Disentangling Living Alone, Being Alone, and Feeling Alone: between Cultural Pessimism and Optimism with ‘Modernity’ at Stake (by Christopher Swader)

The following text is a shortened version of the keynote speech given by Christopher Swader at the launch event for the Research Network of Singlehood Studies that took place on 16-17 December 2019 in Tampere.

Few themes are closer to the ‘heart’ of modern societies as the related concepts of individualism and individualization. Indeed, since the founding days of the social sciences, the main way to assess whether or not we are ‘doing well’ in terms of modernization is to ask the question ‘how has our sociality been impacted by this modernity?’

By sociality, I refer to our capacity for social interaction. There are both embodied and cultural components to this. It is really this cultural aspect that is being question. Is our culture doing well for us as a species socially, especially considering that we are social animals? We seem to care a great deal about sociality. Aside from its objective cultural and embodied aspects, it is also a big part of our self-identity as human beings. In my view, the debates about singlehood touch directly on this sensitive question.

On the one hand, there is some agreement about certain facts of the rise of individualist values in modern societies as well as on the enhanced differentiation of individuals from one another and the radical transformation of forms of family, friendship, and romantic relations this entails. On the other hand, the normative meaning of these shifts couldn’t be more contentious. This leads to strong debates about any claimed facts that question the impacts of modernization on our sociality: for example, how has modernization impacted cultural traits such as egoism, and how has it impacted the state and desirability of social ties?

The sudden concern that journalists and policy makers in some societies show toward an ‘epidemic’ of loneliness has generated polarized reactions. Cultural optimists, such as Klinenberg, the author of Going Solo (2012), are careful to separate loneliness from cultural trends such as living alone and singlehood, and they are backed up by a range of scholars who also claim that we are overall much better off today than previous generations have been (see works by Steven Pinker, Ronald Ingelhart. In the meantime, ‘cultural pessimists’ seem to claim that loneliness is a direct outcome of our greater independence and freedom, the theme of works such as the documentary The Swedish Theory of Love (2016). This line of scholarship is backed up by long traditions reaching back to Marx, to include the Frankfurt School of critical theory and also modern classics such as Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam. In some ways, this argument between sides is also encapsulated by Anthony Giddens’ optimistic notion of the ‘pure relationship’ and Lynn Jamieson’s questioning of this within her book Intimacy.

In the end, what we need is more normative and empirical nuance. One way to get there is to very carefully differentiate what we are talking about. For example, it is helpful to separate out the multi-valent empirical realities and theoretical consequences of ‘aloneness’ by analyzing the overlaps as well as the contrasts between the conditions of living alone, being alone, and feeling alone. The focus will be on making a fine-grained differentiation between types of aloneness while highlighting the moments of intervention where a limited set of policy, technology, and cultural advances may be harnessed to combat a limited set of harmful social and health outcomes. For example, a qualitative focus on singles who happily live alone could help us to see what they are doing right (considering that living alone and singlehood are both risk factors for loneliness) and to highlight the underlying everyday social infrastructure that allows them to thrive.


Christopher Swader is an Assistant Professor of Sociology with Lund University. He has held previous academic appointments with the Higher School of Economics in Moscow and the University of Bremen in Germany. Overall his work engages with the connection between intimacy and normative order, and he has published on themes close to family sociology, anomie, the commodification of sex, post-socialism, moral economy, and the life course. He has written a book on value change and economic modernization, entitled The Capitalist Personality: Face-to-Face Sociality and Economic Change in the Post-Communist World (2013). His current main research endeavor is a multi-method investigation of loneliness in cities, for which he has written an article entitled “Loneliness in Europe: Personal and Societal Individualism-Collectivism and Their Connection to Social Isolation” (2018). The project continues now with an ethnography on the relationship between everyday loneliness ‘management’ and social infrastructure.

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