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Things We Cannot Manage Alone

Découvrir les sciences de la vie

  • Nature
  • Off the Bench
  • Inspirer la science

Community cohesion is considered to be the “glue” of our society. In times of crisis, it ensures that people will collaborate, close ranks – and surpass themselves.

We were born to work together like feet, hands and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower.” This observation, delivered so poetically by Roman Emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius in the 2nd century BCE, is true to this day: humans are social beings. From the moment of his birth, Marcus Aurelius preferred to be social. Whether starting a family, working in teams, going to the pub, singing in a choir, or playing team sports, “Social relationships lay the foundation for personal identity and our sense of connectedness with others. This gives rise to positive emotions in an upward spiral relationship“, explains psychologist Andrew Kemp of Swansea University.
The principle of a community of solidarity with common values is considered the foundation of a successful society. Community cohesion has been proven to be the “glue” of our society – not only in times of crisis. From communal, cross-border garbage cleanup on the banks of the Rhine to the fight against a global pandemic: many things can only be accomplished if we work together.

This knowledge had been a trend since long before the COVID-19 pandemic. After individualism and self-actualization determined peoples’ attitude towards life for many years, we now share cars and scooters; vegetable gardens are cultivated together, and little free libraries are erected where favorite books are shared. The variations of community reach from the rational, pragmatic exchange with little sense of community, as in the sharing economy, all the way to value-driven projects such as parent initiatives for childcare that demand a high level of engagement.

A sense of community is good for you
The rewards that members of a community reap will far exceed the success of their actual projects. Studies show that a successful community life has positive effects on overall health – even stronger effects than not smoking, weight control and exercise. A meta-analysis published in “The Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology” by Australian psychologists Alexander Haslam and Jolanda Jetten of the University of Queensland points out that hobbies experienced as part of a community such as hiking, soccer or cooking foster the sense of belonging to a group and support mental performance and overall wellness.
Community cohesion also appears to strengthen society when it comes to mastering all kinds of crises. “The stronger the cohesion of any community, the more robust will be its coping mechanisms when faced with crises, catastrophes and social upheaval“, were the results of the research project “Resilience through solidarity – the role of organizations” under the leadership of the University of Wuppertal in Germany. Social cohesion is found mostly in places where people know each other, trust each other and share common norms and values.
A crisis forges bonds
The COVID-19 crisis, too, has moved people closer together and forged solidarities among people who had not previously known each other, and many countries have even witnessed an increase in social cohesion. According to the “Social cohesion radar 2020” by the Bertelsmann Foundation, the proportion of people in Germany who worried about cohesion declined steadily throughout the pandemic. This is hardly surprising: the willingness to show consideration in everyday interactions is enormous. Most people wear masks and pay attention to hygiene and distancing without complaint, and “Social Distancing” has become a synonym for solidarity and social responsibility towards each other.
All over the world, stories are told in which people will offer their help to complete strangers. In Brazil, for example, volunteers delivered food to the slums; in many European countries, volunteer organizations and neighborhood networks offered help with shopping, and in London, neighbors took dogs out for a walk for those who were quarantined. “Yet something quite profound is also happening in terms of our relationships with people we don’t know”, says cultural historian Fay Bound Alberti of the University of York. “Despite negativity about the societal impacts of COVID-19 – from increased levels of loneliness to the limitations of social media – we are seeing some positive and unexpected results, including widespread outpourings of charity, as well as togetherness and empathy for complete strangers. We might even be seeing a grassroots redefinition of what 'community' means in the 21st century“, says Alberti.

Cohesion as a “social curse”
Despite its overwhelmingly positive effects, social cohesion also has the potential to turn into a curse: scientists from Vienna and Giessen discovered that people were more prone to “infection” by another person’s stress if those affected are connected through feelings of cohesion, community and togetherness. The scientists named this contagious stress a “social curse”. “It is reasonable to expect that people will be even more likely to contract the feelings of stress if they witness people in difficult situations with whom they share a strong, long-term connection, for example, family and friends”, explains Professor Jan Häusser, lead scientist of the group.
The situation becomes even more problematic if members of a community separate themselves from outsiders in an extreme fashion. Various economic and political scandals, but also xenophobia within police forces and acts of violence within the military illustrate where an exaggerated sense of cohesion, which targets outsiders, can lead.

Cohesion is threatened by external circumstances
Social cohesion is also vulnerable to external forces – be it a crisis, poverty or polarization. Climate change, economic upheaval, migration or the collapse of democracy endanger the trust of many in their fellow humans and in the state, as exemplified in certain segments of the population even throughout the COVID crisis. “As if through a magnifying glass, COVID-19 amplifies preexisting social upheavals. Those who were previously disadvantaged will face an even more difficult situation in a crisis”, reports Kai Unzicker of the Bertelsmann Foundation, where he is referring specifically to people with little formal education, low economic status or a migrational background, and also single people and single parents.
Whether the COVID crisis will in the long run unite or separate people is already a topic of heated scientific debate. When it comes to this question, cultural historian Alberti of the University of York is convinced of the principle of a “blessing in disguise”: “The coronavirus is changing what is possible. Amid emotional devastation and uncertainty, it is providing the potential for more connectedness, as well as less, and for radically changing the meanings of community itself. This pandemic might, paradoxically, bring people closer together.“