HHH column: They do things differently here: discomfort in transdisciplinary research about loneliness by Paul van Trigt

The HHH column is a monthly blog in which History, Health & Healing members share their thoughts on research, current affairs, or anything to do with medical history. Each edition is written by a different member – in due time, we hope to offer everybody a chance to publish a contributionThis month, the floor is for Paul van Trigt, University lecturer in Social History at Leiden University. In this column Paul shares his views on the necessity of transdisciplinary research relating to the concept of loneliness, the challenges that come with it, and how to overcome them.

They do things differently here: discomfort in transdisciplinary research about loneliness

Paul van Trigt

A couple of months ago, the World Health Organization founded a Commission on Social Connection ‘to address loneliness as a pressing health threat, promote social connection as a priority and accelerate the scaling up of solutions in countries of all incomes’.[1] The foundation of an international commission needs to be recognized not only as a response to the ‘global crisis’ of loneliness, but also as part of the tendency to frame loneliness as a (public) health issue.[2] According to a recent editorial of The Lancet ‘the harms to health’ are clear: ‘poor social connections are associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease, hypertension, diabetes, infectious diseases, impaired cognitive functions, depression, and anxiety’. At the same time, as the editorial points out, much is unclear: scholars and policy makers have difficulty reaching a consensus definition and developing successful interventions.[3] Loneliness appears to be a complex phenomenon. 

Against this background, loneliness became part of a Dutch research program, that aims to approach societal problems from an inter- or transdisciplinary perspective.[4] Being part of a project within this program, I have started thinking about the question what historians (of medicine) could contribute to the understanding and the reduction of loneliness.[5] My first impulse was to historicize the so-called crisis of loneliness. Why is it that loneliness is seen as a problem by so many people and institutions today? If loneliness is defined as ‘a negative experience resulting from inadequate meaningful connections’[6], it is not hard to imagine why people see it as a problem. But why do they see it as problem today and on such a large scale? The Covid-19 pandemic has of course spurred the awareness of the relevance of social connections, but loneliness was already high on the agenda before the pandemic. If we simply count how often loneliness (‘eenzaamheid’) has been mentioned in Dutch media, it is evident that the word became regularly used since the early twentieth century and peaked during the 1930s, 1960s and the 2010-2020s.[7] This indicates that the recent attention to loneliness is a new wave in a longer history of thinking and writing about loneliness.

Personal advertisement from Klik. Maandblad voor de zwakzinnigenzorg (1985).
Friendship wanted. Woman, 35 years old, lives independently, hobbies: a dog, walking, cycling, regularly going out (to the movies), and driving lessons. She seeks acquaintance preferably with a male friend, but a female friend is also acceptable. In the vicinity of Arnhem. Responses can be sent to KLIK, PO Box 297, 3500 AG Utrecht; the editorial team knows her address.

It should come as no surprise that this is what historians have already started to point out.[8] In a chapter of the Routledge History of Loneliness, Fred Cooper for instance discusses the ‘crisis’ of loneliness in Britain during the 1950s and 1960s: his case study foreshadows the current ‘crisis’, but Cooper also acknowledges that it ‘was by no means the first time that loneliness was figured as a particular kind of historically contingent emergency’.[9] This historicization causes Cooper, like Fay Bound Alberti in her book A Biography of Loneliness (2019), to be critical about ‘narratives of crisis, emergency and epidemic’ because they ‘misrepresent and misunderstand historical temporalities’.[10] However, Cooper wants to go beyond the critique and challenges historians to show ‘how that misrepresentation distorts attempts to reckon meaningfully with loneliness in the present’.[11] According to him, historians have to realize that their perspective will probably less comfortable than crisis models because historical research underlines the complexity and insolubility of loneliness.[12]

As far as I can oversee the (inter)national literature, my impression is that in recognizing the scarcity of solutions for loneliness, the presence of historians is not strictly necessary.[13] However, I agree with Cooper that historians could be relevant in addressing the ‘ways of ordering relationships and society’ that produced loneliness and that, as I would like to add, determine our solutions for loneliness. This last addition is significant, because I observe a tendency in the social scientist’s literature to continue searching for successful interventions while we maybe should question the very idea of interventions.[14] Imagining that historians could do this alone would, however, be an overestimation.  Historians are good at showing the contingency of contemporary handlings of the ‘problem’, but I think that they need others in the search of how we could do things differently.[15]

Loneliness cannot be studied in isolation. This is easier said than done: pleas for inter- or transdisciplinary research often tend to underestimate discomfort in collaboration. As Cooper points out, historians could reveal unsettling results. But the reverse is probably also true: historical research is not always applicable in contemporary practices.[16] Within my project, I am lucky to work together with people who can endure loneliness (of others) without providing quick fixes and who have already practiced this virtue without my historicizing work. These people challenge me to question and rethink my historical contribution to the project. They push me out of my comfort zone of historicization and stimulate me, for instance, to articulate practices of endurance with loneliness in the past. This raises the question whether historians should dedicate more time to having discomforting conversations about the limitations of other’s and their own perspective.[17] A complex and difficult issue such as loneliness demands not only critical histories, but also historians who can endure such discomfort.

[1] WHO, ‘WHO launches commission to foster social connection’, https://www.who.int/news/item/15-11-2023-who-launches-commission-to-foster-social-connection (retrieved April 2, 2024).

[2] Hannah M. O’Rourke, ‘The global crisis of loneliness: a call for contextualised, mechanistic research’, The Lancet: Healthy Longevity 5, 4 (2024) 241-242, doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/S2666-7568(24)00030-8

[3] Editorial, ‘Loneliness as a health issue’, The Lancet 402, 10396 (2023) 79, doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(23)01411-3.

[4] Find more information here: https://www.nwo.nl/en/researchprogrammes/dutch-research-agenda-nwa/thematic-programming/loneliness (retrieved April 2, 2024).

[5] Find more information about my project here: https://www.universiteitleiden.nl/en/research/research-projects/humanities/collelo(retrieved April 2, 2024).

[6] Editorial, ‘Loneliness’.

[7] Search in Delpher.nl (Dutch media until mid-1990s, online available), and in Nexis Uni (Dutch media 1990s until now, database available via the Leiden University Library).

[8] See for a recent historiographical overview: Fred Cooper et al., ‘The history of loneliness: what we know so far. An evidence-based resource for newcomers to the field’ (2024), https://bci-hub.org/documents/history-loneliness-what-we-know-so-far(retrieved April 23, 2024).

[9] Fred Cooper, ‘Loneliness as crisis in Britain after 1950. Temporality, Modernity and the Historical Gaze’, in: Katie Barclay, Elaine Chalus and Deborah Simonton (ed.), The Routledge History of Loneliness (London/ New York) 162-174: 163.

[10] Cooper, ‘Loneliness’, 163 and 169.

[11] Ibidem, 169.

[12] Ibidem, 170-171.

[13] See for instance: Tamara Bouwman and Theo van Tilburg, ‘Naar een gerichtere aanpak van eenzaamheid: zeven werkzame elementen in eenzaamheidsinterventies’, Tijdschrift voor gerontologie en geriatrie 51, 1 (2020) 1-8, doi:10.36613/tgg.1875-6832/2020.01.01.

[14] Suggested in the following publication: Michael Kolen, De ongekende mogelijkheid van het alledaagse. Een kwalitatief-empirische, zorgethische studie naar morele betekenissen in de alledaagse omgang tussen jongeren met een licht verstandelijke beperking en zorgprofessionals (Doctoral Disseration University of Humanistics 2017).

[15] In a variation on L.P. Hartley’s ‘’The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.’

[16] Even historians do not agree about history’s applicability: see https://www.historyhealthhealing.nl/hhh-column-why-history-doesnt-matter-for-policy-making-by-robert-vonk/, and https://www.historyhealthhealing.nl/hhh-column-policymaking-without-history-is-blind-by-rina-knoeff (retrieved April 2, 2024).

[17] In line with scholars arguing for ‘postcriticial turn’, see: Herman Paul, Kritisch denken: over het ethos van de geesteswetenschappen (Leiden 2021) 9.