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Social-Cohesion Problems SoC1258 October 2021

Author: Katerie Whitman (Send us feedback.)

Many leading economies are suffering from low levels of social cohesion because of a complex set of factors that are difficult and costly to address. Maintaining high levels of social cohesion may become an increasingly important competitive advantage. Low social cohesion makes dealing with extreme challenges such as the effects of global warming, the long-term effects of the covid‑19 pandemic, and disruptions from AI more difficult for societies. Low social cohesion also increases transaction costs within a society, which makes doing business more expensive and acts as a drain on resources.

Low social cohesion makes dealing with extreme challenges more difficult for societies.

Social cohesion refers to a set of interrelated behavioral measures that describe how well members of a given society get along with one another. Elements of social cohesion can include:

  • Trust in other people and in one's government
  • Feelings of social connectedness, social belonging, or acceptance of diversity
  • Feelings that one receives fair treatment from one's society and government or that one shares equally in society's benefits
  • Desire to respect the law, to honor agreements, or to help others.

The factors that influence social cohesion are complex, and distinguishing cause from effect is often difficult. Empirical evidence has shown that economic inequality tends to decrease social cohesion and that higher education tends to improve it. Social media currently appears to be having a net‑negative effect on social cohesion.

Given the high amounts of economic inequality in the world, countries' having problems with social cohesion is perhaps unsurprising. A 2020 Ipsos (Paris, France) poll measured social cohesion across 27 major economies, and the results were not encouraging. Of the 27 surveyed countries, only 6 (China, Saudi Arabia, Australia, India, Malaysia, and Sweden) had net‑positive measures for social cohesion. All the remaining countries—including the United States, Japan, South Korea, Poland, and France—had net‑negative measures. The 2021 Global Peace Index from the Institute for Economics & Peace (Sydney, Australia) found that the number of social-unrest incidents around the world increased by 244% during the period 2011–19. An increase in social unrest is a proxy indicator for a decline in social cohesion.

The invasion of the US Capitol Building in Washington, DC, on 6 January 2021 is a vivid example of the severe social-cohesion problems that the United States has been experiencing. It is also an example of how difficult measuring social cohesion empirically can be. In the 2020 Ipsos survey, the United States demonstrated a higher level of social cohesion than Japan did, yet no event even remotely similar to the 6 January 2021 invasion occurred in Japan.

Social cohesion will likely continue to decline globally because of factors such as economic inequality, resource constraints, and the destabilizing influence of social media. Countries that have exceptionally high levels of social cohesion will likely benefit disproportionately as severe crises become increasingly frequent. However, the future is uncertain, and changing conditions could trigger alternative outcomes. Some examples of potential events that could transform the future of social-cohesion problems follow:

  • Major natural disasters, financial crises, armed conflicts, political crises, or other shock events. Shock events can reveal hidden information about the level of cohesion within a society that empirical measurements might not capture. Shock events can also have long-lasting transformative effects on social cohesion through direct and indirect means.
  • Substantial changes to economic inequality within societies. High levels of economic inequality within a society tend to create low levels of social cohesion. Economic inequality is rising within societies globally and is particularly acute in some societies that have low levels of social cohesion. A major change in this trend could signal significant improvements in social cohesion.
  • Evidence that demonstrates the effects of organized disinformation campaigns on social cohesion. Organized disinformation campaigns that leverage social media and artificial intelligence have become popular scapegoats for declines in social cohesion. But conflicting evidence exists about whether such campaigns actually create significant amounts of social division. As researchers gain a better understanding of the impacts of disinformation campaigns, they may become able to offer societies new digital tools to improve social cohesion.
  • Major changes to social-media content-curation algorithms. Research has shown that content that promotes hatred of social out‑groups is the type of content that is most likely to go viral on social media. In diverse societies, out‑group hatred reduces overall social cohesion. Because social-media content-curation algorithms typically prioritize user engagement, the algorithms amplify the reach of the type of content that increases social division. Changes to these algorithms could increase social cohesion as time passes.

The world faces enormous challenges that societies must come together to resolve. Global warming is now certain not only to make weather disasters much more extreme and much more frequent than humanity has ever experienced but also to transform the places where crops can grow and where people can live. Artificial intelligence has just begun to make profound changes to the nature of work, governance, finance, warfare, and countless other aspects of human life. The world is in the midst of a massive shift away from fossil energy and toward renewable energy, which will dramatically change the balance of power among nations, industry sectors, and political factions. Advances in drone technology, synthetic biology, and a variety of disruptive technologies are creating conditions in which small groups of discontented people can have a much greater destabilizing impact on the world than was ever possible before.

In other words, shock events are all but certain to occur much more often in the future than they did in the past. Each shock event will reveal how cohesive a society is and offer opportunities for transformative change in the level of social cohesion. Because social cohesion is so complex, predicting what the results will end up being is impossible. Governments might take a much more proactive role in boosting social cohesion by implementing proven measures that can increase it. But even in authoritarian regimes, low social cohesion constrains governments' freedom of action, which means that legislating their way to greater social harmony is difficult for less‑cohesive countries.