We need to talk about Cohesion

If you’re an academic, at least.

Maybe I’m blowing this out of proportion. Maybe I’m just being too much of an academic pedant (is that a tautology?). But the one thing I am set on is that social cohesion and community cohesion are not interchangeable terms. In my mind they are subtly different, yet related, terms.

There are a number of occasions in New Labour’s policy literature on the subject of Community Cohesion (and welfare reform) where the terms social and community are swapped around as if you are substituting one kind of salad garnish on your burger with another.  Yet if you believe that language is political – particularly language emanating from an inherently political (in multiple senses of the word) actor – such words cannot simply be changed without recourse.  Yet considering New Labour’s penchant for legislation and the quick turnaround times placed on many of the documents (you should see some of the typos and awkward sentences I’ve found), you may be forgiven for dismissing the changes as relatively unimportant when seen in the wider context. I don’t agree – I wouldn’t as someone who uses CDA – but that is a debate for another day.

Source: HACT.org.ukThis issue grabbed my attention when reading an article in Ethnic and Racial Studies that discusses ethnic diversity, segregation and social cohesion in London. The paper reports the position that the majority of academic and policy positions on the subject which argue that high diversity equals low trust (though this is not the argument of the paper itself). It highlights the predominance of Putnam and his work on social capital in the popularity of this position. This, then, is a very specific understanding of cohesion (preceding word intentionally omitted), which links well with New Labour’s understanding of Community Cohesion.

On the second page, the authors outline how they will examine ethnic diversity in relation to ‘interpersonal trust and community cohesion’ – a phrase that is very much at home in the community cohesion policy literature. Two sentences later, the paper is looking at how the ethnic composition of neighbourhoods affects social cohesion. So what’s the difference, and does it matter?

We can separate social and community cohesion in two broad ways. Firstly, one can understand social cohesion as an academic term, and community cohesion as a policy term; the use of ‘community’ before cohesion only really took off in academic work after is inception in policy from 2001 onwards (though you can find it used before this, particularly in relation to anthropological studies). Secondly, social cohesion is much older – prominent articles can be found easily from the 80s, 70s, 60s etc. As Robinson et alargue, community cohesion was an empty term that Labour could populate with its own meaning and implications, in order to reflect the party’s wider policy concerns. Community cohesion is most strongly associated with ethnic diversity as evidenced by policy and a wealth of academic literature. Social cohesion however (at least to my mind) is more likely to incorporate a wider range of socio-economic issues, of which ethnic difference may be one. If this is the case, the two terms denote a difference in focus.

I’m not suggesting every time someone writes a paper on whichever-cohesion they should carry out a Foucauldian genealogy of the term, but we should at least be more strict in which term we use, why, where and when. If we don’t do this we inadvertently accept an eclectic frame of debate that makes it harder to question or challenge specifics, if not the concepts and phenomena in general. Many people and organisations seem to do this, as this quick Google search shows, with some even going as far to conflate the two entirely. Yet if the two are exactly the same, why do we need these two terms? It may simply be that the word ‘community’ fulfilled a rhetorical role in the New Labour years; indeed, it is emphatically the case that ‘community’ was an incredibly important rhetorical (and discursive) tool. Perhaps, then, its continued use is simply in order to reference the body of policy literature. Yet if it was used as a rhetorical and discursive tool to achieve particular political ends, we must acknowledge this. Using the two terms interchangeably does not.

Arguably, this task becomes harder the further away we travel from the original policy and discussions. But considering academics are constantly drawing links between areas and highlighting continuity and change, we are in the perfect position to be able to employ a more nuanced understanding of these terms and their socio-political contexts. And surely understanding why and how the terms were developed and used will give us more of an insight into the phenomena they were designed to highlight, illustrate and interpret?


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