Book Review: Philosophical Perspectives on Social Cohesion: New directions for educational policy

Book Review: Philosophical Perspectives on Social Cohesion: New directions for educational policy, by Mary Healy

London: Bloomsbury (2013). ISBN 978-1-4742-3464-1. 168 pages.

Reviewed by Anders Schinkel, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, The Netherlands

If we care about social cohesion, not just theoretically, but also in practice, we have reason to investigate different possible models of social cohesion and their implications for the way in which our being together in liberal democracies is structured. Particularly, we have reason to look into their implications for schools – the school system as a whole, funding, school structures, school choice, as well as pedagogy – since they constitute one of the main places in which citizens are ‘created’. This plausible claim underlies Mary Healy’s valuable philosophical contribution to the literature on social cohesion. In seven chapters, preceded by an introduction and followed by a conclusion, she introduces us to the concept of social cohesion and part of the vast and varied literature on the subject, discusses three metaphorical models of social cohesion or the civic bond – civic friendship, the market model, and fraternity – and draws out the implications of those models for schooling and educational policy, to end with a plea for a model of democratic fraternity and suggestions – not a blueprint – for its realization in schools.

The greatest strength of this book, in my view, is the application of Conceptual Metaphor Theory (Lakoff and Johnson’s work, in particular) to the study of social cohesion. Although the argument that metaphors are crucial to the way we shape our social and political life may not be new, its development in this book, in which the adequacy of metaphorical models of social cohesion and their implications for educational policy are central, is interesting and original. Having rejected the friendship model as unsuited to express the bond between citizens in a liberal democracy, and criticized the market (loyalty) model as undermining social cohesion by its emphasis on competition and individual gain, Healy helpfully distinguishes between two variants of the fraternity model: strong fraternity, based on a strict interpretation of the family metaphor, and democratic fraternity, ‘an ideal metaphoric relationship between citizens who may not have the same identity ties’ (p. 82). Healy favours this metaphor for its inclusiveness and egalitarianism. The family aspect of the metaphor captures important aspects of social cohesion, such as an emotional bond and a common purpose; the democratic aspect expands the circle of those ‘belonging’ to the ‘family’.

That said, to this reader at least, the arguments given for and against the use of particular metaphorical models lack the depth and rigour to be wholly convincing. Yes, ‘friendship’ (for example) suggests a type of relationship – in particular an emotional attachment – that is different from the bond between citizens; and I agree it has other drawbacks too, such as the problem of partiality it imports into the civic sphere. But then, firstly, since we are dealing with metaphor we would expect there to be differences – the question is whether they render the model useless or not – and secondly, similar arguments could be advanced against any model based on the family metaphor of fraternity. ‘All too often,’ Healy writes, ‘judgements about which metaphor is “best” often end up saying as much about the commitments and values of the judge as about the usefulness of a particular metaphor’ (p. 116). I agree, but for me this statement expressed exactly the slight discomfort I felt while reading this book.

Furthermore, the reasons Healy gives not to discuss certain other potential models of social cohesion, such as the concept of solidarity – a central notion, traditionally, in the literature on social cohesion – seem rather arbitrary. In a footnote, Healy explains that she has excluded this concept because of what it ‘can offer by way of analysis’ (p. 145, note 5 to introduction) (or in this case what it cannot offer, presumably), and adds a few lines about its origins in a ‘Roman legal concept of an obligation for the whole or a joint liability’. But again, since the whole idea of a metaphor is the translation or extension of elements from one context to another context, it is unclear why the concept of solidarity is invalidated (for this purpose) by its origins.

Finally, I wonder why the ‘citizen’ itself is not discussed as a metaphor. ‘Citizenship’ originally implied being a full rights-bearing member of a city; this notion has been carried over to ‘membership’ of nation-states. The latter, highly abstract, identity is rendered more concrete by the metaphor of citizenship, invoking city walls as boundaries defining membership and belonging, as well as suggesting a particular type of relationship between citizens. At the time of the French Revolution, the term ‘citoyen’ entailed a highly deliberate use of the metaphor (under the banner of liberty, equality, and fraternity!) to suggest equality and (republican) independence and sovereignty. In short, ‘citizenship’ may be a dead metaphor now, but it might still have been worth looking into.

A smaller, but not insignificant, problem concerns the structure of the book. The reader has to wait until Chapter Six for an extensive treatment of Conceptual Metaphor Theory. But the ideas developed here underlie the whole book, and particularly the analysis of the three metaphorical models of social cohesion discussed in Chapters Two to Five. The discussion of these metaphors in Chapter Six feels like a (superficial) repetition of the work done in those chapters. Another thing that distracts from the real merits of this book is the editing: the number of typos and malformed sentences gives the impression that this was done in haste.

Nevertheless, Healy’s study constitutes valuable reading for anyone with an interest in social cohesion, schooling, and educational policy. It is also a timely warning against the potential dangers of too strong a reliance on the metaphor of the market in the sphere of education.