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Social Cohesion in Europe Literature Review

Published 15 March 2022 / By Jacqui Broadhead

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Overview of research: The Social Cohesion in Europe literature review, 2021 provides an overview of relevant research and policy literature on social cohesion in Europe. It briefly examines what causes fracture points to open or widen in European societies, how different research traditions have considered the concept of cohesion, and interventions and trends that have supported the development of cohesion.

Summary of findings

Social cohesion is a wide-ranging and often amorphous area, which encapsulates many of the large-scale ‘wicked’ societal issues which large organisations, governments, NGOs and others are grappling with. This review has aimed to provide an overview of current academic research findings and policy interventions in order to inform strategy planning.

1. Defining social cohesion - it is difficult to define social cohesion and some flexibility can be useful; rather than setting out a definition, there are a number of key principles which should inform any future development:

a. Social cohesion covers the development of ‘ties that bind’ between and within communities, the development of wellbeing and satisfaction and the development of equality.

b. Social cohesion operates at three distinct levels – individual to individual, in places and communities and through institutions. 

c. Social cohesion cannot be divorced from broader economic, political and social trends; these must be factored into policy and practice responses and initiatives. 

d. Social cohesion is both an ongoing process and a policy goal, which can be a good in and of itself as well as a means of reaching other goals. 

2. Learning from the evidence: 

a. Perception matters – conventional wisdom says that we are more divided and polarised than ever. But the research on a number of topics, from public opinion to understanding online communities, shows this is not the whole picture. 

b. Human connection matters – the strong evidence base on contact theory and examples from policy show how, even in a landscape of increasing digital interaction and AI, human contact is central to ideas of cohesion. 

c. Place matters – the spatial element of cohesion is often lost in approaches that focus on either one-to-one connection or institutional-level approaches, but the evidence shows that much of cohesion and integration happens at the local level. 

d. Economic conditions cannot be separated out from social cohesion – in particular, the role of poverty in inhibiting cohesion. However, cohesion is much broader than economic conditions and cannot solely be reduced to these factors. It must be considered in its social and political context 

e. Representation matters – the institutional capacity to promote cohesion is strengthened when organisations are representative and take collaborative and co-productive approaches to developing whole community responses.

Programme background

As part of the Stronger Together event series under the Youth & Skills and Inclusive Communities strand of our work in the EU Region, we are aiming to provide opportunities for dialogue between youth and policymakers allowing for young people’s views to be heard and to be shaped into recommendations. The event series provides a platform for reflection on critical contemporary topics, from addressing the challenges of youth’s empowerment and access to opportunities to young people’s role in tackling climate change and working for social cohesion.

The British Council Social cohesion in Europe literature review is available for download here.