Social integration and cohesion in a time of social distancing

Published 3 April 2020 / By Jacqui Broadhead

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Almost all work on social cohesion and integration draws on building and promoting social contact. So how can this work respond in this time of social distancing? It may seem as if work focussed on contact is out of place when isolation and lock down is encouraged and enforced – but connection and the overall cohesion of society become even more important as they are tested.

Social Distancing or ‘Distant Socialising’

The psychologist Jamil Zaki warns that it is a mistake to confuse (vitally important) physical distancing with social distancing, instead calling for an approach of 'distant socialising'. This is to recognise the profoundly social nature of human beings and the potentially corrosive impact of loneliness and isolation.

One obvious immediate change in behaviour has been the drastic increase in the use of technology as a means of socialising. Platforms such as Zoom and apps such as Houseparty have quickly entered common currency as a means of maintaining connection.

This capacity has undoubtedly brought huge benefits in terms of keeping people connected, but it also illuminates some fault lines. Some groups, such as those used to keeping in touch over long distances, might find they have unexpected skills and assets. However, a digital divide exists, not only in terms of access but expertise and ‘know how’ and whilst more people than ever now have access, the evidence is less clear on how well we are doing in bridging these skills gaps.[1] These and other inequalities, mean that we are not equally isolated, even when we are all in isolation.

Additionally, the platforms function primarily as closed groups, on privately owned platforms – we generally use them to connect with those that we already know and are familiar with, and so they are less useful in bridging outwards towards others in the community. This makes it more difficult to replicate the shared spaces of the public realm in which contact which ‘bridges’ between social groups, most often occurs.

Community Action

In contrast to this are the number of community level actions being facilitated and established – both virtually and in communities. These range from notes being dropped through doors to ask self-isolating neighbours if they need help shopping through to neighbourhood Facebook groups and other spontaneous actions such as the 'caremongering' movement arising in Canada. More broadly this can also be seen in the sing alongs and demonstrations of support for healthcare workers as markers of shared experience and expression. Polling by YouGov suggests that 54% of UK adults took part in the #clapforcarers – demonstrating a significant moment of shared experience.

These more spontaneous interventions have been complemented by institutional responses – such as the UK drive for volunteers, which will support people to ‘check in and chat’ as well as providing transport and other practical help. Whilst language access has for a long time been relegated in UK policy, institutions are quickly seeing the value in translating guidance, with one organisation quickly providing guidance on using Zoom in multiple languages to try to bridge the digital divides outlined above.

Both types of response are important to cohesion and integration but institutional infrastructure and capacity are important to ensure that these spontaneous measures are fairly distributed. Maintaining this infrastructure is vital to ensuring this community level cohesion.

Telling a shared story

This wider perspective speaks to a broader conception of integration and cohesion, which is often described as that of ‘building a bigger us.’ That is to say that integration isn’t only about developing contact, or how services are delivered, though both are important – but most profoundly it is about the shared story which binds us together at best, but can isolate or divide us if not handled well.

The coronavirus is notable for its universality – there is not a member of society who is unaffected. A shared story focusses on our need to work together to come through this crisis, and how it demonstrates our interconnected nature – both in terms of overcoming divisions and of the importance of protecting everyone in society – in order to protect us all.

If we aren’t successful in telling this story, there is a risk that we will further entrench division – for certain groups to be cast as the other and excluded from this shared ‘us’. There are several bleak dividing lines which may be exploited – between the young well and the older or those with underlying health conditions or based on migration status or through racism as people retreat into their own groups. In overt cases, there is a vital need for the collective policing of shared boundaries of acceptable behaviour in order to maintain trust.

However, these divisions can also sometimes happen inadvertently, for example, if we only focus on ‘vulnerable’ groups and don’t see this as a shared endeavour, held collectively by us all. Guidance by the Frameworks Institute asks us to think about how we are all interconnected. It is not a question of defining ‘saviours’ and ‘victims’ as this risks inadvertently reinforcing divisions. This echoes research on integration – where the responsibility is often placed on individual groups – when the reality is that it is a shared responsibility which will only be achieved through a common story and shared action.

Research on integration and cohesion may support these three objectives – promoting ‘distant socialising,’ understanding how community action can be best facilitated and developing a shared story.

The Inclusive Cities programme, led by COMPAS, is a member of the Welcoming International programme – this piece draws on a number of resources collated by members of Welcoming International to support municipalities in their response to COVID-19 and promote welcoming.


[1] Ragnedda, M. (2018), Reducing and Preventing Digital Discrimination: Digital Inclusion Strategies in Europe, In Ragnedda, M., and Mutsvairo, B. (eds) Digital Inclusion. An International Comparative Analyses, London: Lexington Book, pp. 3-18.