Thursday, November 18, 2010

From cohesion to cowesion

The term cohesion is a powerful one. In scientific terms, cohesion is an attraction between molecules of the same substance, whereas adhesion is an attraction between molecules of different substances.

"Social cohesion", a popular concept in the field of economic and social sciences, conveys the message of the "glue that holds us together". It attempts to describe the outcome of processes whereby people hold on to one another despite differences, hardships, or adverse circumstances. It is used widely in literature and in the field of conflict transformation and the prevention of violent conflict. For example, in Guyana I worked as a United Nations Peace and Development Advisor for the UNDP's Social Cohesion Programme.

What I find, especially when interacting with people at community level, is that the term "social cohesion" is not easily understood. It does not appeal to people. "I can't find the diamond in the concept", someone said yesterday in the Stellenbosch Social Cohesion Movement meeting. Furthermore, it's hard to pronounce for some non-English speaking persons. Hearing people pronouncing it as "co-heh-sion" (sounds like "heh-heh"!) makes people ever further confused.

Trevor Phillips, the Chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality in Britain, dislikes the term and says it lacks clarity. He prefers to talk about "integrated societies". The Club of Madrid talks about "shared societies".

What I begin to understand is that the underlying value/intended outcome of social cohesion is a sense of "we-ness", as opposed to divisions and unhealed multiple woundedness (as Martha Cabrera calls it) that are usually characterized by blaming of "the other". Destructive conflict and dysfunctional relationships firmly create an "othering" or "you-ness", instead of a "we-ness".

I am therefore proposing the coining of a new concept: social cowesion: n. 1. the extent to which people unite and include others to constructively satisfy fundamental human needs and rights for everyone; 2. a sense of unity and purpose to design and implement societies, systems and institutions that are just, fair and empowering for everyone; 3. a description of the quality of relationships between people who value, build and respond to constructive conflict; 4. a description of a shared and integrated society that values "we-ness" instead of divisions.

This is work in progress, and your views are welcome. What do you think? Maybe the confusion will be even greater? Who knows.


Sarah Henkeman said...

Hi Chris, I can see a T-shirt with the words Social Co-WE-sion in my mind's eye :)

The idea, to have a word that more accurately describes and reflects what the process is about for all sides, is great.

Anita Ernstorfer said...

Dear Chris,

I like it!!! Lovely idea, and what you say on your blog makes perfectly sense to me… I agree with you that language matters very much and needs to be culturally adapted. But I have also found that the notion of social cohesion is much more understood and accepted in most cultures than our traditional peace and conflict jargon… even though I like ‘cowesion’, I wonder if creating a new word is the solution to the challenge. I think it’s probably more about finding accessible and easy words to explain what we mean by all of that (starting from conflict prevention to peace building to social cohesion to etc. etc. etc.) and probably not creating more expressions that need to be explained anyway again…

Lawrence and I just had an interesting challenge on that end in a workshop we did together with UNDP’s Arab States colleagues recently on ‘conflict-sensitive development’. Even though we tried our best to explain what we actually mean, the title was already the first stumbling block for a lot of colleagues from the ‘non-conflict’ countries (as they called themselves), even though of course we know that conflict-sensitivity is about something else…

Thinking about it, we probably have to invest in the language question much more, as it opens or closes doors from the beginning sometimes…

Sorry, this is a long message with no clear answer… I think it’s great you are giving this thought as it is an issue that constantly comes up… not only for ‘social cohesion’ but for our entire work… the peace and conflict field is very Anglophone in general, which also does not help to ‘sell it’ in countries which link that to Western influence etc..

Lawrence said...

Hi Chris,

I hear you bro: folks just don't seem to "get" our terminology. Anita's description of our challenges recently with internal audiences (UNDP staff) is illustrative. Plus you will remember in Guyana where ever cat and dog, from domestic abuse to corporal punishment to ethnic tensions, sought cover/support under the umbrella of "social cohesion" (after we launched the programme). Interestingly, the successor programme was titled "Building Trust", in part to specify the type of cohesion that stakeholders were interested in.

I wonder if that might not in itself be a lesson: that the terminology needs to be flexible enough to make sense in a particular context to the stakeholders who own that context. Thus, to paraphrase your own wisdom to me over the years, it is the process of engaging the stakeholders that ought to determine the content.

At the same time, I hear you (and Anita) on the challenges inherent in our peacebuilding terminology. Undoubtedly the jargon will change as time passes (as it does in other fields) and we may have the opportunity to influence that change. The Happiness Index probably comes very close to saying what it means - and still needs explaining. In that spirit, does the "Love Index" come closer than Social Cohesion?