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Social Cohesion - Prospect and Promise

Social Cohesion
The concept of social cohesion as presently most frequently used, is either heavily influenced by economism or at times simply defined by circumstances that reflect its noticeable lack in community life. While this is acceptable at one level in prevailing approaches to current social issues, a wider-ranging, more generally-shared sense of what makes a truly cohesive society would both benefit debate and provide parameters by which individual policies might be evaluated, their objectives defined, and programmes and initiatives directed.

Fundamental challenges

The subject of social cohesion has attracted much attention from inter-governmental, governmental and non-governmental organisations during the last decade (1), prompted by a widely-held belief that the quality of public and civic life is in decline. This point of view is well expressed in the words of a prominent commentator (2) that we live in a ‘tense, mistrustful, anxiety-haunted society’. While this belief may spring from a hankering for a lost age of social harmony, cultural homogeneity and commonly-shared values - a recollection perhaps based more in the imagination than in reality - nevertheless the perceived fragmentation of society remains a focus of concern both within this country and elsewhere. Concerns about crime, persistent undercurrents of racism, and growing distrust of neighbour and government, have strengthened the attraction to many of affinity groups. Whether cultural, ethnic, or religious, each of these potentially offers a close-knit cohesion of common interest and shared loyalties. By their nature these can tend to encourage antipathy toward those outside their particular community.

Whatever the reality of the past, the yearning for social harmony is deeply rooted. With society becoming more varied and culturally diverse, the challenge to satisfy that yearning becomes more insistent, quickened by an increasing interdependence of the peoples and nations of the planet. The practicalities of this global interdependence and the growing interaction among diverse peoples pose major challenges to old ways of thinking and acting. How we, as individuals and communities, respond to these challenges will determine whether our communities become nurturing, cohesive and progressive, or increasingly inhospitable, divided and unsustainable.

For Bahá’ís a truly cohesive society is more than a condition of social stasis. It is the clear motivation and objective of their faith’s social teachings, and the focus of their activity in the world. The nature of such a society, its characteristics and how it may be achieved are therefore, Bahá’ís believe, an important subject for study.

An increasing focus

Since the end of the Cold War attention has turned toward issues of social cohesion and this is reflected in the themes of the many international conferences held in the years after the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. Under the auspices of the United Nations, of note were the World Summits on Population (Cairo 1994); Social Development (Copenhagen 1995), and its follow-up in Geneva 2000; Women (Beijing 1995); and Habitat II (Istanbul 1996).

Others of interest include the 1995 Roskilde Symposium (Denmark 1995) ‘From Social Exclusion to Social Cohesion: a policy agenda’, convened on the eve of the Copenhagen conference, and jointly sponsored by UNESCO, WHO, ILO, and the European Commission DG XII’; and the Council of Europe’s Second Summit in Strasbourg 1997. The latter’s Final Declaration identified social cohesion as ‘one of the foremost needs of the wider Europe and an essential complement to the promotion of human rights and dignity’. Tangible outcomes from this Summit included the European Committee for Social Cohesion (CDCS) - formed to develop and implement a new strategy for social cohesion, the establishment of a Directorate-General of Social Cohesion within the Council’s Secretariat, and the subsequent European Conference on Social Development, Dublin 2000.

A number of features are shared by these conferences and their aftermaths: a ‘recognition that the world is in a state of deterioration’; a new and increasing consensus on ‘the need to put people at the centre of development’; inadequate post-conference communication between the groups taking part (i.e. governments, IGOs, NGOs, and specialist and expert bodies). The frequent failure at national levels to carry out agreed social programmes; and a predominating concern for issues of poverty, exclusion and full employment - reflecting a still-prevailing influence of economism in deliberations affecting the condition of society(3). Of note is the scant attention paid to moral and ethical motivation and the cultivation of those attitudes which foster the desire to promote constructive inter-personal and inter-community relationships.

Reaching for a concept

In certain areas reaching a more comprehensive, more broadly-based concept of social cohesion, has been largely limited by well-entrenched views that closely link social cohesion to economic policy.

For instance, Articles 2 and 3 of the Treaty establishing the European Community state that one of its tasks is to ‘promote throughout the Community a harmonious, balanced and sustainable development of economic activities, a high level of employment and of social protection, (and) the raising of the standard of living and quality of life, and economic and social cohesion and solidarity among Member States’. Emphasising the link, Title XVII of the Treaty (Articles 158-162), on ‘Economic and social cohesion’ explains that the Community aims to support the cohesion effort by reducing disparities between the development of various regions and the backwardness of the least favoured regions or islands, including rural areas, through the action it takes through the Structural Funds (4). Similarly, the Council for Europe and the CDCS defined their strategy for social cohesion in terms of minimising the risk of social exclusion through focus on the needs of the poor and marginalised - concentrating on access to social protection, housing, employment, health care and education. Another European Working Group (5) developed a concept and action plan for social cohesion (Paris December 2000) which identified employment and vocational training, social dialogue, social protection, health and housing as the main areas for which objectives and strategies had to be developed. Many other governmental and inter-governmental social policies are defined in terms of establishing thriving, inclusive and sustainable communities through tackling poverty, social exclusion and homelessness (6).

A split in the academic study of the subject also hinders a more holistic approach to social cohesion. The concept of social exclusion has generally come within the domain of sociology, whereas studies of poverty have been usually taken up by economists. In practice greater weight seems to have been given to economic studies, and the social sciences have tended to serve merely as a source of statistics to support economic decision-makers and the ‘theology of the market’(7).

Economism has not been altogether unchallenged. A speaker (8) summing up the European Conference on Social Development, Dublin 2000, observed that ‘ethnic and religious tensions are at the root of some of the most acute threats to social cohesion in Europe today’, but also that ‘The millennium event reminds us too that there is a spiritual dimension to the human condition’. Another commentator (9), referring to the concept of sustainable development called it a multi-dimensional concept which can only be realised through an approach ‘where the social is in control, the ecological is an accepted constraint and the economic is reduced to its instrumental role’.

Thus, while recognising that the cancer of poverty is a potent destroyer of social cohesion in a society where extremes of wealth and poverty exist close together, it may be observed that a century of top-down socio-economic initiatives have not yet been completely successful in delivering contented and harmonious communities (10).

At root, true social cohesion derives from the ideals and shared beliefs that weld society together. Meaningful social change results as much from the development of qualities and attitudes that foster constructive patterns of human interaction as from technical capacities or economic initiatives. ‘True prosperity - a well- being founded on peace, co-operation, altruism, dignity, rectitude of conduct and justice - flows from the light of spiritual awareness and virtue as well as from material discovery and progress’ (11).

Legal imperatives and penalties, social programmes and initiatives are essential, but limited in what they can accomplish. To draw upon the spiritual roots of motivation that lie at the heart of human identity and purpose is to tap the one impulse that can ensure genuine social transformation, and this is intimately bound up with a process of moral and spiritual development. The Bahá’í International Community expressed this concept to the Habitat II conference in 1996: ‘Our challenge, therefore, is to redesign and develop our communities around those universal principles - including love, honesty, moderation, humility, hospitality, justice and unity - which promote social cohesion, and without which no community, no matter how economically prosperous, intellectually endowed or technologically advanced, can long endure. (12)’

A new vision

We wish to expand on some of the attributes of a community conforming to and envisaged by those principles.

The emergence of a truly cohesive society, flourishing and perpetuating itself; distinguished for its abiding sense of security and faith and for the closely knit fabric of its social life; noted for its high standard of rectitude and complete freedom from all forms of prejudice; existing harmoniously with the natural world ; and marked by the spirit of love among its members and for the spirit of trust and confidence between its members and its institutions depends on linking material progress to fundamental spiritual aspirations, on fully recognising the increasing interdependence of the peoples and nations of the planet, and on the active participation of all in its governance.

Such a community will take into account the spiritual dimension of human reality and seek to foster a culture in which the moral, ethical, emotional and intellectual development of the individual are of primary concern. The material aspects of community development - environmental, economic and social policies; production, distribution, communication and transportation systems; and political, legal and scientific processes - will be driven by spiritual principles and priorities rather than largely determined by material considerations. We thus envision a fundamentally new perception of social reality, reflecting a fullness of life that has not yet been seen - a reality that, above all, in spirit and practice reflects the principle of the oneness of humankind.

In such a society the protection of the family and the promotion of its well- being will become central to community policies which will recognise that the family is the primary institution of society and the principal incubator of the values, attitudes, beliefs and behaviours which strengthen the fibre of a spiritually healthy society. Its citizens will naturally understand that the interests of the individual and of the community are totally linked, and that the advancement of human rights calls for full commitment to corresponding responsibilities. Women will be welcomed into full partnership in all fields of human endeavour, while at the same time their rôle as the bearer and first educator of children will be recognised and accorded full honour. The elderly will continue to participate in the affairs of the community, their experience and wisdom sought out and valued.

Social policy will ensure that the creative energies of every individual have a suitable channel through which they can be expressed. Work, as both a means of livelihood for the individual and a way of contributing to the prosperity of the community as a whole, will be recognised as adding meaning to life. Working towards the elimination of extremes of wealth and poverty will be a feature of public policy. Freedom of religion will be ensured, and centres of worship established providing a venue for prayer, meditation, and acts of devotion through which the individual, drawing closer to the Creator, may strengthen his or her spiritual capacities for service. As physical monuments these buildings will also serve to express the cultural genius of the society. The promotion of beauty, whether natural or human- made, will be a guiding principle in community planning, for beauty can touch the heart and inspire the soul to noble sentiments and actions. Concern for environmental preservation and rehabilitation will reflect the human spirit's great need for close contact with the natural world, while giving careful consideration to the primary role of the farmer in food and economic security.

The science and technology now available will be harnessed to serve the material, intellectual, emotional and spiritual needs of the entire human family. Technologies that have tended to desensitise and alienate and to take over from satisfying work and crafts, to destroy the environment, and to cause sickness or death, will be reconsidered, redesigned or abandoned.

The cultivation of virtue as the foundation for personal and collective well- being will be nurtured in individuals as essential to the welfare of their families, their communities, their countries and all mankind. Education, widely-based but with a focus on moral and ethical development, will encourage thinking in terms of historical process, seeing in history progress toward a world civilisation. The concept of unity in diversity will be fundamental to such teaching. Doctrines that expound exclusivity or superiority, whether of race, gender or religion, will be found unacceptable. The concept of leadership will be recast to foster collective decision making and collective action, and will find its highest expression in service to the community as a whole. Consultation - the operating expression of justice in human affairs - will be the chief method by which decisions are reached.

These are some of the salient features of the cohesive society envisioned in Bahá’í teachings and towards which the Bahá‘í community has bent its efforts for a century or more.

An organic process

While such a vision may be viewed in today’s world as idealistic or unachievable the Bahá’í Faith views the current world confusion and the calamitous condition in human affairs as a natural phase in an organic process that will lead to the unification of the human race in just such a society. Humanity has in its long journey passed through stages which can be compared to the stages of an individual’s infancy and childhood. It is now in the culminating period of its turbulent adolescence and is approaching its long- awaited coming of age.

True religion, free from the distortions that falsely pose in its name, is an indispensable source of knowledge and motivation - a wellspring of values, insights, and energy without which social cohesion and collective action are difficult if not impossible to achieve. Through the teachings and moral guidance of religion, great segments of humanity have learned to discipline their baser propensities and to develop qualities that lead to social order and cultural advancement. Such qualities as trustworthiness, compassion, forbearance, fidelity, generosity, humility, courage, and willingness to sacrifice for the common good have constituted the invisible yet essential foundations of progressive community life. Religion provides the bricks and mortar of society - the ethical precepts and vision that unite people into communities and that give tangible direction and meaning to individual and collective existence. There is an urgent need for these qualities to permeate society.

Fulfilling the promise

We should not think that a society such as is contemplated here, however inevitable it may ultimately be, will be achieved without a major effort and sustained commitment from every element of society. Fulfilling human destiny will, by its very nature, be a gradual process. Patterns of response and association will shift continually as humankind grapples for its future. The process will be long and at times turbulent, and calls for a firmly-held vision of the goal towards which it is struggling. Not only is it an objective worth striving for, it is humanity’s manifest destiny: the culmination of an ages-long process of human development, the confident and emphatic promise of the world’s religions.

The turmoil now convulsing human affairs is unprecedented, and many of its consequences may well prove enormously destructive. Many dangers gather around a distracted humanity. The habits, attitudes, and institutions that have built up over the centuries are being subjected to tests that are as necessary to human development as they are inescapable. Nevertheless, the ultimate outcome is not in doubt.

The prospect and promise of such an outcome is more that a fond hope or distant aspiration, and it suggests multiple fields of endeavour on which to focus initiatives, programmes, and projects. Indeed the vigour with which present social initiatives have been initiated to tackle issues such as exclusion, alleviation of poverty, educational equality and environmental degradation signals that a start has been made.

In the meantime the global Bahá’í community, perhaps unequalled in its diversity, is itself learning to put into practice the features adumbrated above - a living, evolving laboratory in which these ideas and principles are being developed, tested and expanded. The Bahá’í community is ready to share its experience with all who are interested.

Over a hundred years ago, the distinguished orientalist, the late Professor Edward G. Browne, of Cambridge University visited Bahá'u'lláh (13) in the year 1890, and recorded his promise as follows:

‘... That all nations should become one in faith and all men as brothers; that the bonds of affection and unity between the sons of men should be strengthened; that diversity of religion should cease, and differences of race be annulled - what harm is there in this? ... Yet so it shall be; these fruitless strifes, these ruinous wars shall pass away, and the ‘Most Great Peace' shall come. ... Let not a man glory in this, that he loves his country; let him rather glory in this, that he loves his kind. ...’ (14)

A statement by the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of the United Kingdom.


1. See for instance (a) Building Cohesive Communities: A Report of the Ministerial Group on Public Order and Community Cohesion, December 2001; and (b) Community Cohesion: A Report of the Independent Review Team Chaired by Ted Cantle, December 2001

2. Prof David Marquand

3. The Bahá'í community nevertheless has wholeheartedly welcomed the fact that issues such as social exclusion, alienation, environmental justice, poverty alleviation, and neighbourhood renewal increasingly engage governmental and other agencies. It also welcomes the fact that human development is now increasingly seen as more than economic development and welfare as being more than benefit provision.

4. At the Berlin European Council in March 1999, the Heads of State and Government reached agreement on Agenda 2000, an action plan put forward by the Commission principally to strengthen the Community's policies and provide the Union with a new financial framework for 2000-06 in preparation for enlargement. In this context, Agenda 2000 also included the reform of the Structural Funds. Consequently, the Structural Funds and the Cohesion Fund now have a new legal framework, which should remain in place until 2006.

5. - of the Stability Pact for South Eastern Europe composed of the representatives of the European Commission, the Council of Europe, the Council of Europe Development Bank, the International Labour Office, the European Trade Union Confederation, the International Organization of Employers, the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, the World Bank, the Office of the Special Co-ordinator, and representatives from the countries in South Eastern Europe and from the World Health Organization.

6. See, for instance, the speech by Ms Barbara Roche MP, Minister of State Social Cohesion and Deputy Minister for Women, to the New Deal for Communities Conference, 12 September 2002.

7. Michael M Cernea, Sociologist and Senior Adviser, World Bank, Washington, DC, USA: ‘Sociological Work Within a Development Agency - Experiences in the World Bank‘, August 1993.

8. Senator Maurice Hayes (Ireland)

9. Ignacy Sachs, ‘Searching for New Development Strategies: The Challenge of the Social Summit’, Policy Paper no 1 (Paris: UNESCO, 1995)

10. The persistent challenge of the so-called sink estates may be taken as a case in point.

11. ‘Overcoming Corruption and Safeguarding Integrity in Public Institutions: a Bahá’í Perspective’, a statement by the Bahá'í International Community presented at the Intergovernmental Global Forum on Fighting Corruption II. The Hague, Netherlands, 28-31 May 2001

12. ‘Sustainable Communities in an Integrating World’, a concept paper shared by the Bahá'í International Community at the Second United Nations Conference on Human Settlements (Habitat II), Istanbul, Turkey, 3-14 June 1996

13. Bahá’u’lláh, 1817 - 1892, prophet founder of the Bahá’í faith

14. Prof E.G. Browne, Introduction to ‘A Traveller's Narrative’, pp. xxxix-xl, 1891.



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