In Research


Year: 2019
Published in: Journal of Rural Studies
Cited as: Kelly, D., A. Steiner, M. Mazzei and R. Baker (2019). “Filling a void? The role of social enterprise in addressing social isolation and loneliness in rural communities.” Journal of Rural Studies 70: 225-236.


Social isolation and loneliness has been classed as a major public health concern due to its negative physical and mental health implications, and living in a remote or rural area is a prominent contributing risk factor. Community-led social enterprise models are recognised in government policy as a potential preventative measure for social isolation and loneliness, yet there is a lack of understanding of their application in rural contexts. The objectives of this paper are to investigate the role of social enterprise in addressing social isolation and loneliness in rural communities, and to explore the pathways in which social enterprise activity may act upon the health and wellbeing of social enterprise beneficiaries. We also discuss the capacity of rural community members to deliver and sustain such services. The study used in-depth interviews over a three-year period with 35 stakeholders from seven social enterprises in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, including board members, staff, volunteers and service users. Findings showed that social enterprises are successfully providing activities that counteract factors contributing to social isolation and feelings of loneliness, leading to wider health and wellbeing benefits for individuals. However, the sustainability and continuity of social enterprises are questionable due to the burden on smaller populations, limited expertise and knowledge of running social enterprises, and effects on the personal lives of social enterprise volunteers and staff. This study supports suggestions that social enterprises can be generators of health and wellbeing through their varied remit of activities that impact on the social determinants of health. However, it also shows that relying on social enterprise as a particular solution to social isolation and loneliness is precarious due to complexities associated with rurality. Therefore, rural policy and practice must move away from a ‘one size fits all’ approach to tackling social isolation and loneliness, recognise the need for local level tailored interventions and, through harnessing the potential or rural social enterprises, enable flexible service provision that correlates with rural context.

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Recommendations from this resource

Policy Makers

Policy measures must consider the sustainability of these solutions and the support that is required for their continuation.
Most notably, funding and skills enhancement support is required to ease the stress on volunteers and staff members in the daily running of social enterprises. Approaches to tackling social isolation and loneliness cannot be a ‘one size fits all’, and policy must accommodate local level complexities and contextual differences, such as low workforce pools and declining populations. In particular, the capacity for rural communities to provide alternative services that may have been withdrawn by the state, such as public transport, should be considered.

Future Research

“1) Further research is required to explore social isolation and loneliness in other international rural contexts to verify presented findings and test identified pathways in which rural social enterprise enhance health and wellbeing as a result of decreasing rural isolation and loneliness. Such information is required to inform future policy on social isolation and loneliness.
2) Social isolation and
loneliness is presented as one example of how social enterprise activity
is impacting on the health and wellbeing of rural communities. Further academic research would benefit from an exploration of aspects of mental and physical health that social enterprise activity may address in rural contexts, such as depression or mobility.”