We can't stress the importance of social connection enough, says Augustana sociology professor

The detrimental effects of loneliness and isolation have been studied by sociologists and societies long before COVID-19. But now, more than ever, it's important to stay connected.

Tia Lalani - 8 May 2020

By Geraint Osborne

Social isolation has become a defining feature of modern Western societies and needs even more consideration now, says professor Osborne. As we deal with the effects of COVID-19, it's important to use technology-the very tools once thought to encourage social isolation-to fight against it. (Photo: Andrew Neel)

When people look back at this pandemic, they will remember many things, but perhaps most of all they will recall the changes in social behaviour. There is the obsessive washing of hands, not touching our face, foregoing handshakes, hoarding toilet paper, working from home and, of course, social distancing, or more accurately, physical distancing.

Physical distancing is a more precise description of what experts have recommended in order to curtail the spread of COVID-19. Social distancing, on the other hand, should be avoided because of its potential harm for individuals and communities.

Becoming a fully functioning human being with a sense of self and purpose requires meaningful social interaction with parents, peers and many other significant and not-so-significant others. I remind my students that they have never known themselves without the input of others. Or, as the philosopher Allan Watts writes, "We are something the world is doing." Human beings, extroverts and introverts alike, are inherently social.

One of the first sociologists to note the dangers of social isolation was the French sociologist Emile Durkheim, who was preoccupied with stability and solidarity. His classic work, Suicide (1897), identified different types of suicide and argued that suicide had social, rather than exclusively personal, causes. Although Durkheim lacked the statistical techniques to develop his ideas fully, he did recognize the relationship between important social variables. Essentially, Durkheim noted that some people were more likely to commit suicide depending on their degree of social disconnection.

He famously discovered that Protestants, because they had weaker forms of social control and cohesion, were more likely to commit suicide than Catholics or Jews. Men were more likely to take their own life than women who were more involved as "kinkeepers." Single people were more likely than those romantically partnered to end their lives, as were the childless compared to those with children. Basically, the more socially connected people were to fellow believers, families and friends, romantic partners and dependents, the less likely they were to end their lives. In other words, social connections provide meaning while social disconnection kills.

Durkheim's work would go on to inform a broad swath of work in sociology, psychology and political science on the importance of social capital. For example, Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone (2000), connected the decline in voter turn out in the USA to the demise of voluntary associations that make up civic life. When people are socially disconnected, they lose touch with their fellow citizens and the political discussions that sustain civil society and democracy.

Social isolation has become a defining feature of modern Western societies, and there is a growing concern about its effects. Our increasing desire to be free from the restrictions and constraints of traditional institutions, combined with the undercutting of collective organizations and projects by governments driven by neoliberal economic principles, has driven people apart.

Well before COVID-19, governments in the United Kingdom, Denmark and Australia were devoting resources to understanding the social costs of increasing loneliness and discovering ways to combat it. Surveys in these countries reported significant levels of loneliness within their populations. Among vulnerable cohorts, such as the elderly, the rates are much higher. The British government was so concerned that in 2018 they appointed a "Minister for Loneliness" to further study the problem.

Researchers studying loneliness found that there are major physical and mental health risks associated with loneliness. According to multiple studies, lack of social connection negatively affects immune system functioning thereby heightening health risks that are comparable to the risks associated with smoking, alcoholism and obesity.

While such studies are not without their limitations, they do force us to acknowledge that loneliness may be detrimental to some people. In this age of physical distancing, it is more important than ever to remain socially connected to our families, friends, co-workers, fellow volunteers and neighbours. Most of us are fortunate to have smartphones and computers on hand. We must use this technology-the very technology we once thought encouraged social isolation-to its fullest advantage.

So, give people a call, send them a text, reach out on FaceTime, participate in Zoom gatherings and Google Hangouts or watch an online concert or movie with others. When you are outside, wave to your neighbours, chat over the fence or go for a walk on the trails, keeping a safe but cordial distance from others.

Remember, we are social beings through and through, and your health-and the health of our communities and democracies-are dependent on social connection.

Geraint Osborne, Sociology, Augustana Campus, University of Alberta. This column was originally published in the Camrose Booster on May 5, 2020.