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Loneliness, social isolation and social relationships: what are we measuring? A novel framework for classifying and comparing tools

Lookup NU author(s): Dr Nicole Valtorta, Professor Barbara Hanratty



This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC BY 4.0).


Objectives: We present a novel way of classifying and comparing measures of social relationships to help readers interpret the growing literature on loneliness and social isolation and to provide researchers with a starting point to guide their choice of measuring tool.Methods: Measures of social relationships used in epidemiological studies were identified from two systematic reviews-one review on the association between social relationships and health and social care service use, and a second review on the association between social relationships and health. Questions from each measure were retrieved and tabulated to derive a classification of social relationship measures.Results: We present a classification of measures according to two dimensions: (1) whether instruments cover structural or functional aspects of social relationships and (2) the degree of subjectivity asked of respondents. We explain how this classification can be used to clarify the remit of the many questionnaires used in the literature and to compare them.Conclusions: Different dimensions of social relationships are likely to have different implications for health. Our classification of social relationship measures transcends disciplinary and conceptual boundaries, allowing researchers to compare tools that developed from different theoretical perspectives. Careful choice of measures is essential to further our understanding of the links between social relationships and health, to identify people in need of help and to design appropriate prevention and intervention strategies.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Valtorta NK, Kanaan M, Gilbody S, Hanratty B

Publication type: Article

Publication status: Published

Journal: BMJ Open

Year: 2016

Volume: 6

Issue: 4

Online publication date: 18/04/2016

Acceptance date: 21/03/2016

Date deposited: 27/07/2016

ISSN (electronic): 2044-6055

Publisher: BMJ Publishing Group


DOI: 10.1136/bmjopen-2015-010799


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Funder referenceFunder name
NIHR DRF-2013-06-074National Institute for Health Research