-2020 academic year. Previous sessions in this series have addressed multiculturalism, drivers of social cohesion , and measuring social cohesion.