Andy Blunden May 2004

Tony Vinson on Social Cohesion

Community adversity and resilience: the distribution of social disadvantage in Victoria and New South Wales and the mediating role of social cohesion. Tony Vinson March 2004 for the Ignatius Centre, Jesuit Social Services.

Tony Vinson of the University of New South Wales has produced a very valuable study of the distribution of poverty and “social cohesion” in New South Wales and Victoria for Jesuit Social Services. His very detailed work aimed at measuring a range of social factors which are either antecedent causes or indicators of a low quality of life itself, and “social cohesion,” was frustrated at many points by the unwillingness of governments to provide information.

The most significant results of the study are summed up as follows:

“The question faced here is the extent to which cohesion mediates the association between [antecedent] variables like unemployment and low income and the disadvantageous social and medical outcomes with which they are frequently positively correlated. ...

“the arresting feature of the results is the contrast between the extremes of social cohesion: in every instance the correlation between the antecedent and outcome variables is higher in the low cohesion category than in the high cohesion category, frequently, by a wide margin.

“The low cohesion category accounted for a negligible proportion of the rural postcode areas but almost half of the urban areas; the balance was reversed within the high cohesion category. In rural areas ... lack of social cohesion may not be where the problem lies ...” [p. 78]

In other words, urban communities may be composed of large numbers of poor and unemployed people, but whether or not these people suffer from the disease and psychiatric disorders commonly associated with poverty — their “resilience” — statistically depends on what Vinson measures as “social cohesion.”

While Vinson is more than conscious of the logical problems involved in disentangling cause and effect, means and ends, subject and object, in this kind of work, the statistical outcomes remain of significance.

“Social cohesion” is defined as follows:

“Three categories of information ... relevant for measurement purposes are social and support networks (including access to social support in times of need), social participation (as the obverse of social isolation and being cut off from relationships providing friendship and company), and community engagement (including volunteering which draws people together to work for the benefit of others). In reference to volunteering, the Institute says “This initial establishment of ‘social bridges’ may in turn engender other sources of cohesion, such as trust, and further establishment of support networks and norms.” [p. 32-33]

Commenting on the work of R J Sampson, Vinson notes that the measure of “social efficacy” used by Sampson was a combination of “social cohesion” and “social control,” where “social control” refers to the readiness of people to intervene to correct the misbehaviour of young people (as in Jane Jacobs “side-walk culture” that she saw as crucial to socialisation in urban life), showed that “social control” and “social cohesion” were so closely correlated that there seemed no grounds for taking them to measure different entities.

Vinson does not use the concept of “social capital,” but nor does he criticise it; he says that “social cohesion subsumes some of the important elements of ‘social capital,'” but clearly regards it as a distinct and more well-defined concept.

Vinson’s statistical work is cast in a slightly different light also by the case studies at the start of the report examining two projects in which the Jesuit Social Services participated, one in Windale, Newcastle, the other in Wendouree West, Ballarat. The projects were initiated following an earlier report by the Jesuit Social Services, and what is interesting about the case studies is how the various agencies who participated in the project interpreted the ideas of the link between “social cohesion,” quality of life and “strong communities.”

This was much more in line with Jane Jacobs’ conception of neighbourhoods gaining “self-determination,” than in simply creating “networks” and “norms of reciprocity.” In effect, the project team set out, in much the same way a trade union would set about organising a workplace, to create a form of “local democracy” which would formulate community goals and attempt to achieve them by whatever means. They called a local forum and facilitated the drafting of an “action plan” and the establishment of a “collective” with a “Board of Management” run by residents, which would set priorities and implement plans. The teams evidently believed, and with some justice I think, that “social cohesion” would follow from an internally generated struggle by people living in the community to win justice for themselves.

This raises the question as to whether “social cohesion” is measuring the right thing; in a sense it is still more likely a symptom or by-product of what it is that really makes the difference for a poor or stigmatised group of people. For example, “social cohesion” is probably very high in a prison population, but it is doubtful whether it is always the type of social cohesion which leads to better health and welfare outcomes.