What drives social cohesion and what interventions can be used to improve it?

24 October 2019


Banner image: Andra Brinzaniuc on flickr

Academics, policymakers and practitioners gathered at the Institute of Directors last month to discuss the links between social cohesion and wellbeing at a lunchtime seminar organised by CSaP and the British Academy.

The event began with a presentation by Professor Sarah Curtis, Professor Emerita at Durham University and Honorary Professor at University of Edinburgh, Centre for Research on Society Environment and Health on what drives social cohesion and possible interventions which can be used to improve it.

Professor Curtis discussed the idea that social cohesion is affected by the varying attributes of individual people and how these influence their relationships with others. She also emphasised the idea that features of the wider setting where individuals are live also play an important role. In the discussion that followed, there was a particular focus on how communities, governmental and non-governmental agencies can help to create social and material environments that promote cohesion.

Participants agreed that no single ‘one-size fits all’ intervention would result in consistent improvements in all settings; community-specific solutions were deemed more likely to succeed. Improved quality of employment, fostering social trust and strong relationships, and long-term strategic approaches were suggested as likely major factors for improving both social cohesion and individual wellbeing.

Andrew Slade, Director General for Economy, Skills and Natural Resources, Welsh government spoke about the Future Generations Commissioner for Wales’ approach to long-term wellbeing, including interest in creating settings that help people connect such as local planning initiatives, improved public transportation and investment in common community spaces. The co-location of human services, the designing of neighbourhoods which support populations’ changing needs over the course of the lifecycle, and improved access to digital technologies and language classes were also identified as possible drivers for fostering social cohesion.

Throughout the discussion, attendees grappled with questions concerning privatised public space, how active the state should be as a builder, and how land use is changing as neighbourhoods in high-density areas undergo redevelopment. Whether the success of ‘place-based’ interventions should be assessed primarily through an economic or social lens was a key point of dispute throughout the attendees’ debate, while some emphasised that preventative and early interventions offer the best value for money.

The role of place in discussions of social cohesion is centred on how space is used and how communities are brought together in them. Both bonding within groups and bridging between them are required for societies to have a full sense of social cohesion. Creating places which provide these opportunities for bridging and bonding is key, with places of worship, cultural venues and high-quality state schools given as examples of spaces which facilitate bonding and bridging.

Common barriers to successful social cohesion were also identified throughout the discussion. Structural aspects of local populations, including high concentrations of people who are not in stable long term relationships, and may live alone, high levels of residential mobility, and less stable tenancies in rented dwellings were described as creating the conditions for social fragmentation in neighbourhoods.

On the other hand, collective activities, including community arts and cultural programmes and events, were described as playing a role in fostering opportunities for community bonding and bridging within and between social groups that may differ in terms of wealth, ethnicity and age.

We need to support the settings and organisations that make these programmes promoting social cohesion viable, but they were identified as having been placed under stress by austerity measures. Professor Curtis further emphasised that efforts to focus on specific social groups when developing social cohesion initiatives are unlikely to succeed unless that group’s lived experiences are understood within the wider social context of connections among different groups in society as a whole.