Field of Science

Is Britain really lonelier than ever?

There's a new report out today, commissioned by the BBC, documenting the social changes in the UK over the last 40 years. According to the headline on BBC News, Life in UK 'has become lonelier'. Apparently the major cause is mobility - people commute further, and relocate more easily. Cue the commentators announcing the slow destruction of our society. Mark Easton asks Are we watching Britain's communities dying? Well, are we? That rather depends on what the numbers are, and how you interpret them.

The report itself, from the Social And Spatial Inequalities group at the University of Sheffield, can be downloaded from the BBC News website. Here's how they measure 'loneliness' (p23):
  • numbers of non-married adults multiplied by a weight of 0.18
  • number of 1-person households multiplied by a weight 0.50
  • number of people who have moved to their current address within the last year multiplied by 0.38
  • number of people renting privately multiplied by 0.80
In other words, they use an old fashioned idea of loneliness - if you're not married, and especially if you live on your own, then you're lonely. Now of course these things have both increased in the last 40 years, but that's not quite the same as saying that people are necessarily lonelier. Perhaps fewer people get married, and more people live alone, because these days you can do both these things and still be connected. Society has changed.

And they use the number of people who have relocated as a measure of loneliness! Then they claim that a major cause of loneliness is relocation. It's circular logic.

Here's the dumbest quote from the BBC news report:
One key factor in reducing the sense of belonging in a community is having a large student population.
Well of course it is, using their definition! Students tend to be not married, to have moved recently, and to live in rented accommodation! But in reality, students are among the least lonely segments of society.

So in fact all this report has revealed is that society has changed, not that people are more lonely. They haven't for example, asked people if they are more lonely. Now, some would argue that marriage and living with someone else is still important in reducing loneliness. And other evidence (not in this report) suggests that traditional social ties (belong to formal groups, like church associations) is on the decrease.

But some sociologists are challenging the idea that even this means that we are getting lonelier, according to a feature in New York Magazine last month: Alone Together. The article - well worth reading throughout - makes the case that a few strong ties are being replaced by a multitude of weak ones (social acquaintances rather than deep friendships). So in fact the nature of society is changing, which means the relationships we form are changing.

So what sociologists are measuring as a decline in 'social capital' is, in fact an artefact. Sure, the things that traditionally defined societal relationships are on the decrease. But it's not that loneliness is increasing. It's more that the places and ways in which people seek friendships are changing.


  1. If anything should have twigged with the hack who wrote this, it was that sentence about student population! Yeah, no one at university speak to anyone or goes to parties... Come on! University is often the most social time with the highest sense of belonging in your adult life! This is just incomprehensibly uncritical science reportage.

  2. Wow. I applaud such an impressively unhelpful piece of circular logic and research which makes no contribution whatsoever.


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