Just and Safer Cities for All: Social cohesion in heterogeneous societies

© Helga Amesberger

Currently, social cohesion is considered to be in danger across Europe, with political and media discourses mostly identifying cultural and religious differences as its greatest potential threat. Such a reduction not only disregards other social markers and thus the heterogeneity of a society, it also culturalises societal conflicts.

Reduced contextualisation of the causes of social division

There is no unambiguous definition of “social cohesion”. In most cases, it is understood as the ability of a society or community to withstand internal tensions, to minimise social inequality and marginalisation, and to find solutions that ideally add to the wellbeing of all. Consequently, poverty, structural disadvantages, and exclusion contribute to social division. To have as equal chances and living conditions as possible is considered to be a precondition for peaceful coexistence. The current discussion regarding the threat to social cohesion posed by migration and refugee movements, however, nearly exclusively focuses on (assumed or real) cultural and religious differences and associated values and norms. An equitable distribution of wealth, the opportunity of social participation and joint action, which increase the trust, the feeling of belonging, and the happiness of the whole population, are not, however, an issue.

Homogenisation of social groups

Politics and media place Islam, or rather Muslims, under the general suspicion of backwardness (as compared to Western, Christian societies), of destabilising our society, of being anti-democratic, and of failing to recognise human rights. The majority society with its Christian foundations, on the other hand, is portrayed as its opposite in this hegemonial discourse: enlightened, open, democratic, secular, recognising human and in particular women’s rights, and so on in a similar vein. Here, the problem is not whether these attributions are justified; what we want to point out is the mechanism of homogenisation that is applied to both newcomers and the majority society. This homogenisation is a prerequisite for the construction of the “Other” and “one’s own”, in order to differentiate oneself from the “others”, and to create a seeming internal unity. The images of “us” and the “others” sketched in these discourses regarding security and social cohesion are conceived in categories of superiority and subordination. In his highly regarded book “Modernität und Ambivalenz” [Modernity and Ambivalence] (1993: 28), Zygmunt Bauman writes that this dichotomy generally constitutes a practice of power that is simultaneously hidden. The constructed internal unity attempts to obscure the diversity of a group including its inherent asymmetries of power. Intersecting axes of privilege and discrimination, of inclusion and exclusion, are thus made invisible.

Challenge to politics

Violence based on intolerance, hate, and prejudice, an ideology of superiority and claims to power is sadly a reality, also in Europe. Violence based in such motives affects people who stand out because of their appearance, behaviour, poverty, physical limitations, language or sexual orientation etc. The past years have seen an increase of group-specific violence across Europe, in particular violence against Jewish people, Muslims, and Roma and Sinti, but also against homosexuals, transgender persons, and women. They and many other groups are attacked because they are identified as part of a social group.

Group-specific violence, however, not “only” has negative (physical and mental) consequences the individual victim as well as for the whole group, but also for the coexistence of a society. Therefore, politics and administrations at a local level are affected by it. It is the local institutions and their staff who first come into contact with those who are affected by group-specific violence. They are confronted with the negative consequences of this violence, and they have to react to this suffering. Politics on all levels is therefore particularly required to prevent such violence and to counter social division.

It is these diverse forms of discrimination and exclusion that form the starting point of the project “Just and Safer Cities for All” by the European Forum fro Urban Security (EFUS). This EU-funded project, which is implemented in eight EU member states, aims to increase our knowledge of possible preventive and counter measures by collecting promising practices, interventions, and activities to strengthen social cohesion on the local and regional level.

In the blog posts that will follow over the course of the coming weeks, we will look into a number of answers to this challenge. These projects have in common that they aim to promote inclusion and raise awareness amongst local authorities and the majority population. Local and regional authorities and institutions have a strategic role in maintaining social cohesion.

This article is the first in a series of contributions from the IKF‘s “Just and Safer Cities for All” project.


Helga Amesberger and Birgitt Haller are senior researchers at the Institute of Conflict Research in Vienna which is partner of the CPD cluster. Research on integration/ social inclusion and on prejudice is among the institute’s main fields of activities.