Academic journal article National Institute Economic Review

Social Cohesion: Converging and Diverging Trends

Academic journal article National Institute Economic Review

Social Cohesion: Converging and Diverging Trends

Article excerpt

Social theorists frequently argue that social cohesion is under threat in developed societies from the multiple pressures of globalisation. This article seeks to test this hypothesis through examining the trends across countries and regions in key indicators of social cohesion, including social and political trust, tolerance and perceptions of conflict. It finds ample evidence of long-term declines in cohesion in many countries, not least as exemplified by the erosion of social and political trust, which is particularly dramatic in the UK. The trends are not entirely convergent, since on most indicators Nordic countries have become more cohesive, yet each country faces challenges. In the final section the authors argue that different 'regimes of social cohesion' can be identified in specific clusters of countries which are based on different cultural and institutional foundations. In the 'liberal model', which applies in the UK and the US, the greatest threat to cohesion comes not from increasing cultural diversity, but from increasing barriers to mobility and the subsequent atrophy of faith in individual opportunity and meritocratic rewards--precisely those beliefs which have traditionally held liberal societies together.

Keywords: Social cohesion; trust; inequality

JEL Classifications: D63; D74

I. Introduction

This article reviews the state of social cohesion across a range of developed countries at the beginning of the second millennium. Social cohesion is defined in broad and non-normative terms as 'the property by which whole societies, and the individuals within them, are bound together through the action of specific attitudes, behaviours, rules and institutions which rely on consensus rather than pure coercion' (see Green and Janmaat, forthcoming). We explore a number of questions. What are the recent and long-term (post-1980) trends in different countries and regions on the key aspects and measures of social cohesion? Are they converging or diverging? Do countries face similar or different pressures on the social fabric in the face of the economic crisis? Do some of us live in a 'broken society' --as Prime Minister David Cameron once described the UK--or are the bonds which bind societies still holding?

We start in section 2 by summarising some of the macro social theories concerning the impacts of social change on societal cohesion. These generally predict, for a variety of reasons, the increasing atomisation of societies and a secular decline in social solidarity across the developed countries. In sections 3-4 we put these theories to the test, examining in some detail the trends across different countries and regions for key indicators of social cohesion, such as social and political trust, tolerance and perceptions of social conflict. Although confirming the general picture of declining social cohesion, these trends shows patterns of divergence as well as convergence across regions (and country clusters). In section 5 we posit the existence of different 'regimes of social cohesion', each resting on somewhat different cultural and institutional foundations, and suggest that these are vulnerable at different points to the various pressures of globalisation.

2. Theories of social change and its impacts on social cohesion

Contemporary macro social theories tend to equate globalisation with the general erosion of societal bonds at the national level. Social cohesion is undermined, they claim, by a variety of social trends, including the erosion of national/state identities, the rise of individualism and increasing structural inequalities in societies. These forces are seen to impact on all developed societies, and increasingly on the developing countries most affected by globalisation.

To Castells, a leading theorist of globalisation, the weakening of the nation state--undermined by the global forces of transnational capitalism, cross-border crime, and space-shrinking modern communications--poses a major challenge to social cohesion. …

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