How to be a resilient researcher of social isolation
I am going to be reflexive on the promises of a digital R&D project entitled ‘Silver Service’ that aims to reduce social isolation by engaging an audience aged 65 and above in arts and culture events supported by technological innovation. Working collaboratively with our main arts partner artsdepot and a technology partner Ingelby research has been engaged throughout the UK predominantly in north London, Warwickshire and South Lakelands. The research has been partnered with the Warwick Arts Centre and Brewery Arts Centre with support from AgeUK. The project aims to build a digital tool, a platform bespoke for this group but only if it is possible, wanted, needed or relevant. It is important for a researcher to be reflexive so as to inform the continued trajectory of an R&D project though this takes resilience, but around what? In this case it will be the term ‘social isolation’.
Social isolation is related to ‘being-lonely’ rather than to the more active action of ‘being-alone’. Social isolation is a commonly used phrase related to ageing that can be loaded with complex negative feelings like shame and embarrassment. Becoming-isolated is a process that can happen to anyone as the Research Manager for AgeUK, Dr Marcus Green pointed out to me in a recent stake-holder interview. Being-alone is the opposite of being-lonely. It is this last sentence that I want to do some reflexivity around and demonstrate resilience.
‘Social isolation is related to “being-lonely” rather than to the more active action of ‘being-alone’. Social isolation is a commonly used phrase related to ageing that can be loaded with complex negative feelings like shame and embarrassment.’
Resilience in this context is a turning word full of action like sustainment. Resilience is sustained over time. In a research context it fits well with what is described as ‘rolling impact’, the ability to show impacts on research as we go along, revealing research in the making whilst thinking it through. This is the purpose of this text: to show resilience around the term social isolation as the project rolls along.
I’ve now introduced the relation between the subject of social isolation, the method of reflexivity and the temporality of resilience. There are two resilient moments I will now discuss to show how this is done. The first involves an auto-ethnographic moment of hanging out at a field site in Warwickshire, and the second relates to a finding in the user-testing of various forms of online booking systems with our stakeholders.
As I sat during a weekend just gone in a field site in the middle of England, I pondered social isolation from a personal perspective. Each time I ate out over three days, be that breakfast in my hotel, lunch in a café or dinner at a theatre’s restaurant, I was sat in far off corners, in walkways next to the bar, or in tables far away as possible from the social groupings of couples, families, and larger celebratory gatherings and get-togethers. Even the solo murder- mystery guests of my hotel did not dine alone. It was as if to be set aside and at that moment I felt the term’s implied action. I didn’t want to be removed from the social even if I wasn’t necessarily joining-in. To eat alone and to sit at a table carried with it a stigma I hadn’t experienced for a long time. I embrace dining alone, when dining in cosmo-political places like London or Paris, or even the quiet mountainside of the Italian republic of Triente; I simply relax and enjoy being-alone whilst amongst the social. I do not ask for sympathy or pity, which is often what the waiters expressed towards me. No, I realize to research is a privilege and an enriching experience even if the atmospheres are not always pleasant. Experiencing the stigma of social isolation first hand was an act of resilience – of resisting becoming stigmatised as being socially-isolated and of being-lonely. Each time I was resiliently holding onto the act of being-alone in a social environment, and that this experience would be pleasant and amiable. What then makes this reflexive rather than just reflective is thinking how this experience might change the way I think about social isolation in the research project at large. By reflexively getting in touch with the project’s key term ‘social isolation’ auto-ethnographically which I did by staying around a field site (beyond the working week) mid-way through the stakeholder interviews, I was able to bring a deeper consideration of the term to play. This leads me to the second part of my writing.
‘Resilience in this context is a turning word full of action like sustainment. Resilience is sustained over time.’
A digital tool built to reduce social isolation should not bind within its usability the stigma toward those that are pleasantly attending-alone. As one stakeholder said to me when interviewed (unprompted) and to paraphrase, being 65 and perhaps being alone is to be at the prime of life, to rediscover and rekindle the activities one may not have done beforehand and to embrace them on one’s own. Adults of any age may choose to be alone and to embrace it for long lengths of their life. Not all digital platforms need to enforce group behaviour like Twitter, Facebook, Friends Reunited, or WhatsApp to name but a few social forms of digital media. There is a trend in digital R&D to do just that, to focus on group innovations but at the cost of other forms of being-social.
I hoped to take on board resiliently that for every action of loneliness counteracted upon in a digital R&D project there might also be a production of something else – a stigmatisation and a loss of the joyful action of choosing to be happily alone not just for the 65+ audience but for all ages of arts and theatre audiences of which I count myself amongst. When analyzing the stakeholder booking tests two weeks later I got my opportunity to be reflexive.
When asking stakeholders to make an online booking the recordings of those digital journeys showed that choosing a theatre seat can be defaulted for individuals or group bookings. Most stakeholders demonstrated booking for one as they were interviewed alone but several theatre systems stretching beyond our three field sites default to two seats, which might infer to an attendee that to book alone or separately is not the usual occurrence. This is however, not the same in other forms of online booking like booking a cruise or booking for a flight. Booking in these instances is one seat at a time. A system that helps groups may help those already engaged whilst at the loss of freedoms of being social as an individual attendee, which is a form of attending a arts and culture event. Making a booking via the box office to seek face-to-face interaction is a way of making booking a social activity. However, making an online booking default to two, maybe doing quite the reverse.
The project is funded by Nesta, Arts Council England and the Arts and Humanities Research Council and Brewery Arts Centre. The author would like to thank and acknowledge Thomas Giagkoglou, my fellow team member on this project for an early draft reading of this text. An earlier version of this text is also published on Nesta’s website for Digital R&D: http://artsdigitalrnd.org.uk/insights/how-to-be-a-resilient-researcher-of-social-isolation/