Social integration in Norway
Does economic growth and concomitant improvements in living conditions lead to more loneliness and insufficient social integration? In his thesis, Anders Barstad seeks to contribute to a deeper understanding of welfare trends in modern society, using Norway as a case.
Several authors have claimed that negative trends of social integration are one of the reasons why unhappiness and mental health problems persist, in spite of economic growth and concomitant improvements in living conditions (the "welfare paradox").
The thesis is organised around three main questions. The first is related to social integration as a component of level of living. What is the relation between social integration and the other level of living components, and how has this changed over time? Second, how has individual-level social integration developed over time? Third, what are the individual-level welfare consequences of changes in social integration?
Loneliness as phenomenon
The aim of the first paper is to contribute to a better understanding of insufficient social integration as a phenomenon of Norwegian society. The data sources are The Level of Living Surveys of 1980 and 1995. The paper discusses the importance of resources and arenas for a persons close relations, inspired by the capital theory of Pierre Bourdieu. The isolated and lonely generally have less cultural and economic capital than persons that are not isolated and lonely. They have lower education levels and incomes, and fewer material goods. The significance of education is, however, primarily indirect. When account is taken of the indirect influences, there does not seem to be any credence to what has previously been claimed in research into loneliness in Norway, that loneliness affects different social layers equally. The correlation between low income and loneliness underlines this point. The risk of lacking close relations is particularly high if a person is low in both cultural and financial capital. The significance of access to arenas for social isolation and loneliness is confirmed in some cases. For women there is a significant correlation between not participating in working life and experiencing loneliness. There are no strong tendencies indicating that any of the resources or arenas changed their importance with regard to social isolation from 1980 to 1995.
In the second paper it is tested whether changes in variables related to social integration can explain changes in suicide rates at the aggregate, national level, using Norway 1948-2004 as a case. The method is the Box-Jenkins approach to time series analysis. Consistently, different aspects of family integration contribute to the explanation (in a statistical sense) of the Norwegian suicide rates during the post-war period. A rising number of separations are clearly related to increasing suicide rates, both for men and women. The estimated effect of separations is stronger than the effect of divorces, probably because separations are closer in time to the real marital break-up. This difference has not been demonstrated in earlier time series research. The male suicide rate drops when more people get married. Both increasing alcohol (beer) consumption and fewer marriages seem to be implicated in the soaring suicide rate for young men since 1970. The estimated effect of beer consumption among young males is in accordance with a "post-Durkheim" reformulation of integration theory; heavy alcohol consumption is a risk factor for social isolation and conflicts. The results point to the weakening of family integration as perhaps the most important factor associated with increasing suicide rates in post-war Norway. This conclusion fits well with conclusions from recent studies in other rich, Western countries.
The third paper investigates the trends in individual-level social integration. On the basis of the Norwegian Level of Living Surveys, a total of 12 surveys that span the years from 1973 to 2005, social integration concerning four types of groups are in focus. The first two are family and friends, which represent bonding and "strong tie" relations. The second two are associational groups and work/school groups, which represent bridging, "weak tie" relations.
The pessimistic descriptions of trends in social attachments given by Robert Putnam and others receive limited support in the case of Norway. There has been no general decline of social integration during the last 30 years. The case is rather the opposite for friendship interaction and confiding relationships outside of family circles. More people socialise on an average day. The evidence for Norway, together with similar survey evidence for Sweden and Denmark over a 30-35 year period (reviewed in the paper), consistently shows social isolation either to be stable or decreasing. However, trends have generally been less favourable in the 1990s and less favourable for men than for women. Why trends in the Nordic countries seemingly contrast with the US is unclear, but they are consistent with recent research showing that a generous welfare state does not necessarily "crowd out" social support and communal relations.
The fourth paper discusses the mental health consequences of partnership dissolutions, which have become increasingly common in modern society. Using Norwegian panel data from 1997 to 2002, it is shown that partnership dissolutions (both of marriages and cohabitations) have emotional costs and increase distress (symptoms of depression and anxiety), but mainly in the short term. However, consequences differ for families with and without children. No significant differences are found comparing the consequences of dissolving a marriage and a consensual union. There is, however, considerable variation within the group of cohabitants. Among cohabitants that do not have a marriage-like relationship (relatively short duration, no children) there is no rise in symptoms of mental distress following dissolution. On the other hand, persons in marriage-like cohabitations (long duration, have children) react much more negatively to the dissolution, even stronger than a similar group of married persons. The last finding is in accordance with anecdotal evidence from family counselling, and can be interpreted in light of cohabitation being an "incomplete institution". The dissolution of marriage-like cohabitations may be particularly conflict-ridden because there are so many issues that have to be decided on and negotiated. The more ambiguous and anomic character of cohabitations can be a drawback in the dissolution of long term partnerships with children.