Cohesion in spite of differences
An interview with urban sociologist Martina Löw on the Berlin University Alliance’s “social cohesion” research focus
Mar 03, 2020
Social cohesion is one of the research topics on which researchers in Berlin want to carry out even more in-depth research in the future. This is because the topic is one of the so-called Grand Challenges – globally pertinent social challenges to which the Berlin University Alliance intends to devote more attention. What influences the social cohesion of a society, and what threatens it? Which social connections make people feel part of a community and how can these connections be influenced?
The range of research topics on the theme of social cohesion in Berlin is enormous, and this was also made clear at a networking event in late January. Researchers from 55 projects that were successful in the Alliance's first call for proposals on this topic.
As part of one of the cross-institutional projects, researchers are examining how digitally mediated transport services, such as carsharing, bikesharing and scootersharing, offer spatial flexibility and cost-effective use, and therefore have the ability to change urban mobility. That said, how can we prevent the exclusion of people who do not have the necessary technology to access these services? Another research team is tackling the question of the physical and social effects of climate change on social cohesion, for example, as a factor in immigration or with regard to generational fairness. A group of researchers from the fields of urban planning, architecture, social sciences and neurosciences is investigating what constitutes so-called “urban stress” and how urban life strains people and can lead to diseases.
The Berlin University Alliance is now announcing funding for more extensive research projects in which researchers from at least two institutions must also take part. Martina Löw, Professor of Sociology of Architecture and Planning at Technische Universität Berlin, is a member of the multi-institutional, interdisciplinary steering committee that oversees the Grand Challenge Initiatives. Its main focus is the first Grand Challenge on the theme of social cohesion.
Professor Löw, why did the Berlin University Alliance decide on the complex theme of social cohesion as its first research focus?
We thought that this innovative collaboration between the universities of the Berlin University Alliance should also entail innovative research that benefits society. In fall 2015, many people realized on a personal level that neither the city nor society had the structures to adequately deal with high numbers of refugees. Even though expertise in various specialist areas was indeed available to them, the research community did not approach the public with relevant research strategies or results.
We now want to rapidly merge the competencies of the various Berlin institutions and disciplines in an unbureaucratic manner, so that we can react faster and more adequately. Our research focus on social cohesion enables us as researchers to face the globally pertinent social challenges of the present moment.
Why are engineers, scientists and computer scientists particularly in demand in this rather social-science-oriented field of research?
This field of research lies precisely at the intersection of humanities, social sciences, natural sciences and engineering. Major controversial social issues, such as climate change or digitalization, are concerned with findings from the natural sciences and engineering in addition to looking at how these technologies are changing our society and our coexistence. The question of how social cohesion can be strengthened in society always entails an exploration of technical possibilities.
Social cohesion is rooted in cultural, legal and social conditions. We don’t yet know how we might define social cohesion in a positive manner, but we can describe its limits, for example when social groups are excluded and discriminated against, or when a majority is no longer looking optimistically into the future. Due to the broad scope of this subject area, we expect the applicants to discover new perspectives on the topic of social cohesion through interdisciplinary networking.
Social cohesion is often closely linked to the common values of a society. Do these still exist in modern societies?
No, they simply cannot exist in complex, collaborative and multicultural societies. The call for common values always stems from the desire for simplification in a complex situation. Everyday life in Berlin teaches us that coexistence is also possible on the basis of difference.
So, is Berlin a good place to research social cohesion?
Berlin is an excellent starting point. We have experience with a heterogeneous population, and we already have many research groups working on issues of social cohesion. The researchers in these groups work under the assumption that cohesion is formed through the recognition of difference. We are not expected to live together in a notably harmonious way when everyone agrees on common values, but rather when everyone recognizes that we are all different and we complement each other through our differences. But this is not always the case in international research, and researchers in Berlin are trying to develop strategies for accepting differences and bringing them into open discussion. With our dedicated interdisciplinary research approach, I think that we can also set an interesting international precedent here.
This interview was first published in the Technische Universität Berlin university newspaper "TU intern" on February 10, 2020.