Social Cohesion as a Real-life Phenomenon: Assessing the Explanatory Power of the Universalist and Particularist Perspectives

An Erratum to this article was published on 17 September 2010


Unlike most studies on social cohesion, this study explores the concept as a real-life macro-level phenomenon. It assesses to what extent the conceptions of social cohesion suggested by several macro-level approaches represent coherent empirically observable forms of social cohesion. Additionally it discusses two perspectives on social cohesion—the universalist and the particularist perspective. The former would expect social cohesion to be related to stages of socio-economic development. The latter hypothesizes enduring, regionally unique regimes of social cohesion resisting the homogenizing pressures of modernization. The paper finds evidence for both perspectives. On the one hand, a syndrome of social cohesion was identified consisting of trust, equality, order (i.e. lack of crime) and consensus on basic values which correlates closely with indicators of socio-economic development. This finding supports the universalist perspective. On the other hand, and consistent with the particularist perspective, the study found regionally unique patterns for Latin America, Eastern Europe and Scandinavia.

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    We used standardized variables (Z-scores) for these cluster analyses as this ensures that each variable is given equal weight in the analyses.


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I would like to thank Andy Green and the anonymous reviewer of this journal for their helpful and detailed comments on an earlier version of this paper.

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Correspondence to Jan Germen Janmaat.

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An erratum to this article can be found at


Appendix 1. Composition of Social Cohesion Indicators

Items composing the civic participation indicator:

“Please look carefully at the following list of voluntary organizations and activities and say which, if any, you belong to:”

  • social welfare for elderly, handicapped or deprived people;

  • religious or church organizations;

  • education, arts, music or cultural activities;

  • trade unions;

  • political parties;

  • third world development or human rights;

  • conservation, environment, animal rights groups;

  • professional associations;

  • youth work;

A not mentioned;

B mentioned

Active civic participation: Respondents were also asked whether they did voluntary work for these nine different organizations.

Table 6 The composition of the religious-secular and survival-selfexpression dimensions

Appendix 2. Additional Social Cohesion Indicators Drawn From WVS

Respect for parents:

“Which of the two statements do you tend to agree with? <A—regardless of what the qualities and faults of ones parents are, one must always love and respect them; B—One does not have the duty to respect and love parents who have not earned it by their behaviour and attitudes”

Items composing Materialism-Postmaterialism index*:

  • Maintaining order in the nation (−)

  • Giving people more say in the decisions of the government (+)

  • Fight rising prices (−)

  • Protect freedom of speech (+)

*Postmaterialism = positive pole; a minus indicates that the item is negatively correlated with the index, a plus indicates a positive correlation

See Inglehart (1990) for a full description.

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Janmaat, J.G. Social Cohesion as a Real-life Phenomenon: Assessing the Explanatory Power of the Universalist and Particularist Perspectives. Soc Indic Res 100, 61–83 (2011).

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  • Social cohesion
  • Modernization theory
  • Varieties of capitalism
  • Welfare regimes
  • Civic culture