The Politics of Cohesion in France, Germany and the United Kingdom

  • Jan Dobbernack

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


Over the last two decades, social cohesion has become a widespread political concern. Governments across Western Europe consider how social cohesion may be at risk and propose political initiatives to safeguard cohesion. This objective is usually seen to require the active contribution of citizens who are called upon to evince responsibility for social unity. Cohesion agendas have been developed with the intention to instil this responsibility through measures of social activation. The proximity between cohesion and activation, however, has rarely been explored. While their mutual dependence tends to be considered as a given or a natural fact, this thesis seeks to show how the two orientations have been conjoined as a result of changing conceptualizations of society in political debate. In studies of such debates and of agenda-setting moments, the thesis examines the development of new concerns, concepts and political measures in France, Germany and the United Kingdom. Cohésion sociale was introduced in the context of ambiguous definitions of social exclusion that had emerged in French political discourse since the early 1980s. It was developed as a political objective that would respond to Jacques Chirac’s diagnosis of fracture sociale. Bürgergesellschaft in Germany was defined against the background of anxiety about collective immobility, social sclerosis and political apathy. In the early 2000s, it proved to be a vehicle for a turn towards activation in welfare state reform. In Britain, community cohesion was introduced in response to a spate of unrest in the English North. In its most prominent conceptualisations, it responded to the diagnosis that these and other social problems were the result of misguided multicultural objectives and behavioural deficiencies among ethnic minority populations. The thesis treats the formation of these agendas as a challenge that requires both interpretation and critique. It proposes a perspective on how society is imagined in the course of the formation of social cohesion agendas. It suggests that in particular the imaginary coincidence of disintegration and unity is characteristic of this social imaginary and provides for a sense of urgency that frequently underpins remedies of activation. The thesis concludes that where cohesion is said to be lacking, populations are selectively targeted and ethnic minority groups, welfare recipients, or the unemployed are being subjected to new demands. The critical concern of the thesis is to explore how new concerns with social unity have led to the adoption of requirements that are placed on the doorstep of those that are less able to comply.
Date of Award15 Feb 2012
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Aberystwyth University
SupervisorMichael Foley (Supervisor) & Roger Michael Scully (Supervisor)

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