The sole bright spot in all of the harrowing devastation seen from Oaxaca to Texas to the Caribbean is the shining demonstration of neighborliness. Stories of neighbors checking in on one another, looking out for the elderly woman down the hall, or the young family down the street. In resilience planning, this is known as social cohesion and considered a vital component to preparing for climate change impacts, among other threats. But what does social cohesion even mean?
Unfortunately, there is no singularly accepted definition of social cohesion, but the general concept can be gained by reading through a few examples:
- The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) defines it as a cohesive society that works towards the well-being of all its members, fights exclusion and marginalization, creates a sense of belonging, promotes trust, and offers its members the opportunity of upward social mobility.
- The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) adds that social cohesion is about promoting a sense of belonging, being accepted by others, and having a desire to contribute to the common good.
While the concept seems pretty common sense, it is incredibly hard to realize. As enlightening literature reviews reveal, social cohesion is an end point, something to be ‘encouraged,’ ‘fostered,’ and ‘protected.’ In order to foster it, we must understand the underlying components of it. Moreover, we need a set of commonly accepted indicators for it, so we can track our progress in cultivating it.
The critical components of social cohesion are still being debated, but often include the following two:
- Social inclusion: Reducing inequality, disparities, and divisions within a community and promoting equal opportunities to resources. This is fundamental to establishing trust among community members.
- Social capital: Strengthening social relationships, interactions, and ties. The idea here is that social networks have value, and thus are a form of capital, like that of physical, financial, political, or cultural.
When analyzing the extent of social impacts, as well as strength of recovery efforts, be it of the 2011 tsunami in Japan or the 1995 heat wave in Chicago, we can see that social cohesion makes or breaks our collective ability to resile and respond to extreme hazards.