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Integration and cohesion: a puzzle for policy makers and social scientists

Posted on 28 March 2018 by Kirby Swales, Director of Survey Research Centre .

‘Do we live in an integrated and cohesive society’? ‘Is there a problem that we need to solve and, if so, how?’ ‘How can surveys and other research inform this debate’? These are some of the questions posed at a workshop held last week as part of British Academy Cohesive Societies programme. The general consensus was that there definitely are ways we can improve the evidence base – using new theory, new data collection and new analysis.

In the last two weeks, two integration strategies have been announced – one by central government and other by the Mayor for London. Both argue there is a need for more evidence, and take distinctive approaches to defining the problem and solutions.

What is the existing evidence base? 

This is an area where the Census is particularly important, as it provides measures of residential location and migration. We can therefore tell whether people of different ages, ethnicities, gender and so on live in the same areas, and if this is changing over time. Researchers at Manchester do this type of analysis, and argue that there is increasing levels of integration. Demos have created an integration index, looking at both the balance of ethnicities in the area and views of national identity.

However, this doesn’t tell us about whether people are actually mixing or how people feel about levels of integration and cohesion. The Community Life and other surveys therefore provide valuable evidence on these subjects. NatCen has recently published a report that covers both new questions on the NatCen Panel and analysis of Community Life survey. 

We found that the picture is mixed. On the one hand, we found plenty of signs of a healthy cohesive society – the vast majority of people greet their neighbours, the majority agree when presented with statements about people getting on together, and many people draw friends from their local community. On the other hand, a sizeable minority are not actively taking part in any kind of community involvement or feel that there isn’t a strong sense of community in their area.  There are high levels of similarity in social mixing with friends according to age, gender and ethnicity (see figure 1). It is particularly telling that those who have lived in neighbourhoods for the longest period of time are least positive about cohesion in their area. 

Figure 1:Social Cohesion Infographics _v 2_Involvement

However, these studies don’t tell us if interactions are broadly positive and negative, or other types of interactions (such as by class or in the workplace). We don’t have good causal evidence, for example about the drivers of social mixing and what impact it has on well-being and social attitudes. We aren’t able to clearly observe the downsides of low levels of cohesion, except in the most obviously segregated communities (such as Northern Ireland). 

Perhaps the real problem that society is facing is that people are ‘hunkering down’ –rather than fragmenting. More detailed and multi-level studies could help, as may further analysis of existing data. Methodologically, there is scope to better use full network analysis and trials of interventions.

It summary, cohesion and integration are an important, if somewhat invisible, social phenomenon. It is encouraging that the latest integration strategies by the Government and Mayor for London both suggest programmes of local action, backed up by better monitoring and research. If the route to greater cohesion and therefore more effective communities can be better defined then it will be worth the wait and effort.


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