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Social Isolation and Loneliness

Social Isolation and Loneliness

Raising the profile of loneliness on the political and public agenda

Loneliness affects everyone in society at some level. Following the Jo Cox Commission’s Final Report, the UK government committed to combating loneliness and unwanted isolation. Professor Kimberley Brownlee’s research has been at the forefront of thinking on the issues of loneliness, belonging, and social rights. Her research has shown why social deprivation, isolation, and loneliness are neglected human rights issues.

The challenge

Constant loneliness affects nine million people in Britain. This can lead to health risks including reduced immunity, depression, and suicide. Mass social distancing during the Covid-19 pandemic has made this more acute and there is a pressing need for the political agenda to include the effects of loneliness on public health.

Professor Brownlee’s research has shown that our ideas about, and approach towards, social isolation need to evolve to reflect the importance of socialising as a human right.

Our approach

Working with the UK government, NGOs and the media, Professor Brownlee’s work had four main priorities:

    • Defending the fundamental human right against social deprivation

    • Analysing how we inflict social punishments on criminals

    • Exploring the need for social inclusion, with real freedom to interact with others

    • Understanding ‘freedom of association’ in a new way

    Professor Brownlee’s research has expanded the debate on social human rights through conceptual analysis, normative reasoning, thought experiments, and the study of examples and counterexamples. Her research has helped to establish the social pre-conditions required for human flourishing.

    Our impact

    Professor Brownlee’s work has impacted the third sector, members of the UK government, and the general public. As a result of lobbying by NGOs such as Human Rights Watch (HRW), informed by Professor Brownlee’s research, the UK government now has a comprehensive Loneliness Strategy and a Loneliness Minister. The ongoing debate around reforms to social care has also been informed by Professor Brownlee’s submission to the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

    Prisoners have benefited from this project, thanks to the introduction of citizenship-focused rehabilitation programmes. Professor Brownlee’s research advised a move away from reductionist language towards more respectful terms (e.g. ‘residents’ not ‘prisoners’) and as a result, conditions have improved at HMP Stafford.

    The public debate around loneliness and social deprivation has also been informed by Professor Brownlee’s findings, through media appearances, public lectures and interviews for international broadcasters. Her work has featured in online resources such as Philosophy Bites (which has been downloaded 55,000 times) and a video made with BBC Ideas on ‘Do We Have a Right Not to Be Lonely?’ (which has been viewed 67,000 times, March 2020). The project also included public lectures and briefs for politicians. Professor Brownlee’s research is having a profound impact on how we imagine, and react to, loneliness.

    Discover more about the ethics and politics of sociability

    Hear Professor Brownlee discuss self-reliance and loneliness

    Read the article that inspired the collaboration with HMP Stafford

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