Measuring loneliness

A few days ago my Twitter timeline included a reference to a scale measuring loneliness. The 4-point scale is, in fact based on a longer scale, which is not exactly the same (the differences are quite extensive), but, hey, who cares, right?  Still, the scale got me thinking. Can you actually measure loneliness? So, I decided to look at the scale.

This is something I have done before. In my “Men’s Discourses of Depression” I analysed the Beck Depression inventory. I showed that not only it is acontextual, but also that it is not a scale, and that imposes depression upon its respondents. That it correlates and stuff? Frankly, I don’t care. All you get from people doing the BDI is how they do BDI.

And so, let’s have a look at the 4 items of the mini-scale.

  • How often do you feel you lack companionship?
  • How often do you feel left out?
  • How often do you feel isolated from others?
  • How often do you feel in tune with the people around you?

You will have noticed that all of them start in the same way: “How often do you feel…?” and that there are two elements of these beginnings. First, there is the question of frequency and question of feeling something.

It always surprises me that researchers behind questionnaire research assume that we, respondents, have some sort of internal software monitoring our emotional or cognitive CPU, through which we acquire all sorts of information on frequency, duration, or general timing of things. This is, indeed, also why, I think, doctors keep asking questions like “When did it start?”.

Interestingly, the responses which are offered are as follows:

Hardly Ever/Never – Some of the time – Often

Let’s not stop to consider what exactly ‘some of the time’ is. But do let’s wonder why ‘Hardly ever’ comes before ‘Never’ ruining the scale from rare to frequent. And as the former comes before the latter, one might assume that it is given more prominence, the ‘never’ is an afterthought. But this also means that you cannot NOT be lonely in this scale. The best you can achieve is to be hardly ever lonely. Loneliness, just like depression in the BDI, is imposed, you cannot escape from it.

Let’s now consider the ‘feel’ stuff. Why does the questionnaire ask questions introducing them through a mental process (this is a reference to Michael Halliday who talks about verbs in terms of processes)?

Well, ‘feel’ introduces the ‘subjective experience’. When you read about the scale, you find out that it is supposed to give us access to subjective experience of loneliness. Does it? Of course, it doesn’t. Questionnaires may do many things, but they certainly do not give access to lived/subjective experience. After all, it is the creator of the questionnaire who controls the agenda here, including, crucially, what and how you can actually say things. Subjective experience? My….

But there is more. While references to feeling give appearances that we ask about the respondent’s feelings, in fact,  the questions make sure that we also talk about ‘facts’. It’s all to do with the verb ‘feel’ which is put into the superordinate clause with the rest of the introduced through the ‘feeling’. Change it to ‘see’ and you will have a proper presupposition. And so regardless whether you say

I saw John come in.


I didn’t see John come in.

you will imply that John did come in. With ‘feel’ things are more complicated. And yet, because the items are interrogative, I think they imply the truth of the subordinate clause. So, when we ask ‘Did you feel X’, we do presuppose that X actually happened. If I am right, it is also the questions themselves that inevitably suggest loneliness, which is consistent with the answers to the questions, as I indicated above.

And then there are the details, the ‘facts’ of loneliness. What does it actually mean that you ‘lack companionship’? I know people in long-term relationships who might actually say this, but does it mean they are lonely? Alternatively, ever since I came to live in this country I have not exactly been ‘in tune with the people around me’ (we do not share so much of a set of cultural references I share with Poles), yet, I don’t think I have been lonely. So, what exactly are you asking me in the scale?

The problem with the four items above is that they ask about highly context-dependent things, to which the best answer is “It depends.”. Moreover, words like ‘companionship’ introduce a host of connotations which are unlikely to be shared by all those who fill out the questionnaire.

But the point I am making here is not, really, about inadequacy of a questionnaire. For it would imply that you can create a new better questionnaire. And that’s not at issue here. Rather, I am arguing that there are things which cannot measured by a questionnaire. Well, perhaps that it makes little sense to measure them. Because on the one hand they are too complex, on the other, you just need to give people the space in which to make their own story. Loneliness, next to depression, love, delusions, suffering, suicide, is one of those things which is better understood through a story. Or perhaps a number of stories.

So, why measure loneliness?


Loading ...