Societal resilience and cohesion: identifying contributing factors and their interactions

by Dr Anne Bardsley, Dr Andrew Chen, Rachel Owens, Sir Peter Gluckman and Paul Spoonley
Crowd of motion blurred business people rushing in sunset light.

Koi Tū, on behalf International Network for Government Science Advice (INGSA), undertook a project to identify the factors involved in enhancing or undermining societal resilience and cohesion.

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Resilience is the capacity to cope with shocks and stress and to adapt and transform positively in the face of potentially disruptive change. At a societal level, resilience requires a level of cohesion among its members, reflected in a sense of community, identity, belonging and trust that drives cooperative and constructive action, particularly during times of stress.

Several lines of evidence indicate that societal cohesion is under strain in many places around the world, a trend that began well before COVID-19 emerged. The shock and ongoing global stress of the pandemic are occurring in the context of multiple concurrent disruptive changes, including digitisation and globalisation, climate change and environmental degradation, and demographic change. In this time of disruption and uncertainty, societal resilience and cohesion are more critical than ever.

Many interacting factors are at play. Weak social cohesion is often thought to be related to perceived unfairness and inequality, economic insecurity, and distrust of government and institutions. Polarisation of views is increasingly creating an ‘us versus them’ mentality, stoking disdain and ‘othering’, and hollowing out the middle ground where cooperation is most likely. This can manifest in social and political unrest, potentially leading to violent conflict and extremism. Lack of cohesion can also lead to poor recovery from disasters, low productivity and slow economic growth.

Understanding the dynamics that either bolster or undermine social cohesion is fundamental for developing policies to enhance resilience in the face of current and future challenges. Inevitably many will be on a scale that will require cooperation across cultures, communities and worldviews. Similar sets of factors are likely to be important at multiple levels, from communities to private sector businesses, to non-governmental organisations and nations. The importance of each factor and their interactions will vary depending on both context, views and experiences of different sectors of society.

Identifying factors that are amenable to change has become a priority for governments around the world. However, decisions to modify one identified factor must consider the effects this might have on a number of other dynamically interacting factors and resulting feedback loops. It is also critical to appreciate the underlying diversity of identities, values and worldviews of societal members who may be affected, and understand the plurality of perspectives and priorities. Rather than simply treating any society as a homogenous whole, effective development of societal resilience requires attention to that granularity and diversity.

This project set out to develop a tool for identifying and analysing the key factors, their interactions, and the levers of change in a manner that can be utilised at various levels of decision-making. Importantly, the tools allow an analysis of cohesion and resilience as perceived by different segments of society, which is likely to be critical to inform appropriate policy and societal actions.

This project had three overall goals:

  • To understand what factors might be contributing to undermining or enhancing societal cohesion, and to define these in a way which would allow for application in specific contexts;
  • To understand how these factors cluster and interact with each other; and
  • To develop a tool kit to enable evaluation in the context of specific societies. (Subsequent use of the tool was beyond the project’s scope, but is the logical next step.)

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