Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

A Lonely Society? Loneliness and Liquid Modernity in Australia

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

A Lonely Society? Loneliness and Liquid Modernity in Australia

Article excerpt


Recent studies of loneliness suggest that it has become more prevalent in contemporary societies (Franklin & Tranter 2008; Baker 2012). This trend has important social costs and policy significance, since loneliness has been linked to corrosive impacts on physical and mental health, the functionality of communities and city life, and overall levels of happiness and satisfaction (Mellor et al. 2008; Franklin 2010). Despite this, the phenomenon of loneliness is still barely visible or talked about, with few policies in place to specifically address its structural causes. Perhaps our experience of it as an ambiguous and little understood emotion means that it has failed to attract the same sympathy and policy attention as phenomena such as social isolation, social cohesion, community building and social inclusion. We lack a causal framework for linking individual, aged-related and life cycle loneliness to social structural and cultural change. Certainly, there is much evidence that when people suffer from loneliness they are more likely to think of it as a mental, personal disorder and to seek help from mental health specialists, than to appreciate its complex origins in the social and cultural fabric of the societies they live in (Andersson 1998; Franklin & Tranter 2008). Indeed, why should they make such a connection when it has so far eluded most sociologists and social theorists?

Drawing on robust data obtained from several recent surveys in Australia (Flood 2005; Mellor et al. 2008; Franklin & Tranter 2008, 2011; Baker 2012), this paper considers the hypothesis that Australia may have become a society prone to loneliness; and that loneliness may already be endemic through the reproduction of multiple and overlapping features of modern Australian society and social structure. It asks new questions: is Australia especially prone to loneliness, and has Australia now become a 'lonely society'? It aims therefore to open up discussion and research on loneliness into its wider social and economic contexts, because this is where social theory suggests many of the solutions may lie. In order to do that, it builds on the theoretical work of Zygmunt Bauman, particularly a recent series of books developing his concept of liquid modernity and liquid life (Bauman 2000, 2003, 2005). It will be argued that contemporary loneliness is not reducible to changes in the distribution and pattern of social relationships and social networks so much as the nature of social relationships themselves. To all intents and purposes, recognisable forms of social relationships persist into the present time, but no longer function in the way they once did. They no longer deliver or sustain the same emotional qualities or intensities that make people feel they belong, they matter, and that they are cared for (Mellor et al. 2008).

The paper generates connections between the pattern of loneliness in Australia and Bauman's broad description of liquid modernity. It also argues that the pattern and experience of loneliness in Australia emerging through recent surveys exposes some problems that cannot be explained by the liquid modernity thesis alone. Bauman's thesis is largely gender neutral in its ascription of loneliness, its description of loosening social bonds, and how people might address loneliness as a problem. In this paper, I offer new evidence suggesting that awareness of the gendering of loneliness is critical knowledge for the many caring professions who are trying to help lonely people. However, I also offer new arguments that point to the possibility of quite different national and cultural patterns to contemporary loneliness, and why Australia in particular might have experienced a profound growth in loneliness.

What is loneliness?

The socially churning nature of the postwar economic restructuring began to generate the first concerns for loneliness in the 1960s and 1970s, with the break up of longstanding industrial communities and their redistribution into largely experimental forms of architecture and urban/residential design (Franklin & Tranter 2011). …

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