The Societal Dynamics of Loneliness


Hamburger Institut für
Mittelweg 36
20148 Hamburg

Tel.: +49 40 414097-0
Fax.: +49 40 414097-11

E-Mail: HIS (at)


The project is based on the paradigmatic insight that being alone and loneliness are not simply passively endured random states but are rather determined by societal factors. Although there may be people who are often alone or lonely because of their psychological dispositions or personal preferences, both circumstances normally call for the support of social institutions. Consequently, the project regards loneliness, in its three manifestations as a subjectively codified feeling, an objective state, and a real practice of aloneness, as a fact that must be explained at least partly by social mechanisms. Three sets of questions emerge from this perspective:
How does the inner experience of loneliness change?
The question addressed here is how subjective coding and the publicly available codes for perceiving loneliness change in response to levels of societal development and social context. Can we identify structural patterns in the experience of loneliness that are connected to functional patterns in society?

How do social mechanisms that isolate individuals change?
If societal processes isolate people, these mechanisms must be first identified and then examined in terms of their dependencies on specific historical paths and their internal developmental principles. Is there a history of isolation mechanisms? Do different societies isolate different groups? Can this be captured in a model of society theory?

How do people arrange, manage, and ensure their solitude?
Psychological and medical studies conceptualize solitude primarily as a state of deficiency. But solitude is more than that, and sometimes it is even in short supply. Consequently, people are concerned not only with avoiding and dealing with solitude, but also with securing and configuring it.

Research design
The three subsections of the project have been designed as cross-country comparisons of Chile, Germany, and the United States. The first part consists of a classic ethnomethodological empirical approach employing qualitative interviews and participant observation. The choice of countries emerged from the hypothesis upon which this research is based, namely, that perceptions of loneliness depend on the demographic cycles of the society in which subjects are socialized.

Two contrasting groups are interviewed in each country. The first target group consists of people who live in ongoing and advanced social isolation. The second group consists of people who are familiar with solitude and loneliness but do not experience this as a permanent reality.

The second part of this study involves the statistical secondary analysis of available data on perceptions of loneliness, practices of solitude, and social isolation. The theoretical assumption is that in societies where social cohesion is increasingly threatened through exclusion and no longer ensured through common values, changes can be ascertained with respect to the composition of the socially isolated population, the distribution of feelings of loneliness, and to how people configure modes of being alone. So far, data from the German Socio-Economic Panel (SOEP) and the International Social Survey Programme have been analyzed. Further secondary analysis is in progress.

The third subsection encompasses the analytical exegisis of public discourse on loneliness. Here pop songs are the subject of analysis.

Empirical fieldwork is currently underway in all three subsections of the project. Data has been collected in Germany and Chile. In the context of ethnomethodological work, thirteen interviews have been conducted so far in Germany and twenty interviews in Chile. These interviews are currently being transcribed.

(Last modified May 2012)