Social cohesion or social coherence? Thoughts on identities in a fractured society

Published by Tony Quinlan on

I woke to the radio at 7am. My first thought as they read the news headlines was “I must have misheard that,” then as the slightly-longer version kicked in I realised that I hadn’t. It was 24th June 2016. The day after the UK referendum on staying in Europe. The close vote was “51.89% of voters want the United Kingdom to leave the European Union”. On the walk to the office, I met the ex-owner of the health insurance company that had, until recently, been in the offices next door. He was delighted. I wasn’t.

On arriving at the office, I did what many did and ranted briefly on Facebook – something I subsequently regretted and deleted*. Over the course of the next few hours, there were many more in my social media feeds doing exactly the same – and quite quickly a hashtag gained popularity: #notmycountry. A similar one emerged a few months later when I was in San Jose, California the morning after the 2016 US presidential election.

Not my country.

My first reaction was to agree, but a second reaction followed shortly after. “Not my country”. A country is not mine, but ours – it is something I share with many others, some being people I probably wouldn’t want to share a room with but with whom I’ll no doubt be inadvertently sharing a train or bus. And this is undoubtedly a good thing.

From a theoretical perspective, if we’re in a complex system, we need diversity of perspective and opinion. If things are changing, organisations need people who see the world in ways that differ from the norm.

From a human perspective, I believe that we’re better sharing and learning from people who are not like ourselves. I don’t want to live in an echo chamber where all I hear are things that agree with me. It’s a slightly overdone metaphor, but a single branch is easily snapped, but a bundle is more resilient to pressure.

Not my country.

The idea of social cohesion

Much of the debate – and policy – of the previous decades had been around social cohesion – how do we create a cohesive sense of what it is to be British**? A single identity and set of values that define the group – and newcomers are expected to conform at all costs. The old “Tebbit test” being one version: “who do you support in cricket” – as if anyone not supporting England is not English. Another version in the 90s and the Labour government was the hunt for a common set of values – following on from the “Cool Britannia” ideas. Cohesion – we all stick together, we all conform to the same identity.

Yet cohesion in most groups is strongest when we’re under threat from a common enemy. I may have all sorts of arguments with a friend and use insulting language, but if you attack him, then suddenly I’ll be united with him. Works in families, tribal areas, organisations. And in crisis situations, common identity is usually one of opposition to the threat – not one of unity in the group, save for those values are contrary to the aggressor.

It also creates the illusion that we share values and can agree with everyone else in the group. Which can never be true. When evidence emerges that we do not all agree, then we become shocked and outraged.

Not my country

Social cohesion hasn’t worked and I don’t believe it can in everyday situations – indeed when its pursuit makes the pain on realising that it’s not true even greater. Instead, I offer the idea of social coherence – what may look like a linguistic difference should offer something significantly different. Instead of sticking together, we fit together on crucial things, but are able to be different on others.

One alternative: social coherence – able to work together without sticking together

The following are initial ideas, half-framed but needing to be in the sunlight to be exposed for discussion.

  • Instead of a single shared identity, multiple identities that fit together where needed without conflict, but are not the same
  • Discovery of shared values and humanity through working together, not discussion of our differences
  • Recognition – indeed appreciation on occasion – of differences between groups
  • Oblique approaches – never directly or overtly making activities about social coherence, but allowing that to emerge naturally from the interactions
  • Action towards common goals or problems, not communication or exhortation
  • Space for non-shared identities according to family/tribal/geographic/cultural/historic connections

The weeks after the UK referendum showed more of the fractures. I believe that some (far from all) of those involved, had been feeling that the UK was #notmycountry for a long time – much of the time when I might have been inclined to say it was #mycountry. And finally they had a voice – perhaps the roles had been switched. Yet the now-broken assumption of common values left many in despair.

One conversation that I saw on Facebook was focused on “I can’t talk to these people – they are so antithetical to what I stand for.” My clumsy suggestion that perhaps we’d become used to hearing like-minded things from like-minded people was roundly rejected – “I talk to lots of different people, but I couldn’t talk to these people because they’re …” Easy categories, easy dismissals.

And working together on communal tasks allows us to see each other for the value we bring, for the points of identity that we do share. A recent project in Jordan putting unemployed Jordanian citizens with Syrian citizens in order to build Sustainable Livelihoods showed that participants in the programme saw an increase in people who believed that diversity was a good thing – that there was value in the other, different person.

It’s time to set aside the idea of social cohesion for those places where a common identity is essential. For the rest of us, social coherence – where working together despite (or indeed because of) our differences builds bridges across seemingly impossible social divides.

*I’m sure Facebook have a copy somewhere. I’m glad I don’t.

** The same applies to organisations, to Europeans, to any group large enough to encompass differences of background, culture and experience.

photo by: France1978

1 Comment

Corinne Lemercier · 26 May 2018 at 4:14 pm


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