Interview with Hadrien Riffaut: Single and isolated women, linked by places?

18 March 2024

Since 2010, the Fondation de France has published an annual report on loneliness in France. This ground-breaking research, which analyses loneliness from a specific angle each time it is published, reveals the scale of the phenomenon and its impact on our society. Loneliness is a vast subject. It refers to both individual and collective experiences. Hadrien Riffaut, associate researcher at CERLIS and co-author of the Solitudes 2022 study and the Solitudes 2023 study, answered questions from the RAJA-Danièle Marcovici Foundation about the phenomenon of loneliness.


  • Can you differentiate between solitude and isolation? Who are the most affected audiences and why?

We conducted several studies for the Fondation de France, and the objective of the first edition was to redefine these notions, which are sometimes used interchangeably. Isolation is an objective notion. A person is considered ‘isolated’ when they are objectively cut off or have very limited contacts within 5 spheres of sociability such as, for example, family, neighbors, work, or associative networks. Isolation is objective because it is a quantitative measure. Solitude is a subjective relationship with social ties. It is the feeling of being alone, that the nature of social ties does not correspond to what the person expects. Thus, one can be objectively isolated and not feel lonely, as is the case, for example, with people who embark on spiritual retreats and who objectively withdraw from the world to regain a sense of control over themselves. On the contrary, one can be objectively surrounded and feel lonely: all configurations are possible.

The study ‘Connected by Places’ was conducted using two methods: the quantitative method which provided us with numerical data, supported by the Center for Research for the Study and Observation of Living Conditions (Crédoc), and an ethnographic survey aimed at documenting the paths to try to understand what these people mean by isolation. What we notice is that isolation and precariousness go hand in hand. As for the question of the feeling of loneliness, the data is more diffuse.

Thanks to the survey conducted in 2022, we noticed that, in all categories of the population, one can be very socially included and feel lonely. For example, 45% of young people under 25 feel lonely in the summer. This can be explained by summer vacations: this highlights the economic problems associated with loneliness. It is also the time when young people disconnect from social networks related to studies. These young people express a real feeling of isolation: they are still objectively connected by family networks and friends nearby but they feel lonely. Finally, some people experience both isolation and loneliness, so they are objectively isolated and suffer from the feeling of loneliness implied by their isolation.


  • Roughly 82% of single-parent families are comprised of single mothers, and many of them experience distress. What factors explain their isolation and feelings of loneliness?

This isolation must be understood materially: creating connections implies having the opportunity to do so. Often, single mothers have employment, but balancing work and childcare implies unstable economic conditions. The combination of these factors leaves little time for leisure activities and outings, and therefore, the opportunity to create relationships. We thus observe a self-reinforcing phenomenon: the more these women are prevented from creating connections, the more they become isolated. Consequently, there are forms of withdrawal into the domestic sphere. In the previous study, we noticed that public spaces represent a significant lever for these women to establish connections. Indeed, the social spaces most frequented by single mothers are markets, shopping centers, and parks. These are all potential places for social interaction where they can meet people and establish connections. For example, a woman who participated in the survey testified that her encounters were concentrated at the bus stop. These women thus have a very functional use of the city and social connections. The bus stop symbolizes the place of a renewed connection: this phenomenon is called neighborhood micro-socialization.

Often, these women refrain from entering associations due to a taboo and stigma associated with these phenomena of loneliness and isolation. Therefore, providing care and support is complex due to the difficulty in identifying those affected. If they do not declare themselves to suffer from these phenomena, they will remain isolated for a long time before someone comes to their assistance. We have shown that children, through community centers and social centers, for example, serve as a gateway when these facilities are located near their homes. By stepping into these structures to provide activities for their children, they allow social workers to identify them. Children thus appear as leverage in the care process: they legitimize their request. In the fieldwork we conducted in Marseille, we noticed that these social centers are a substantial support for women. However, they are sometimes threatened with closure due to budgetary restrictions and funding issues.


  • How to enable women to reinvest in the social space provided by public areas? Do you consider free access as a significant issue?

Free access is indeed a primary lever. We have demonstrated that financial concerns can be a major barrier when it comes to investing in spaces. Free access is one aspect, but it is also important to emphasize the legitimacy of investing in a social space, which can sometimes be lacking. In the realm of culture, for instance, public policies have established free access for those under 26 in museums. However, ultimately, the young people who visit museums are already familiar with museum culture and have a certain familiarity with the domain. In fact, those who claim free access but do not make the trip tend to be young people from disadvantaged neighborhoods, who therefore possess a lower cultural capital than average. Thus, we thought that free access would be the main lever, but we realize that there are other more symbolic levers at play.

The question of investing in public space is also linked to feeling legitimate to invest in this space. Beyond the financial dimension, it is necessary to consider the place that people occupy. In this case, participatory involvement plays a role. Feeling like an actor in a place promotes attachment and appropriation of the space: if you feel like a mere user, free access will not revolutionize access or non-access to the space in question. The inclusivity of these individuals therefore involves their participation within the space itself, to be considered as resources. This implies that they can take part and give their opinion on its functioning, for example. While the financial dimension is straightforward, the question of place is much more complex because it involves a change in perspective. For example, when one is alone, they may not invest much in bars and restaurants as they do not feel legitimate to be there alone. Conversely, a person may feel more comfortable sitting on a bench in a park alone. Additionally, shopping malls are spaces that bring together very diverse populations because people go there to stroll and chat: small talk. These are small but necessary interactions as they are very valuable to people, as the pandemic has shown: those cut off from these daily interactions suffered greatly.


  • What is a “third place”? What is its function? To what extent can it help women and vulnerable populations overcome their isolation and feelings of loneliness?

The definition of a “third place” varies. Originally, it is a place created by citizen initiatives with the aim of fostering connections. Initially, this term was associated with the professional dimension, with the emergence of coworking spaces, for example. Today, the “third place” is an informal space where activities are organized with the goal of fostering connections. In this sense, the “third place” is not necessarily driven by public authorities or institutions. “Third places” are leverage points since they are often welcoming spaces that allow women to meet others, provided that these places are sufficiently welcoming. The success of the “third place” therefore lies in how the structures welcome and accompany the people they serve. There are social centers that work very well and are not “third places”. Some “third places” rely more on cultural and artistic programming, so they are less focused on issues related to integration and the social dimension. Finally, there are “third places” that offer a combination of both and work very well. In my opinion, it is not necessarily about thinking in terms of “third places” but rather in terms of hospitality capacity.

Stay tuned

I subscribe to the newsletter