Are Communities More Cohesive in More Equal Societies?

“This photograph was made in the Handsworth district of Birmingham, an area whose population has changed and evolved through the last few generations through immigration and multiculturism. The main thoroughfare is vibrant and colourful and put me in mind of far-off places. The greyness of a November afternoon seemed to root the area firmly in urban England, however.” 59 Governments and policy makers are increasingly interested in “social capital” or social cohesion, trust, and involvement in community life. Everyone knows these are an important part of the quality of life and make a difference to what a society feels like to live in, but there has been little recognition that greater equality is an important pre-condition for strengthening community life. The quality of social relations is better in more equal societies – they have lower levels of violence, higher levels of trust, and community life is stronger and the status of women is better.

These are reflections of the divisive effects of inequality. Because it is a powerful marker of status differentiation, inequality tells people that they are in a society with divergent interests where people compete with each other and have to fend for themselves. In contrast, greater equality suggests a degree of common interests and mutual interdependence. The stresses of relative poverty and low social status also affect the nature of family life. This in turn affects children’s emotional and cognitive development, preparing them either for lives involving more conflict and self-reliance, or, at the other end of the scale, making them more empathetic and better at cooperation, sharing and reciprocity.