I was raised in a small village, where everyone knew each other and looked after each other. The social cohesion was large. Most people look upon that as something positive, something to strive for and to encourage. I always hated it. The fact that everyone knew how good or bad you were at school or at sports, that the neighbours knew about a new boyfriend sooner than your friends did, that everyone had an opinion about you wearing a short skirt, going to college, travelling to a far-away country for holiday, the fact that you could never walk the street unnoticed, always made me want to do something else than “the group” I apparently belonged to, thought the right thing to do.
According to Weber, a social group is the founding entity of a society. He said social groups are formed based on the principle that people tend to associate themselves with others that have similarities to them, for instance occupying the same economic position, having the same political opinion or the same lifestyle. Inside these groups people develop the values and the way they look upon the world and other people. In Webers opinion groups will always try to seize power over present possibilities and try to exclude other groups. Social exclusion means a battle between groups, where one group succeeds to acquire and maintain a privileged position and to restrain access of other groups to political or economic resources.
Advantages of social cohesion
Social cohesion has many advantages. In a neighbourhood with a lot of social cohesion, people can rely on each other to solve their problems; people trust each other and feel connected. They live together, share together. In line with the idea that in the past everything was better, the general opinion states that some decennia ago people cared more for each other, that there was more sense of belonging together. Research shows reality is different, but that doesn’t really matter.
That sense of nostalgia, that longing for a world that was small enough for everyone to know each other, might give the impression that there can never be enough social cohesion, that more always is better. Complaints about social cohesion are always because there is a lack of it, not because there is too much. Still, more is not always better, not even for social cohesion. The effect of social cohesion depends on the scale you are looking at. A strong social cohesion for specific groups might lead to adverse effects for society as a whole or at an individual level.
Disadvantages of social cohesion
Social cohesion implies the formation of groups and that is possible only if those groups have a limit. If ties between the members of a group are stronger than the ties with others outside the group, it has to be clear who does belong to the group and who doesn’t. Some people will be excluded from the group, while others will be included, willingly or not. This mechanism of inclusion and exclusion might lead to strong social control, because that is necessary to keep individuals inside the group.
Here in South Sudan, social control and group pressure lead to strong opinions about right and wrong, what is acceptable behaviour and what is not. But the norms in a society are not neutral, they are the norms of those with power. Who or what is looked upon as deviant, depends on the relative power of the groups. The powerful not only determine the norms, they are able to interpret their own behaviour (and make others accept that interpretation) in such a way that their behaviour seems to be the right one. Here it means for example that men have a right to sex, even if their wife doesn’t want it. Men are allowed to beat their wives if necessary, and of course the men decide when it is necessary. Women are responsible for not getting pregnant, but if they carry a condom with them, they’re seen as “easy”. You might expect that it is mainly men holding this kind of opinions and that women disagree with them, but such is not the case. Group pressure causes women to agree with this opinions stronger than men do. Agreeing with these norms, or at least behaving in conformity with them, is necessary to remain part of the group, so young girls are raised with these opinions even if that is detrimental to them. At an individual level, the strong social cohesion means it is impossible for individual women and girls to make other choices. They are not able to choose to finish their education, they cannot choose to postpone getting married and becoming pregnant until their body is ready to do so, they are not allowed to choose to leave a violent marriage.
Not only women are subjected to social pressure, men cannot escape it either. Members of a family can always call upon each other for support. When some person doesn’t have food, a brother or an aunt probably will have and will share. When another person doesn’t have money to buy medicines, some member of the family will have just enough to buy them. People manage to survive because of this support system, but it has its drawbacks as well. It is impossible to refuse to support family, so if someone has money he or she is expected to spend it at the request of family members. To put it mildly, that is not stimulating anyone to save money. To escape this obligation, people use tricks. One of my colleagues is building a house. Not because he needs a new house, but instead of saving money. If he has a little money, he buys bricks or mortar or hires a plumber. He doesn’t save money until he has enough to build the whole house, but every time he earns some money, he does a part of the work. If he wouldn’t do it that way, his family would have spent the money before he would be able to build anything.
Another risk of social cohesion is exclusion. Exclusion of others, of people that, for whichever reason, don’t belong to the group. Exclusion can be peaceful, but quite often violence is used to exclude people from the group or the process of exclusion leads to conflicts. If members of a group are strongly attached to each other, if they trust each other a lot, most times they distrust outsiders. Strong solidarity inside the group means little or no solidarity outside the group. South Sudan traditionally is a tribal society, where everyone outside the own tribe is distrusted. The war reinforced that, but even now there is peace, the tribes remain important to people. Every South Sudanese is able to identify the tribe someone belongs by the way they look. I don’t have a clue, don’t really see the difference, but that’s normal. All white people belong to the same tribe anyway…
At an individual level members of different tribes get along quite well, but another tribe as a collective will be distrusted. To the pastoralist tribes it means they steal each other’s cattle (and sometimes wives and children), which leads to very violent conflicts and continuous retaliation. Inside the tribe the social cohesion becomes stronger because of the conflicts because they have to rely on each other to defend themselves but it is very destabilizing at a national level. In politics tribes are important as well. The problem is that power and tribe are not independent of each other, and are certainly not seen as independent. When compiling a government, whether at national, state or local level, it is important to include all tribes present in the area, even if that means that the best people will not be appointed or that the government becomes much larger than necessary. As long as people refer, full of distrust, to other tribes as “those people”, without even wanting to mention the name of the tribe, this is unlikely to improve. To be honest, in the period I’ve been here, I’ve seen it become worse. That is a real threat to this fragile land. Social cohesion inside the tribes will have to lessen before a real South Sudanese society can come into existence.