• Portraits of Swen Hutter and Gesine Höltmann

    Polarisation and Cohesion in the Corona Crisis: a Look at Civil Society

More polarisation at the same time means less cohesion – this is what the public debate suggests. However, a look at civil society and civic engagement during the Corona crisis shows how strongly these two dynamics are interwoven. Signs that point in one direction or the other should therefore not be interpreted too quickly. A guest contribution by Gesine Höltmann, research assistant at the Centre for Civil Society Research (a joint initiative of the Berlin Social Science, WZB, and the Freie Universität Berlin) and Swen Hutter, Deputy Director of the WZB and Professor of Political Sociology at the Freie Universität Berlin.

Social crises, be they economic, nature-related or of a social nature, always have two facets: Primarily, crises have a destructive, often polarising effect. They destroy livelihoods, consolidate or exacerbate existing inequalities or create a severe loss of confidence in politics and governments. In the midst of these societal states of exception, however, there are always rays of hope, as we have experienced with natural disasters, with grassroots mobilisation in the context of the financial crisis or after the arrival of numerous refugees in Germany in 2015. We see again and again that crises of the most varied kinds can be moments of solidarity, of sticking together and of lived helpfulness.

In contrast to previous crises, however, in the current pandemic there is legitimate concern that contact restrictions and the temporary suspension of public life have not only restricted civil society in the short term, but will also change it in the medium and long term. In the research project “Potentials of Civil Society” (SolZiv), we are therefore investigating the extent and conditions of solidarity behaviour in civil society forms during the Corona pandemic. In this article, we present our first empirical results and discuss what the (de)activation of civil society in the context of the Corona crisis could mean for polarisation and social cohesion.

First of all, it can be said that there was no need to worry about a complete standstill in social and political engagement. Neighbours and volunteers did not let the restrictions on contact prevent them from shopping for others, erecting fences and organizing themselves. Also in the area of political engagement, creative forms of protest quickly emerged – restaurateurs populated the public space with empty chairs, and Fridays for Future called for online protests. At the same time, the lateral thinker movement with its loud opposition to the Corona measures was able to establish itself through classic protests. However, these reports of solidarity and protest should not reassure us straight away. Instead we have to ask ourselves: How sustainable is this engagement? What changes are we already observing for the social capital of society, and is civil society permanently impaired or also enriched in ways that may not yet be visible?

Great need for support

We see signs of increased cohesion in the Corona crisis above all in the activation of individual prosocial action: Around sixty percent of those surveyed offered support outside of their household in the period from March to October 2020. Most of them did shopping for other people, looked after children, or supported them in everyday life. At the beginning of the crisis there were even more offers of support than were actually made use of. First and foremost, however, the own social environment was the focus of the help: The vast majority (82 percent) supported friends and family as well as neighbours (50 percent) – only 15 percent supported people they did not know before the Corona crisis. The “little us” has a primary role to play in overcoming the crisis and in strengthening local cohesion.

The extent to which this willingness to help can strengthen social cohesion also depends on whether the many support offers were able to meet the demand. Our results show that around a quarter of the German population received support from people outside their household, with a third of these support relationships being newly established during the crisis. One in ten stated that they needed more support, and around half of them did not receive any support.

The need in the population is not only strongly structured in a socio-economic way – also the additional crisis burden caused by Corona infections in the household, care obligations and childcare become visible. We also observe that a large social network was beneficial for support during the pandemic. Conversely, the needs of people who are less socially integrated tend to go unnoticed. Also on the “recipient side”, we found that the personal environment was the primary source of support, while neighbours, foreigners and civil society organisations played a more complementary role.

Organised civil society hit hard

Beyond the spontaneous willingness to help, we should also consider organised civil society: The collective places of engagement are particularly relevant to the community and the preservation of social capital. Together with colleagues at the Institute for Protest and Movement Research (ipb), we therefore also surveyed civil society actors in Germany in the SolZiv project – from football clubs to “Grandmas against the right”. Around 25 percent of the organisations surveyed provided financial and material support for those affected; a further 14 percent have organised specific pandemic-related neighbourhood help. However, these positive findings should not hide the fact that the Corona crisis hit organised civil society hard and led to a severe deactivation: Almost three quarters of the organisations we surveyed stated that the crisis had a negative or very negative impact on their work. An important part of solidarity and helpfulness therefore took place in the informal area, as shown.

We also see this increased informalisation of civic engagement in the Corona crisis in protest actions. At first glance, the Corona protests of the so-called lateral thinkers movement appear to be the opposite pole to solidarity support. Here, there is also a loose and informal organisation that arose with the mobilisation and did not precede it. As Edgar Grande and colleagues show, from June to November 2020 around 20 percent of those surveyed in Germany expressed a great deal of understanding for the protests, while around one in ten people would take part in them themselves. Analogous to the radicalisation of the movement, however, the part of the population that explicitly speaks out against the protests and distances themselves from them has also grown. The protests have therefore also mobilised the public: A majority of society has resolutely opposed these demands.

What do these indicators mean for social cohesion during and after the Corona crisis?

The discourse on division and cohesion is mostly based on the assumption that more polarisation also means less cohesion. In fact, however, at the same time we are observing highly ambivalent developments in the current crisis: First of all, a prosocial activation can be ascertained, which creates the impression of increased cohesion and expresses a high degree of helpfulness. The good news is that engagement has not come to a standstill. At the same time, organised civil society was hit hard and people without a close-knit social network in particular tended to receive too little support. Furthermore, the pandemic has brought to light anti-social tendencies and have exacerbated existing or created new inequalities that can provide an additional basis for further polarisation.

However, this simultaneity of polarisation and cohesion also creates impetus for social negotiation processes: whether they be about the anti-science and post-factual statements of lateral thinkers or the social grievances, for example in the care sector. In our opinion, the direction in which these negotiations turn in the context of the Corona crisis depends heavily on how sustainable and resilient informal alliances in civil society prove to be.


The article previously appeared in a longer version in the WZB (Berlin Social Science Center) reports. (German only) 


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