Economic Vulnerability and Social Cohesion in Europe

The protection against social risks makes people living in the social democratic area more trustful of institutions and the whole society in general.

Are modern societies integrated ?

Due to the threats connected to globalisation, social exclusion and ethnicity, politicians and scholars are nowadays particularly interested in the integrative abilities of modern societies. The problem consists in understanding how social cohesion may be maintained in unequal and heterogeneous societies. The aim of this note is to analyze the relationships between social cohesion and economic vulnerability (see below for definition) in Europe [1] with a particular focus on the mediating effect played by the institutional context [2]. The risk connected with economic vulnerability lies in the link with social exclusion (Sen 1992), indeed a lack of economic resources could lead to a deprivation in the capability space and economic vulnerability has a negative influence on a number of aspects, including the skill to take part in community life that may be mirrored in low levels of trust and negative attitudes toward institutions.

The relationship between the various domains of social cohesion and economic vulnerability according to the different welfare regimes is presented in figure 1 [3]. Looking at this figure, it is interesting to note the distinctive pattern of the social democratic regime. Indeed, vulnerable people who live in this area have a higher social cohesion than individuals in other areas. Moreover, in the social democratic regime the vulnerable group tends to show higher level of social cohesion than the non vulnerable group. As a consequence, it emerges that people living in the social democratic area are less aware of the effect of economic vulnerability. In other words, the protection against social risks makes them more trustful of institutions and the whole society in general, suggesting that the social democratic regime has better integrative power than other regimes. A first explanation highlights the role of egoistic interests in attitude formation (Goodin and LeGrand 1987). The basic idea is that people living with a remarkable protection against the risks connected with the uneven distribution of resources tend to show positive attitudes toward society and the functioning of its institutions. This is possible because institutional context is able to shape the individual’s perception of his own opportunities structure.

Figure 1. Graphical representation of the interaction between economic vulnerability and welfare regimes

Defining social cohesion and economic vulnerability

I use the concept of social cohesion with reference to the work of Whelan and Maître (2005), that is identified by attitudes toward the functioning of the whole society and its institutions. I used the following items [4] :

1. Confidence in the social benefit system : interviewees were questioned about their confidence in the social benefit system and state pension system on a scale of 1 (low) to 4 (high).

2. Perceived intergroup tensions : respondents were asked about their perception of tension levels on a scale of 1 (low) to 3 (high) between five social groups : “poor and rich people,” “management and workers,” “men and women,” “old and young people,” and “different racial and ethnic groups.”

3. Perceived quality of public services : interviewed persons rated the quality of public services on a scale of 1 (very poor) to 10 (high quality). The public services evaluated were health services, education system, public transport, social services, state pension system.

4. Alienation : respondents were asked to express the extent of their agreement with statements like “in order to get ahead nowadays you are forced to do things that are not correct” and they were asked if they “feel left out of society,” if “good luck is more important than hard work for success,” and if “life has become so complicated that they almost can’t find their way.” The scale goes from 1 (agree completely) to 4 (disagree completely).

I consider economic vulnerability as a latent trait whose indicators are : income, material deprivation, and economic stress (Whelan and Maître 2006). I am able to identify two groups of individuals (vulnerable and not vulnerable) in a way that consider at the same time objective indicators (income and deprivation) as well as information about the perception that people have of their economic condition (economic stress).


[1The empirical analysis are based on data from the “European Quality of Life Survey” collected by European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions in 2003.

[2I partially follow the welfare regimes perspective (Esping-Andersen 1990, 1999) by which it is possible to group countries according to their institutional characteristics. I consider five different groups : Conservative (Austria, Belgium, France, Germany and Luxembourg), Mediterranean (Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Malta, Cyprus and Turkey), Liberal (Ireland and UK), Social Democratic (Denmark, Finland, Sweden and The Netherlands) and Post Communist (Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia).

[3The level of social cohesion is reported on the vertical axis, while economic vulnerability on the horizontal one. More precisely, economic vulnerability can assume two value : 0 for non vulnerable people and 1 for vulnerable individuals. Social cohesion is measured on a continuum that goes from 0 to 1, where high scores on the indexes mean high level of social cohesion. The welfare regimes are represented by the different lines

[4The items have been subsequently consider together in order to obtain four distinct indexes.

Source : Loris Vergolini, Economic vulnerability and social cohesion in Europe, Disuguaglianze sociali. This note is drawn from an article that could be retrieved at the following link.


  • Esping-Andersen, G. (1990). The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism. Princeton : Princeton University Press.
  • Esping-Andersen, G. (1999). Social Foundations of Postindustrial Economies. Oxford : Oxford University Press.
  • Goodin, E. R. and LeGrand, J. (1987). Not Only the Poor : The Middle Class and the Welfare State. London : Allen and Unwin.
  • Whelan, T. C. and Maître, B. (2005). Economic vulnerability, multidimensional deprivation and social cohesion in an enlarged European community. International Journal of Comparative Sociology, 46 : 215-239.
  • Whelan, T. C. and Maître, B. (2006). Income, deprivation and economic stress in the enlarged European Union. Social Indicators Research, 83 : 309-329.


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Thèmes : • Cohésion sociale


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