New Study holds Promises for Tracking Social Cohesion

22 May 2018 - 11:00
Photo: Justine Burns


A significant study on social cohesion in South Africa has shown that it is possible to measure and track this important domain of the nation’s well-being by using existing national survey data. Researchers now hope that its value for inclusive growth policies will encourage ongoing tracking of social cohesion by using a dedicated Statistics South Africa survey for data collection.

The recently completed two-year study, which explored the relationship between social cohesion and inequality in South Africa, was a collaboration between researchers from UCT’s Poverty and Inequality Initiative (PII), the Agence Française de Développement (AFD), and the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR). 

The study was led by School of Economics professor, Justine Burns, who is also a research associate of the Southern Africa Labour and Development Research Unit (SALDRU) and a member of the Poverty and Inequality Initiative Planning Group. She says that while earlier studies focused on various aspects of social cohesion, this study is the first to look at the broader relationship between social cohesion and inequality. 

“Social cohesion is linked to greater economic productivity and growth, inclusivity and tolerance, effective conflict management and resolution, and a generally better quality of life for people. It’s clear, then, that addressing social cohesion is particularly critical in South Africa given the widening inequality, growing unemployment, and persistent racial inequalities.”

Defining social cohesion

One of the study’s major contributions is that it proposed and then used a definition for social cohesion that is stripped of normative content and does not require social cohesion to be synonymous with equality or democracy. The research team contends that these are matters for empirical research to explore, and that is only possible if the term itself is not conflated with these outcomes. 

The difficulties of reaching consensus on a definition of social cohesion in the South African context, and indeed elsewhere, have resulted in failure to measure and track social cohesion over time. Prof Burns says that, without measurement, potential key determinants that are most important among many factors that influence social cohesion (e.g., inequality, poverty, gender conflict, mistrust) cannot be identified, or acted on: “Without understanding the interdependence between social cohesion and poverty and inequality, it difficult to formulate policies that could materially improve social cohesion and achieve inclusive development.”

Tracking social cohesion

What stands out for Prof Burns about the study is that the researchers have shown that it is possible to track social cohesion in South Africa. “While we have done that somewhat imprecisely with different datasets, we have shown it is possible. Building on our work, it can be done more effectively and rigorously at quite low cost simply by adding a module on social cohesion to one of the regular national surveys, such as the Victims of Crime Survey. And, planning data collection beyond the national level, to be representative at the provincial or even municipal level, would add significant power to evaluate local economic development policies and their impact on social cohesion.” 

Understanding perceptions of social cohesion

While the study made use of national datasets for the development of a social cohesion index, qualitative research based on 11 focus groups were also conducted in four provinces to explore people’s perceptions of social cohesion and inequality. The focus group results foregrounded that economics, race, politics and culture affect such perceptions, and identified five domains of social cohesion of importance to South Africa: inclusion, belonging, participation, social relationships, and legitimacy. Understanding these domains, says Prof Burns, can help policy makers to make more informed choices on where to focus interventions that address inequality and social cohesion.

Continuing to grow the evidence base

Promoting studies on social cohesion is challenging as the subject matter doesn’t fit within a specific discipline, but the researchers remain up to the challenge. Prof Burns will continue working with Dr Anda David, an AFD colleague, on further inequality and social cohesion research, with a special focus on the role of social protection. This is an unexplored area in South African research, and the results of a literature review on the topic will be discussed at a conference in June this year. 

Two PhD candidates are also focusing their research respectively on aspects of integration, trust and social cohesion in families; and the role of education and schools as sites of social cohesion. Further, work to assess the effects of intergenerational inequality on social cohesion is planned with the aim of understanding whether people’s views of the prevalence of inequality changes when redistributive interventions are introduced.

A publication on assessing and analysing social cohesion in South Africa is underway in collaboration with the Centre for Research on Peace and Development, KU Leuven University, Belgium, and VLIRO-UOS, a Belgium government-supported institution that assists university partnerships with the South to address global and local challenges.

The findings of the AFD-IJR-UCT-PII study were published in a journal article, five working papers, two policy briefs, and several media articles.  

Article by: Charmaine Smith, PII communication manager, May 2018