Lonely Britain

The BBC has just published the results of research by human geographer Danny Dorling and others at the University of Sheffield on the state of community life in Britain. The report is available here, and much of its contents is condensed into the following maps, which contrast the popular anomie – or lack of sense of belonging – back in 1971 with the situation a generation later in 2001.

British anomie in 1971 and 2001

Does the geographical distribution of “loneliness” surprise you, and, if so, why?

People are increasingly coming to realise that the idea of greater social cohesion in small rural communities over towns and cities is a myth. It should therefore come as no surprise to see the relatively pale colours above in some of the more picturesque countryside areas, full as they are now with holiday homes in villages and hamlets that are for most of the year dead.

Rural areas with a greater sense of community spirit tend to have a higher distribution of working class residents of the kind who enjoy a good chinwag on doorsteps and over kitchen tables. But the correlation between social class and community cohesion is weakening, and not just in regions damaged by the decline in manufacturing industry. Look, for example, at the Welsh heartlands, and the north of England away from Merseyside in the west and Tyneside in the east.

The BBC News report highlights the lessened sense of belonging in areas with large student populations. Such demographic transience is bound to have an effect, but I think we can extend this to academia as a whole. Most academic research workers and many junior teaching staff are now employed on fixed-term contracts, and the expectation is for academics to be mobile during their professional lives. That can make it difficult to lay down roots and build families, and dissuades some from getting involved at all in their local communities for fear of the emotional trauma that could result on being wrenched away at the end of a contract.

If you have a head for figures and the manipulation of spreadsheets, you can download the study data (including local detail) and play around with them yourself.