Social Cohesion

Outcomes are associated with:




Indigenous Status

Mental Health




Social Cohesion

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How well does society function as a whole? How much trust is there among individuals? How can we measure their sense of belonging, and willingness to socially contribute and help each other? This complex set of social interactions can be defined as social cohesion1,2,3.

Social cohesion is important because the outcomes it encompasses matter both for individuals and for society. At an individual level, strong friendships and relationships with family are, for example, critical for people’s social and emotional development4. Conversely, being a victim of crime can negatively impact on a range of individual outcomes, including health, wellbeing, education and attainment5,6. At a societal level, social cohesion has an important role to play in having a strong and effective community and social support system7,8.

We look at social cohesion from three perspectives: relationships; sense of belonging; and safety.


Relationships with family and friends are vital for positive individual development9. In Australia, the level of satisfaction with family relationships is generally quite high. We found that respondents were most satisfied with their relationship with their own children, their partner and their partner’s relationship with children. Their relationships with their parents, with how the children in the household get along, and their relationships with their step-children (if any) was slightly lower, but still relatively high. 

However, contact with family and friends outside of the household appears to have declined slightly over the last several years. According to HILDA survey data, compared to 32.4% in 2001, only 27.2% of people in 2013 reported seeing family and friends ‘every day or several times a week’.

Analysis of HILDA data from 2013 revealed that women were more likely than men to see family and friends at least weekly, and the same goes for people living in least disadvantaged areas. On the other hand, people with a disability and people with moderate to high levels of psychological distress were significantly less likely to see family and friends weekly compared to people with no disability and with a low level of psychological distress. Indigenous status showed no significant differences.

Social isolation negatively affects outcomes, especially for vulnerable populations10. On the other hand, social connectedness through healthy relationships helps build self-esteem, improve mental and emotional health and help individuals live a ‘fuller life’11. Social connectedness is therefore of vital importance.

According to HILDA data, Australians' sense of social connection remained stable between 2001 and 2013 and at the same time, sense of social isolation decreased significantly. Those who fared worst were people with higher levels of psychological distress. They were significantly less likely to feel connected and more likely to feel isolated.

Social cohesion - connection and isolation

Internet Connectivity

Access to the internet provides a mechanism for people to stay in touch and create new connections to people all over the world. According to the ABS, Australia’s connectivity has increased substantially in recent years and by 2011, the proportion of the population with no internet access was just 20%. By 2014/15, this further dropped to 14%12.

However, analysis of HILDA data reveal that the likelihood of having access to the internet is not consistent across population groups. Vulnerable groups such as the homeless understandably have much lower likelihood of accessing the internet. The analysis also showed that people aged 65 and over had significantly lower odds of having internet access, as did Indigenous people. Psychological distress, having a disability, relative disadvantage, and living outside major cities were all also associated with lower odds of having internet access.

Sense of Belonging

In addition to relationships with family and friends, people’s connections to their community also contribute to a cohesive society13. HILDA data about how satisfied people are with the neighbourhood in which they live reveal a slight decline in satisfaction between 2001 and 2013. 

Participation in Volunteer Work and Care

People’s connection to their community is also expressed through their willingness to socially cooperate with and help each other14. In both 2006 and 2011, 14.4% of the population aged 15 and over had spent some time in the last 12 months doing voluntary work through an organisation or group, according to ABS data. In addition, ABS data show that in 2011 24.5% of people in Australia reported spending time in the last two weeks looking after a child – either their own or other children – without pay. 

Another measure of willingness to help each other comes from the HILDA survey, which gauges the extent to which people provided care to a person – within or outside their household – who has a long-term health condition or a person who is elderly or who has a disability. According to those data, the number of people caring for someone within their household has hovered around 5% since 2006. However, the number of people caring for someone not living in the same household has significantly decreased, from 3.5% in 2006 to 2.8% in 2011, and has remained stable since.

Social Cohesion - care for others


Community safety and social cohesion go hand in hand. While social cohesion improves perceived safety by fostering trust and interpersonal relationships, safety also contributes to a more cohesive society. Unsurprisingly, community violence hinders the formation of social connections and community participation15.

In 2013, according to HILDA data, 3.3% of the population aged 15 and over was a victim of a property crime in the previous 12 months. This is significantly lower than in 2006, when this figure stood at 4.9%. Similarly, the proportion of people who reported on the HILDA survey being a victim of physical violence in the previous 12 months also significantly decreased, by nearly half a percentage point.

Social Cohesion - Crime Victimisation

While the probability of being the victim of property crime differed for different population groups (the odds were lower for those aged 65 and over, and lower for women than men), the odds of being a victim of property crime were significantly higher for people with very high levels of psychological distress. Psychological distress was also associated with the odds of experiencing physical violence, with the odds increasing along with the higher the level of psychological distress reported.

In Conclusion

Contact with family and friends, and sense of belonging have both declined slightly over recent years. At the same time, connectivity to the internet has increased. We experiencing slightly less social isolation, and lower rates of physical violence. However, some population groups are vulnerable across a range of social cohesion indicators. These groups include people with a disability, people experiencing high levels of psychological distress, and Indigenous people. 


  1. ORGANISATION FOR ECONOMIC CO-OPERATION AND DEVELOPMENT 2011d. Perspectives on Global Development 2012: Social Cohesion in a Shifting World - Summary in English. Paris: OECD Publishing.
  2. STANLEY, D. 2003. What do we lnow about social cohesion: The research perspective of the Federal Government's Social Cohesion Research Network. The Canadian Journal of Sociology, 28, 5-17.
  3. FRIEDKIN, N. E. 2004. Social cohesion. Annual Review of Sociology, 30, 409-425.
  4. MUIR K, REEVE R, CONNOLLY C, MARJOLIN A, F, S. & HO K 2016. Financial Resilience in Australia 2015. Centre for Social Impact (CSI) – University of New South Wales, for National Australia Bank.
  5. AIHW 2007. Young Australians: Their Health and Wellbeing 2007. AIHW Cat. No. PHE 87,. Canberra: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.
  6. AIHW 2008. Juvenile Justice in Australia 2006-07. Juvenile Justice Series Number 4, AIHW Cat. No. JUV 4. Canberra: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.
  7. ORGANISATION FOR ECONOMIC CO-OPERATION AND DEVELOPMENT 2011d. Perspectives on Global Development 2012: Social Cohesion in a Shifting World - Summary in English. Paris: OECD Publishing.
  8. AUSTRALIAN SOCIAL INCLUSION BOARD 2012b. Social Inclusion in Australia: How Australia is Faring (2nd edition). Canberra: Australian Government, Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.
  9. AUSTRALIAN BUREAU OF STATISTICS. 2010a. Family, community & social cohesion [Online]. Available: [Accessed January 2016].
  10. CACIOPPO, J. T. & HAWKLEY, L. C. 2003. Social isolation and health, with an emphasis on underlying mechanisms. Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, 46, S39-S52.
  11. JOHNSON, T. D. 2011. Healthy relationships lead to better lives. The Nation's Health, 41, 20.
  12. AUSTRALIAN BUREAU OF STATISTICS 2016. Household Use of Information Technology, Australia, 2014-15.
  13. AUSTRALIAN BUREAU OF STATISTICS. 2012e. Family, community & social cohesion [Online]. Available: [Accessed January 2016].
  14. STANLEY, D. 2003. What do we lnow about social cohesion: The research perspective of the Federal Government's Social Cohesion Research Network. The Canadian Journal of Sociology, 28, 5-17.
  15. CHINCHILLA, M. n.d. Social cohesion and community safety in new and redeveloped mixed income housing. Written on Behalf of the San Francisco Department of Public Health’s Program on Health Equity and Sustainability.