43. Formulating a relevant and measurable concept of social cohesion for South Africa

Anda David
Agence Française de Développement (AFD)
Felipe Korreales
Agence Française de Développement (AFD)

Promoting social cohesion requires an agreed understanding of its meaning

In 2016, AFD, the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation and the University of Cape Town’s Poverty and Inequality Initiative commenced work on a research project which aimed to answer three questions: What is the relationship between social cohesion and economic inequality? What kinds of institutional change do we need in order to promote social cohesion and reduce inequality? And how do we bridge the growing inter-generational divide?

Promoting social cohesion is one of the most difficult, yet one of the most important, challenges facing South Africa. While there is widespread agreement that social cohesion influences economic and social development, and that nurturing a more cohesive society is an important policy goal in itself, little progress has been made in trying to measure it and track progress in this domain over time. One of the most severe limitations to this progress is the lack of consensus on how to define the term. If social cohesion does represent a phenomenon which is important and valuable, then it is worth making the attempt to pin down a precise sense of the term around which there can be some agreement. Without a clear definition, it becomes difficult to assess whether social cohesion has improved or worsened, which in turn makes it difficult to formulate policies to improve social cohesion. Furthermore, once a definition is agreed upon, it is crucial to propose a measure allowing stakeholders to observe and analyse its evolution over time and link it with broader trends.

Establishing an operational definition and a social cohesion index

In South Africa, the concept of ubuntu has, for many, become synonymous with social cohesion, nation-building, and efforts to bridge the cultural and racial divides of the past.1 As such, the researchers reflected on the extent to which the proposed definition would resonate with the notion of ubuntu.

Nkonko Kamwangamalu (1999[1]) writes that ubuntu is a Nguni term, and a “multidimensional concept which represents the core values of African ontologies: respect for any human being, for human dignity and for human life, collective shared-ness, obedience, humility, solidarity, caring, hospitality, interdependence, communalism, to list but a few.”

Having considered the existing definitions and approaches to measuring social cohesion, the project proposed to define social cohesion as the extent to which people are co-operative, within and across group boundaries, without coercion or purely self-interested motivation.

This uncoerced, non-self-interested co-operativity across society, which tends to generate peace and prosperity, can conceivably be realised in many different ways. The organisation of a society into sub-groups, relations between those sub-groups, and attitudes of members of sub-groups and members of society as a whole towards one another, can take numerous forms while still exhibiting uncoerced, non-self-interested co-operativity.

Using this definition of social cohesion and nationally representative data available in South Africa, the researchers endeavoured to operationalise it in a first-ever social cohesion index. Results suggest that social cohesion in South Africa increased between 2008 and 2011, although the trend thereafter is less clear.2

Finally, the team analysed the link between social cohesion and inequality. Results showed that inequality, both objective and perceived, negatively affects social cohesion, providing new evidence that social inclusion is crucial to social cohesion.

Describing what social cohesion is, separately from its effects

The project’s simple understanding of social cohesion is nonetheless useful and substantial. It avoids the tendency to define social cohesion on the basis of what a cohesive society would do, or the qualities that would characterise such a society, or the hypothesised causes or effects of social cohesion. It avoids specific normative commitments or empirical hypotheses on which there can be reasonable disagreement. Instead, it acknowledges that the question of what social cohesion is is different to questions about the values a society should strive to realise along with cohesion or questions about forms of social cohesion that are conceivable and achievable given human constraints: all these questions need further investigation.

What next?

The definitions of social cohesion adopted by international organisations and governance bodies highlight what a cohesive society would do, but do not define what constitutes social cohesion itself. Some proposed understandings of social cohesion have integrated hypothesised causes or effects of social cohesion into its very definition, which creates conceptual confusion (Green, Janmaat and Cheng, 2011, p. 3[2]).3 Our research project has proposed a different route for arriving at a definition of social cohesion. Further research must be done to dig deeper into the concept in order to arrive at a better understanding and better policies.


[2] Green, A., G. Janmaat and H. Cheng (2011), Social cohesion: Converging and diverging trends, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/260341109_GREEN_JANMAAT_AND_CHENG_SOCIAL_COHESION_CONVERGING_AND_DIVERGING_TRENDS_R1_SOCIAL_COHESION_CONVERGING_AND_DIVERGING_TRENDS.

[1] Kamwangamalu, N. (1999), “Ubuntu in South Africa: A sociolinguistic perspective to a pan-African concept”, Critical Arts, Vol. 13/2, pp. 25-26.


← 1. For example, ubuntu features in the final clause of the 1993 Interim Constitution and informed the approach of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. However, while ubuntu has been described and analysed in a wide range of texts, much like social cohesion there appears to be no universally accepted definition.

← 2. For more information and details, please visit: https://www.afd.fr/en/conceptualizing-and-analyzing-inequality-and-social-cohesion-south-africa?origin=/en/recherche?query=*& page=research&view=map

← 3. Green, A., G. Janmaat and H. Cheng (2011[2]) note this shortcoming of much work on reaching a definition of social cohesion.

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