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The Essentials of Social Cohesion: A Literature Review


The social cohesion literature repeatedly criticizes a lack of consensus regarding the theoretical conceptualization of the construct. The current paper attempts to clarify this ambiguity by providing a literature review on the recent approaches. By taking a bird’s eye view on previous conceptualizations of social cohesion we emphasize that in the majority of approaches there is in fact more overlap in the concept than has so far been assumed. In particular, we suggest three essential dimensions of social cohesion: (1) social relations, (2) identification with the geographical unit, and (3) orientation towards the common good. Each dimension is further differentiated into several sub-dimensions. We argue that additional elements identified in the literature (shared values, inequality, quality of life) are rather determinants or consequences of social cohesion, but not constituting elements. Suggestions for future research are discussed.

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Fig. 2


  1. 1.

    The alternative would be a more deductive ‘aggregative’ approach which collects information within the framework of a particular theory in order to test hypothesis or synthesize findings with regard to a particular phenomenon (Gough et al. 2013).

  2. 2.

    Most of the searches were performed with Web of Science since it covers more disciplinces than specialized data bases.

  3. 3.

    It would be impossible to go through all publications that turned up in our search (e.g., Google Scholar gives almost 4000 hits for the term ‘social cohesion’ in titles). As a rule of thumb, we checked the first 100 entries of each list, sorted by relevance. Depending on the relevance of the articles listed at later pages, we sometimes included more or less pages.

  4. 4.

    A clear assignment of the six components to one of the three dimensions is, however, not always possible. Cooperation, for example, can be conceptualized as cooperative behavior (i.e., relational dimension) or as the subjective value of cooperating with others (ideational dimension; see also Moody and White 2003). Similarly, social exclusion contains relational (negative relations between groups) as well as distributive (e.g., social exclusion through disadvantages on the labor market) aspects.


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We would like to thank Prof. Klaus Boehnke and Prof. Jan Delhey for their support and guidance with regard to the realization of the research project, as well as their valuable feedback to earlier versions of this manuscript.


This paper is based on a research project funded by the Bertelsmann Foundation.

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Schiefer, D., van der Noll, J. The Essentials of Social Cohesion: A Literature Review. Soc Indic Res 132, 579–603 (2017).

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  • Social cohesion
  • Social relations
  • Identification
  • Orientation towards the common good