Research evidence shows overwhelmingly that loneliness affects some groups in society more than others and is particularly acute for those who face multiple forms of disadvantage.
This suggests that loneliness may be unevenly distributed in society in ways that reflect and interact with broader structural inequalities. Yet the dominant approaches to loneliness in research, policy and practice have tended to take an individualised approach – at the expense of addressing the wider societal and structural factors which may be causing loneliness inequalities.
In response to this, WCPP have been working in partnership with some of the UK’s leading scholars of loneliness on a major review of published research on the nature and causes of loneliness inequalities. The review summarises evidence from the UK and internationally about which groups in society disproportionately experience loneliness, including racially minoritised people, migrants, LGBT+ people, disabled people, those in poor physical or mental health, carers, unemployed people, and people living in poverty. For the first time, it brings together international evidence on the wider societal and structural factors which may contribute to loneliness inequalities – helping to explain why marginalised groups are disproportionately affected.
The review shows that loneliness inequalities can be explained in part by marginalised groups’ heightened exposure to experiences of interpersonal exclusion, which directly contribute to loneliness and also do so indirectly, by affecting individual wellbeing and relationships in ways that further increase vulnerability to loneliness. In addition, there is evidence that mere difference from dominant society can also contribute to loneliness in the absence of direct exclusion, for example through clashes in social norms creating challenges in social interactions.
Going beyond the interpersonal level, the review also identifies six structural factors that are likely to increase loneliness inequalities, due to their disproportionate influence on marginalised groups: community attitudes, public policies, demographic diversity, the physical environment, the social environment, and area deprivation.
There is substantial indirect evidence that loneliness inequalities can be explained by the interpersonal and structural factors identified in the review. Direct evidence is more limited, but growing and promising. More research is needed to examine structural factors leading to loneliness inequalities and how these can be addressed by changes that improve the social wellbeing of all members of society. As the review makes clear, loneliness inequalities cannot be addressed by individualised approaches; they need to be addressed by reducing exclusion and valuing difference.