It's election season in Germany, and practically all the parties are talking about "social justice”, responding in a non-partisan way to the many voters who believe there isn’t enough of it in the country. And according to polls, 75 per cent of Germans share a concern that gaps in society are widening: between bosses and workers, rich and poor, East and West, migrant ghettos and enclaves of prosperity. The social cohesion of the country, though, is not so bad as all that. In an international comparison, Germany may not come out on top, but it does sit in the upper midfield. That’s one of the conclusions of a new and extensive comparative study of the state of the public spirit in 34 industrialised nations.

For the "radar of social cohesion" presented by the Bertelsmann Foundation [on July 16], social scientists from the private Jacobs University in Bremen developed their own index, intended to reveal, visually and comparatively, how strongly a society holds together. Result: when it comes to cohesion, Scandinavian countries come out on top when compared with their European peers and the OECD, while the countries of southeastern Europe end up at the bottom.

Social cohesion is greatest in Denmark, which scores slightly better than Norway, Finland and Sweden

Social cohesion is greatest in Denmark, which scores slightly better than Norway, Finland and Sweden. Just below them in the rankings are a number of countries shaped by Anglo-Saxon migration, such as New Zealand, Australia, and the United States. In Romania, Greece and Bulgaria, however, divergent social groups are drifting far apart.

Friends, confidence, acceptance

But to the group of researchers working with sociologists Klaus Boehnke and Jan Delhey, spreadsheets and charts are only secondary. With their new index they are trying, above all, to make measurable what at first glance seems to be actually unmeasureable: the degree to which a society holds together. Key performance indicators such as the Human Development Index, which the United Nations uses to rate the well-being of a population, offer a guide. But what really makes up the "quality of solidarity-based coexistence in a territorially demarcated community"?

For the researchers, there are three things: resilient social relationships between individuals, emotional attachment to the community, and the responsibility of the individual for the common good. The researchers are therefore examining how people are linked to friends and others, how far they trust their fellow human beings, and how readily they accept different people and their lifestyles – immigrants, for instance. The researchers included this tolerance among the basic factors that hold together modern societies, which are indeed diverse.

What comes second is how much people identify themselves as a part of society, how much they trust their government, politicians, judges, police officers or doctors, and how fair they consider their society to be. And third, the extent to which people offer others help, how well they comply with laws and regulations, and the extent to which they are involved in the community.

The sociologists tried to nail this down using 58 individual factors – from the question of whether someone would like neighbours of a different skin colour, or the extent to which the people obey traffic rules. Starting in 1989, they compiled results from twelve international polls, surveys, and other data records, and which contributed to the progressive development of their index.

Cohesion is happiness

Where the income gap is strongly marked, as in Greece or Poland, cohesion has a much weaker grip

Some of the results hardly seem surprising at first, others more so. That wealth and a distribution of income that is as uniform as possible should strengthen cohesion is clear from the study. Richer states tend to head up the table, while poorer ones trend towards the bottom. Where the income gap is strongly marked, as in Greece or Poland, cohesion has a much weaker grip.

Surprisingly, the study refuted the fears that high immigration endangers the internal fabric of a society. In many countries with high levels of immigration, like Canada, Australia or Switzerland, social cohesion is still high — in marked contrast to Romania or Bulgaria, which attract very few migrants. Overall, the study concludes that the number of immigrants, whether high or low, has no measurable influence on the cohesion of a society. Much more significant is how readily a society accepts the diversity of its members and cultures.

The presumption that social cohesion rests mainly on an intact framework of cultural and moral values is not confirmed by the investigation. It lies, rather, in the opposite direction: in many countries – not in all, but in a significant number – where religion plays an important role in everyday life, as in Romania, Greece, Poland and Italy, social cohesion is rather low. In all six countries where cohesion is most pronounced, religion plays a relatively minor role in the daily life of the people.

And the figures provided by the study demonstrate one further fact: in countries with strong social cohesion, people rate their own lives much more positively than elsewhere – which leads its authors to conclude, not very scientifically: "Cohesion is happiness”.