CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition

In Africa, older adult city dwellers have been the focus of particular attention, particularly because the city is said to be conducive to a weakening of family solidarity. In contrast, the rural world is perceived as highly traditional and supportive. However, some villagers live on the margins of society, even more so than older adults. In this article, the authors look at the little-known phenomenon of isolation in a rural region of Senegal and show how certain life events can lead to this situation, one that social norms are supposed to prevent.

1 Social isolation, defined as a lack of meaningful social relationships (Hortulanus and Machielse, 2005), is a matter of growing interest in sub-Saharan Africa. It is usually addressed as a correlate of observed changes in intergenerational relations, especially those caused by modern social transformations (Antoine, 2007; Gning, 2014). Changes in forms of social support have often been documented in urban settings, but they also happen elsewhere. In rural areas, where social organization in based on family ties (Odimegwu et al., 2020), the social and economic changes of recent decades (notably a growing desire for independence from the family group and migration mainly to the towns) suggest a weakening of family obligations (Antoine, 2007).

2 Social isolation is a complex phenomenon. It has both a quantitative dimension (the size of the social network) and a qualitative one (relationship quality and the network’s response to members’ needs). Also, as the norms and values that determine behaviour vary with time, context, and culture, social isolation requires an understanding of the context. How is the society organized? Is social security provided by the State or the family? (Massé, 1995). Addressing social isolation as a corollary of intergenerational relations masks its particular features. Various reasons exist for this lack of understanding. Social networks have been increasingly analysed in African demography [1] (Kohler et al., 2013) and family sociology (Widmer, 2016), but the focus has been on the connection between various markers of position in the network and an individual’s well-being rather than their marginality. With the focus on the role of social integration, social isolation has remained poorly understood. The few existing studies of social isolation in Africa consider only the situation of elders living in towns (Mapoma and Masaiti, 2012; Phaswana and Peltzer, 2017). Further, a theoretical grounding for understanding social isolation has been lacking. Without such a framework, these studies cannot grasp the specific features of the phenomenon, in particular the characteristic social organization of the milieu and its forms of solidarity.

3 To analyse the consequences of isolation for a person’s well-being, we must know how it affects their life. This paper’s purpose is twofold. First, it identifies a theoretical framework for studying social isolation in the solidarity-based societies of sub-Saharan Africa. Then, it describes the effects of social isolation among the Sereer Siin, an ethnic group in Senegal’s groundnut belt, and the life course events that lead to it. The data used are from two qualitative research projects carried out in Niakhar in 2007 and 2019. These studies were used to develop quantitative indicators for measuring social isolation in all its complexity.

4 In sub-Saharan Africa as elsewhere, interest in isolation arose from recognizing the challenges of providing support for elders (Sajoux et al., 2015). The absolute number of elders, which should quadruple between 2010 and 2050 (United Nations, 2019), and the weakness of government social security systems (Berthé et al., 2013; Calvès et al., 2018) indicate how vulnerable elders can become when family solidarity declines.

5 The disintegration of family solidarity is liable to affect other groups too, especially with the increase in rural–urban migration that is a feature of several West African countries (Jacquemin, 2011; Lesclingand and Hertrich, 2017). Migration has been intensified by economic and environmental crises. In some countries in the subregion, such as Mali and Senegal, men and women in rural areas who migrate have different rationales and expectations (Delaunay et al., 2018; Sawadogo et al., 2019; Compaore et al., 2020). For men, migration is generally a response to the family’s financial and material needs, whereas women see it as an opportunity to break free of the community’s control (Lesclingand and Hertrich, 2017). For young women, migration is also part of the tradition, owing to the custom of patrilocality. This often occurs after a work-related move from country to town. By recomposing a person’s social circle and networks, migration creates new relationship dynamics in which traditional family models are gradually giving way to the individual aspirations of women and the young (Locoh and Mouvagha-Sow, 2005).

I – Theoretical angles for the study of social isolation

1 – The moral economy of solidarity-based societies

6 In rural African societies, the moral economy (i.e. a vision of the social obligations the members of a community have to each other) insures everyone against an inability to meet their essential needs. The moral grounding of this approach—a ‘subsistence ethic’ and the principle of reciprocity—is maintained by a shared value system (Scott, 1976). Solidarity-based societies, organized around ties of kinship, neighbourhood, or village, have an informal social security system in which members share the risks associated with the environmental hazards that can threaten farm yields. This system is based on the principle of ‘balanced reciprocity’ (Fafchamps, 1992; Platteau, 2004): the recipient of financial, material, or moral assistance must return the favour, but to anyone in the village who needs it.

7 Membership of such an exchange network, but especially the ability to meet expectations of reciprocity, allows risks to be shared. Reputation is a particularly important factor because it serves as insurance in the absence of any formal coercion to prevent failures of mutual support. Gossip acts as a social control mechanism. A constant flow of comments, rumours, and judgements about other people is a characteristic feature of traditional societies (Hammel, 1991) and has the potential to undermine trust.

2 – The constricting nature of the moral duty of reciprocity

8 In industrialized countries, the reciprocal nature of exchanges, whether material (e.g. money, gifts, etc.) or immaterial (e.g. hospitality), is considered a source of exclusion (Komter, 1996, 2005). Those who lack the means to reciprocate are seen as especially vulnerable. Some withdraw from their social networks, further reducing the availability of offers of support.

9 Although researchers have already pointed out the overly romanticized [2] view of social support networks in solidarity-based societies (Coate and Ravallion, 1993), little attention has been paid to the potentially marginalizing effect of the reciprocity principle. If someone is unable, or no longer able, to contribute to a support network, they may be excluded from it at least temporarily (Willer, 2009). In solidarity-based societies, lack of financial resources is a major cause of exclusion from a support network (Platteau, 2004). This has been documented in countries including Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire, and Tanzania (Goldstein et al., 2002; De Weerdt and Dercon, 2006; MacLean, 2010). Those studies also show that being a woman or belonging to a minority ethnic group can be barriers to integration in a support network (MacLean, 2010, 2011).

10 Lastly, the restrictive nature of the reciprocity principle is easier to understand when we know the kind of social organization it arises in, i.e. an organization produced and reproduced through kinship ties acquired by descent, marriage, or affinity. [3] The social organization of solidarity-based societies is centred on the ‘hearth’, [4] consisting of a kinship group whose respective roles in the economic system are defined by age and sex (Lévi-Strauss, 1967). The kinship group plays a central support role; each member’s links with the others are both a source of protection and a moral obligation of reciprocity. But with the increasing frequency and duration of outmigration from the village, new relationships develop that can change the ‘traditional’ view of the rural world and especially of each person’s role in maintaining this hierarchical system.

11 Within this theoretical framework, we examine the manifestations of social isolation in rural areas of Senegal and events that give rise to it. We posit that rural–urban migration and women’s increasing labour market participation are altering the solidarity relationships of societies where the moral economy prevails. Given the family configurations, the roles assigned to each sex and the restrictive nature of the reciprocity norm, we may expect social isolation to be reflected more in the quality of social ties than their quantity.

II – Background, data, and methods

1 – Background to the study: the Niakhar Demographic Surveillance System

12 The Niakhar Health and Demographic Surveillance System in the Fatick region, comprises 30 villages whose total population was 44,726 in 2014 (Delaunay, 2017). This is a young population (56% of residents were under 20 in 2014) and is growing fast by natural increase (3% in 2014). Mortality has decreased substantially, particularly among under-5s, and life expectancy rose from 30 to 70 years between 1960 and 2014. Fertility has started to decline but is still high; it fell from 8 children per woman to 6 between 1984 and 2014.

13 Nearly all residents (97%) are of the mainly Muslim Sereer ethic group. In Sereer society, various markers of social status like age, sex, and marital status are in constant interaction. As most economic activity is mixed farming and residential compounds [5] are closely spaced, social networks are dense and social interactions frequent. Although migration to town has increased with financial insecurity due to climate and farming crises, most interactions take place in the village (Delaunay et al., 2019).

14 Although migrants’ profiles are more varied today than in the past, young single men still make up the majority (Delaunay et al., 2018). It is a family strategy to have the young men migrate from the village, while young single women generally migrate before they marry. Marriage is governed by a patrilocality rule, so after the wedding, the bride moves into her husband’s home and takes on domestic tasks including managing daily activities, such as cooking, washing clothes, and looking after the children and elders.

2 – Qualitative data from in-depth interviews

15 This article uses qualitative data from two surveys by the Niakhar Social Networks and Health Project, which aims to understand how health preferences and behaviours spread through social networks.

16 In 2014, a survey was conducted to reconstruct respondents’ complete social networks by the name generator method, [6] eliciting the names of people with whom each interviewee shared particular activities (Delaunay et al., 2019). All the residents of Yandé village aged 16 or over (n = 1,308) were interviewed to elicit all their social connections and document the structure of the interactions among them. This sociocentric approach is designed to ‘reconstitute … the system of interdependence between the members [of a social group]’ (Eloire et al., 2011).

17 For each of the 15 name generators used, respondents could list any number of names. The size of the respondent’s sociocentric network is measured by the number of times they have been cited by residents of the village taking part in the survey. In the sociometric literature, the number of citations received is regarded as an indication of an individual’s prestige (Freeman, 1979). Taking all name generators together, respondents were cited 11.8 times on average, with a minimum of 0 times (someone mentioned by no other resident) and a maximum of 118 (someone mentioned by 118 other residents).

18 The project’s unique design made it particularly suitable for studying social isolation because it did not have the methodological limitations of the surveys usually used for gathering data on social networks. As a rule, such surveys limit the number of names cited in each name generator to five, and they usually use only one generator, for the names of people the respondent most often talks to. Further, the social network surveys used to study social isolation are not usually of the sociocentric kind, so they cannot encompass the respondent’s whole social network. [7]

19 In 2019, we conducted in-depth interviews with people identified as isolated in the 2014 survey. The aim was to better understand their particular situations. This article draws on the qualitative data gathered in 2019, supplemented by a secondary analysis of interviews conducted as part of a pilot survey in 2007 (details below).

20 This identified 135 people below the 10th percentile in the spread of numbers of citations, meaning that they were mentioned by three people or fewer (Table 1). The isolated people turn out to be relatively young. More isolated women than men were married, had no schooling, and were born in the village. The isolated men had a rather atypical profile compared to the general population: they were more educated than the women and more often not born in the village (especially given the custom of patrilocality).

21 Between September and November 2019, individual semi-structured interviews were conducted with 12 men and 16 women from among the 135 people identified as isolated in 2014. Interviewees were selected first empirically (gender, age, and marital status) and then randomly within each category. Some people identified as isolated in 2014 were not so at the time of the 2019 survey. We kept them in the sample because this enables us to discuss the limits of the sociometric indicator chosen for identifying isolated people prior to interview and the nature of isolation in this context. We classified them as non-isolated in the qualitative analysis.

Table 1. Sociodemographic characteristics of people identified as socially isolated in 2014, by gender (%)

Table 1

Women (n = 74) Men (n = 61) Age group 20–24 54.1 52.5 25–59 37.8 44.3 60 and over 8.1 3.3 Marital status Never married 39.2 60.7 Married 55.4 34.4 Widowed, separated, or divorced 5.4 4.9 Education Never been to school 43.2 34.4 Primary 21.6 23.0 Secondary or higher 35.1 42.6 Migration status Born in the village 80.3 58.1 Non-native 19.7 41.9

Table 1. Sociodemographic characteristics of people identified as socially isolated in 2014, by gender (%)

Sample: Residents mentioned by three other people or fewer in the 2014 sociometric survey (n = 135).
Source: Niakhar Social Networks and Health Project.

22 The interview guide (available as online supplementary material) [8] allowed us to address four topics: most recent illness, life course events and changes in the support network, description of the social network, and impact of isolation on health. Most interviews were held in the respondent’s compound; some were conducted in the fields. All were conducted by the first author, accompanied by a Sereer language interpreter. They lasted an average of 51 minutes and were recorded (digital audio), then transcribed in French. [9]

23 This analysis is also based on 24 interviews (from a random sample taken in the study area, stratified by age and gender) conducted in the Niakhar area at the time of the 2007 pilot study to identify the kinds of social interaction that take place in this context and to understand the role of the local social circle in providing support (Sandberg et al., 2008). The interviews help to describe this community’s solidarity-based society.

24 Table 2 shows the demographic characteristics of the respondents in the 2007 and 2019 interviews. Some data are missing in the 2007 survey, notably age and education. Despite our attempts at representativeness, the 2019 respondents were older than those in the 2007 sample, and more of them were or had been married (Table 1). Many singles and young adults are seasonal migrants, so fewer of them were available for interviewing.

Table 2. Sociodemographic characteristics of respondents interviewed in 2007 and 2019

Table 2

2007 survey (n = 24) 2019 survey (n = 28) Sex Male 12 12 Female 12 16 Age n/a 21–24 9 25–59 16 60 or over 3 Marital status Never married 15 5 Ever-married 9 23 Education n/a Never been to school 14 Primary 8 Secondary or higher 6 Migration status Born in the village 19 21 Non-native 5 7

Table 2. Sociodemographic characteristics of respondents interviewed in 2007 and 2019

Note: n/a = data not available.
Sample: Persons interviewed during the qualitative research projects.
Source: Niakhar Social Networks and Health Project.

3 – Reflexive analysis of content

25 The method adopted for this study was a reflexive thematic analysis (Braun and Clark, 2019). [10] Deductive coding based on the literature and inductive coding based on the content of the 2019 interviews were performed (see online supplementary material). The 2007 interviews were also analysed. The NVivo 10 software was used to facilitate handling of the verbatim accounts and carry out the coding. The consistency of the respondents’ viewpoints was checked by triangulation with informal interviews we held with key informers. These informers were researchers from the Institut de recherche pour le développement, based in Dakar, and teachers in Niakhar. They were chosen for their thorough knowledge of this social environment and the diversity of their professional backgrounds.

III – Social isolation in Niakhar: social and financial insecurity amplified by an experience of migration

26 Two main themes emerge from the analysis of the interviews about the experience of isolation in Niakhar. First, membership of the informal social insurance system covers village residents’ financial support needs, and social isolation makes it difficult to maintain one’s membership of these support networks. Second, migration emerges as a vector of isolation, though differently for men and women.

1 – The normative pressure of the informal insurance system

27 The kinship group and local social circle in Niakhar are the people most likely to meet the immediate needs of village residents. The interviews show that despite the scale of social change in our times, notably in rural–urban migration, the basic principles of the moral economy are upheld, at least rhetorically. This is exemplified by Moussa, [11] who was identified as isolated in 2014 but no longer seemed to be so in 2019, as he was in the village to help his family with their farm-work at the time of that survey. Outside this annual festive period, Moussa lives in Dakar, working in the port. The job enables him to help cover the needs of his family in the village. Asked about the importance of neighbours, he said:


We have to always unite because we all share the same village. If there was division, the village would be ruined. If everyone chips in to help when you have problems, the village is bound to prosper.
(Single man, 25, non-isolated, migrant)

29 Mutual help is the core of the insurance system, but pressure to conform puts those who cannot help in a difficult position. Financial insecurity seems to exclude people from the support networks and so deprive the poorest of material support. ‘Isolated people are those who are tired because they have no support’, said one key informant we met in 2019. Not only do they deliberately limit their interactions, their social circle encourages them to do so.

30 Interiorization of the mutual support customs they grew up with and, above all, the inability to match up to them are triggers for people to withdraw into isolation. Shame can have particularly significant consequences in sub-Saharan Africa (Roth, 2010; Moya, 2015; Ouattara, 2018), and the shame of not meeting mutual-help expectations leads people to withdraw from their support networks. Fatou explains: ‘Today, if I had nothing to make a meal with, I would be ashamed to go and ask for it’ (isolated woman, 54, married, non-migrant). Fatou’s social and financial insecurity was the result of her decision to leave home because of her husband’s violence towards her. Her eldest son, a migrant worker in Dakar, used his savings to build her a hut outside her husband’s compound. She lives there with her two youngest children. Having no access to land for farming, her financial means quickly became very limited. The decision to leave her home to flee domestic violence may have caused the village to ostracize her more.

31 Since the reciprocity norm acts as a social insurance system, being unable to meet people’s expectations affects a person’s reputation. Someone’s asking for help can be a danger if it shows they will have difficulty fulfilling their moral duty of reciprocity in the future. Mistrust towards the social circle then becomes ingrained because people fear being gossiped about and left out of future exchanges. Fatou adds:


Some people, if you spend a lot of time with them, they’ll think you are looking for something even though you’re not. In that case, it’s best to stay home and make do with what you have.

33 Avoiding being the subject of rumours or comments, particularly about one’s financial hardship, is a big issue where interactions are frequent. To avoid being kept out of the network, isolated people avoid talking about their problems, as Maïmouna says:


I keep on good terms with them [the neighbours], but I don’t get much help because I rarely let them know my problems. Often, if you tell someone about your problems they will know all your secrets, and I don’t want that. When the children are ill, for example, if the nurse prescribes medicine and I can’t pay for it, I fix it so I can pay later.
(Married woman, 35, isolated, migrant)

35 Maïmouna is a young woman in a polygamous marriage who migrated to the village about 10 years ago. Cohabitating with her co-wife proved particularly difficult because of the physical and verbal violence inflicted on her. She says her co-wife’s children, all adults, insult her and say that she and her six children cost the compound too much money. Her co-wife can claim a higher status due to her age and the success of her children. Her co-wife also starts rumours about her, but Maïmouna hopes this will change when her own children start work.

36 Not only are isolated people reluctant to ask for help, the pool of support available to them often shrinks as well. Even though mutual support is the norm, as Fatou pointed out (‘if you have the means, you’re certainly not going to wait until he [your neighbour] comes asking [for help]’), most isolated people say that the injunction to spontaneously help other people is not generally honoured. They say it is especially hard to get support if one lacks financial resources. So, unlike what might be expected given the principles of the moral economy, reciprocity is not so much balanced as it is conditional on parties’ ability to reciprocate, especially when it comes to helping the destitute.

37 A certain tension is evident for isolated people who prefer to keep to the sidelines and yet want to maintain relationships in the village, a strategy that may help them rejoin the support network. It is imperative to ‘stay visible’ to maintain relationships despite the lack of reciprocity. Since a person has to be known in their social milieu to receive support (Santos and Barrett, 2006), isolated people’s withdrawal, their refusal to seek help from those around them, may further compromise their chance of receiving help. The importance of maintaining relationships in the village was stressed repeatedly. Biram, who used to be a village event organizer and now owns a small shop, explains:


You have to be close to people for them to be able to help you. You have to talk to them, discuss. But when you’re alone, you talk to no one and they regard you as an animal. When you don’t seek help, they regard you as an animal.
(Married man, 39, isolated, non-migrant)

39 He says his network changed because people in his circle lost interest in him:


Before, I had people around me. For example, if you did a christening, you’d come to me for help. Then I could reduce [the price of the event]. But since I stopped organizing events, all my old social circle have withdrawn because I’m no longer of interest to them. They’ve all abandoned me.

41 Seeing their main source of support dry up and wanting to minimize any gossip about them, isolated people have various strategies for obtaining help. First, they may call on family members outside the village. Some, both men and women, said they had appealed to their children (usually children who had gone to Dakar) the last time they were ill. While isolated people may receive moral support from their local social circle, it is their children who help financially. Several women who had migrated to another village upon their marriage, like Fatou, often chose to ask their family in their home village for help:


You may go and live with people, and they may know your problem but not help. That’s why, if I need something, I go home [to my family].

43 Non-family friends outside the village were also an important source of support, both for women who did not want to tell their family of origin about their domestic problems and for men born in the village who had failed to meet the expectations of their family and friends in some matter of financial support. The discomfort of having to ask for help is illustrated by Bougna’s account. Bougna came from the south of the country, moving to the Niakhar area upon her marriage. She has difficulty putting food on the table, both for herself and for her children. The household’s income had dropped when her husband, a Koran teacher, stopped work due to ill health. His brother, living in the same compound, stopped supporting them, accusing Bougna of having too many children and costing too much. She explained that she had had to ask one of her husband’s friends to help feed her family.

44 Thus, it seems essential for isolated people to interact regularly with their local social circle as a means to rejoin the support networks and to prevent gossip about supposedly antisocial attitudes. But such contacts, though frequent, are superficial. This is easily understood, considering the fear of one’s personal problems being known to a number of villagers. Asked about her relations with the village women, Bougna said:


They can’t hold their tongues, and I’m poor but I’m proud. If they help you, then if they’re under the palaver tree or picking leaves in the fields, they’ll start saying, ‘If it wasn’t for me, So-and-so would…’. That kind of thing is why I don’t confide in them.
(Married woman, 33, isolated, migrant)

2 – Migration and social isolation for women and for men

46 Migration is a decisive factor for understanding the size of respondents’ social networks. We give two examples, concerning both past and present migration.

47 Among those who were migrants at the time of the survey, [12] having a small network was a reflection of long absence from the village rather than social insecurity. For these people, being mentioned by few people was mainly due to geographical distance. Many interviews with migrants visiting the village, like Babacar, showed that ties they had forged before they left had been maintained:


Basically, they [ties with people in the village] haven’t increased or decreased. Those who used to know me still do. There has been no change, and no one has forgotten me.
(Single man, 25, non-isolated, migrant)

49 Previous migration, by contrast, largely explained changes in isolated people’s social networks, though differently for men and women. Gendered behavioural norms and expectations linked to position in the social hierarchy are key for understanding the reasons for marginalization.

50 Reasons that emerged for men were an unwilling return migration and kin group expectations of help. People may have to move back prematurely due to disruptive events such as illness or widowhood. The men’s role as the family’s financial provider was decisive in their social group’s change of attitude towards them. Cheikh, who came home after the death of his first wife, said:


Life is interesting when you’re away from the village and you have some money. But it was hard when my first wife died and left the children here with me. You have no money, and people don’t respect you.
(Married man, 64, isolated, former migrant)

52 Cheikh had been away for work reasons for 26 years. He attributed the change in his social circle’s attitude to their discontent at the way he had managed his income during his absence. When he came back with no savings and had to start farming, his family turned their backs on him and criticized him for failing to support them financially, both while he was away and since his return.

53 Other respondents too reported a change in the quality of relationships after their premature return, perhaps reflecting a failure to fulfil their support obligations while away. Had they tried to break free of the mutual support system by migrating? Current migrants, mostly single and younger than non-migrants, seem to be under less pressure, perhaps because they do not yet have the status of a married man with a family.

54 Among the women, migration for marriage emerged as an explanation for their isolation. In our sample, 7 out of 8 isolated women were not born in the village they lived in. In Niakhar as in most traditional sub-Saharan African societies, marriage is a major milestone in the life course. One of its functions is to maintain the kinship-based social organization (Mondain and Delaunay, 2014). Most women, whatever their age, value marriage. It is perceived as a tradition to be honoured. ‘Marriage is a woman’s heaven’, said Coumba (married woman, 64, not isolated, non-migrant). Marriage changes a woman’s status, but the obligations it imposes on them are restrictive, especially if they have moved to settle in their husband’s village in compliance with the custom of virilocality (Mondain et al., 2012).

55 Married women’s behaviour is ruled by numerous customs that limit their social relations outside the compound or near neighbourhood. They will be criticized for keeping up friendships with neighbours ‘too far away’, especially if they are new to the village:


You know, people will always vilify you if you’re a Sereer woman and you move around a lot. When you decide to visit a friend, if it’s further than two or three houses away [from one’s own compound], you’ll get the reputation of being a restless woman.
(Married woman, 2007 interview)

57 Conforming to such strictures on married women makes it particularly hard for a migrant woman to develop a social network, especially if relations with other members of the hearth are conflictual. For a woman new to the village, relations within the compound are essential for developing an outside social circle. Women who migrate when they marry find their social relations greatly changed, and they lose any independence they may have gained by migrating for work. Awa’s story illustrates this:


Honestly, when I was at home, I was happy because I used to go to Dakar and come back. I had my own money and I made my mother happy. I don’t have that any more. Before, I was independent, I bought what I wanted. Now I manage somehow. I don’t have a big brother or a younger brother I can ask. Nobody.
(Married woman, 30, isolated, migrant)

59 The hierarchy of relationships within the compound, especially with the in-laws, can prevent mutual support ties from developing. Power relations between the young bride and her mother-in-law, for example, can lead to a very tense atmosphere. As well as having to adapt to her new environment, Awa found she could not contribute to good neighbourly relations through reciprocal exchange because of the obstacles her mother-in-law put in her way, obstructing all her initiatives to exchange with other people in the village. Awa attributed this to a personality clash, which she described as ‘complicated’:


Interpreter: Since she [the mother-in-law] won’t let you give anything to anyone, is there anyone who asks you for help sometimes?
Respondent: Yes, they come, but when she isn’t there. When people come and if I have anything to give, if she isn’t there, I make haste to help them. They say, ‘You, there’s no point giving because your mother-in-law won’t let you do it’, but I tell them not to dwell on it and they must help me or else nothing will work out.

61 Knowing how important it is to take part in the support system, not only for maintaining good neighbourly relations but above all as a source of financial support other than her husband, this inability to contribute makes Awa particularly bitter about her marriage.

62 In Senegal, as well as the in-laws’ role in integrating the new wife into the village community, there is the custom of twinning (ndeye dikké) between two women. One ‘adopts’ the other, so bringing her into a women’s exchange network (Buggenhagen, 2011). This used to help newly married women integrate socially, giving them many new social ties, but in Niakhar it is less commonly practised than in the past. This change, combined with conflicts in the local social circle, makes it hard to develop social ties based on trust and reciprocity. The quantitative data from the 2014 survey also show that marriage can contribute to a woman’s isolation. In our sample (Table 1), 61% of isolated women were married, compared to one-third of the men.

63 For our isolated women respondents, marriage and migration to their new family’s village had not led to social integration. But those who marry in their own village can also experience isolation. Mariama’s story is an example. Recently married to a man whose work takes him away from the village for a good part of the year, Mariama also has a young child. She explains that her ties in the village have weakened since her best friend left to get married:


They’re not even friends, they are just companions, little sisters I advise on their studies. I tell them to try hard so they can have what they want before they get married.
(Married woman, 30, isolated, non-migrant)

65 Her situation of relative isolation might also be linked to factors brought to light in a qualitative study of residents in a mainly Wolof town (the Wolof are the majority ethnic group in Senegal). That study found that there were often rumours of unfaithfulness about a migrant’s wife or her absent husband, accentuating her sense of isolation (Mondain et al., 2012). Mariama, the only isolated woman in our sample who was a village native, may have been affected both by the departure of her confidante and by disparaging comments about her marriage, such as rumours of unfaithfulness.

66 Migration plays a pivotal part in the reshaping of social networks and in the difficulty of integrating in a new social environment. Given the major role of marriage in developing new kinship ties and the particular constraints imposed on women who migrate on marriage, special attention should be paid to the strategies these women adopt to meet their family’s immediate needs.

IV – Understanding isolation among the Sereer Siin

67 Our analysis of interviews with the Sereer Siin in Niakhar gives us a better understanding of how solidarity manifests in rural Senegal, and its limits. We have looked particularly at the characteristics of the society and of social isolation and at the life course events that can lead to social and financial insecurity.

68 The functioning of the informal insurance system as reflected in the experience of isolated people in Niakhar suggests that social support is based on conditional rather than balanced reciprocity. ‘Conditional reciprocity’ means that support is conditional on the assurance that it will be returned to the giver, and ‘balanced reciprocity’ refers to ad hoc exchanges in which the beneficiary is whoever is in need.

69 These findings match those of a study conducted in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana which suggests that the principles of the moral economy are changing radically, notably because of the economic crisis (MacLean, 2011). Studies highlighting the role of financial insecurity as a cause of exclusion from support networks also point out that social support is conditional. People unable to contribute to the informal insurance system will withdraw of their own accord (because of the shame of being in that situation) and will be rejected by their social circle (because they threaten the support system’s equilibrium) (Mauss, 1923). All the isolated people in our study referred almost exclusively to the financial support they could not return, even though the interviewers did not ask specifically about that kind of support. People try to stay in the support network by offering non-material help (doing laundry, cooking, or shopping in the market, etc.) but attribute their social insecurity to a lack of financial resources.

70 Our theoretical framework also highlights the importance of the quality of social ties in relation to social isolation. The data show that isolated people’s social interactions are dense and frequent but apparently more imposed than freely chosen. It seems paradoxical that isolated people have large social circles. The explanation lies in the traditional norms of social interaction and Niakhar’s social organization. In a setting where social interactions are frequent and relationships are based on family alliances established through marriage, maintaining friendly relations in the village is a necessity. Isolated people must therefore continue taking part in village life despite their embarrassment over the difficulty of contributing to the village insurance system. Social networks in Niakhar are dense, and anything negative about a person that others learn about is a source of shame and dishonour (Moya, 2015). Someone may maintain apparently friendly relations with their local social circle and be physically well integrated, and nevertheless isolated.

71 Consistent with our hypothesis, migration for work or for marriage are major factors of social isolation. While these are not new phenomena, the forms they take today are weakening the supportive relationships typical of African societies (Pilon and Vignikin, 2006). The ways migration and other life course events interact to prevent someone from maintaining lasting relationships in a support network differ between men and women. Among men, the largest factor was a forced return to the village after having migrated, raising the question of the conditions involved and more specifically the matter of contributions to the informal insurance system while absent. The expectations of the family back in the village are such that they can sometimes be difficult to meet. The sense of shame mentioned above also applies to men who have returned unwillingly and have to cope with their inability to honour the community’s expectations of them. Although documented in the context of international migration (Bolzman et al., 2017), this phenomenon has not often been explored for internal migration. The accounts given by Biram (married) and Moussa and Babacar (single), however, show that to understand isolation we need to consider migration and marital status together. In fact, 61% of the men mentioned by no more than three other people in the survey had never been married (Table 1).

72 Among women, migration for marriage can lead to isolation. Women respondents’ stories show that it is hard to reconcile the temporary independence obtained during previous migrations with the obligations and responsibilities of women in the family hierarchy (daughter-in-law and mother-in-law especially). The stories of several respondents including Fatou and Maïmouna show how domestic conflicts and violence can contribute to social exclusion of women migrants in their new village. Women’s increasing participation in the labour market and the questioning, to varying degrees, of traditional social support roles have emerged as key factors of some women’s isolation. Migration for work is increasingly common among young women, posing a challenge to the established order, confronting the customs and expectations of their social circle with the modern lifestyle these women have experienced. Marriage and family conflicts become obstacles to the independence gained by migration for work. Women’s workforce participation casts doubt on the sustainability of the way solidarity-based societies are organized, and especially of gendered roles in providing aid to the poorest.

73 This result differs from findings in West Africa, particularly Mali, which suggest that young women who migrate for work do break free from their family situation (Hertrich, 2014). Young women in Niakhar are subject to traditional customs and domestic roles; their agency is restricted by a patriarchal structure that keeps them partly dependent (Gning, 2014). Sereer society is strongly attached to its traditions (Mondain and Delaunay, 2014), making it difficult to adopt alternative behaviours and attitudes.

74 In interpreting our results, we must point out their limitations. First, in choosing small social network size as an indicator of social isolation we grasped only one aspect of the phenomenon and limited the analysis to a small sample. When we gathered the data, we found that a number of people in our sample of 135 were away working. Some respondents proved not to be isolated but were simply working away from home. Also, more non-native men than women were in our sample, which is surprising given the virilocality custom and the circumstances of the isolated women described in this article. It is possible that some men were born in a neighbouring village but had grown up in Yandé. However, our data do provide information about the role of a person’s migration in the composition of their social network and the differences in expectations according to marital status. The timing of migration, especially for women coming to the village after marrying, deserves special attention to see whether certain events might help to avoid isolation.

75 Second, the sociocentric approach addresses isolation in the village, but someone isolated in the village may have a social network elsewhere. That said, it is still worthwhile to examine local relationships in these contexts, especially as regards non-migrants.

76 Third, the time lapse between the two surveys (2014 and 2019) raises the question of the stability of social networks over time. However, the interviewees in 2019 were asked to give an update on situations of social isolation that had changed since 2014.

77 Fourth, although the results cannot be generalized to all rural populations, they do shed light on mechanisms of social isolation that may be at work in other contexts and therefore be helpful to future studies of social isolation in Africa.


78 Social isolation mainly manifests in an inability to meet the moral obligation of reciprocity. The conditional nature of support suggests that the system fosters inequality rather than providing a safety net for everyone. Our theoretical framework enabled us to capture the key elements of social isolation in a situation where the principles of the moral economy coexist with changes induced by modernity. These factors argue for paying more attention to the transformation of the foundations of the social support system that used to be maintained by moral obligation to the kin group. Last, the results raise the question of the future continuity of informal social support systems and of the potential mainstays of resilience in the face of social isolation. While demographic events like migration and marriage are found to cause social isolation in some situations such as family conflict and impoverishment, what then, are the circumstances that would allow the relations of trust and informal exchange required for membership of a social support network to be restored?


  • [1]
    Most of these studies have looked at social networks in relation to fertility behaviour or sexual and reproductive health (Behrman, 2002; Kohler et al., 2013).
  • [2]
    This expression comes from Coate and Ravaillon (1993), who stressed that the way sub-Saharan Africa’s solidarity networks are represented in the collective psyche takes no account of the limits to their functioning. Locoh and Mouvagha-Sow (2005) pointed out that the beneficiaries of informal solidarity are increasingly subject to selection.
  • [3]
    Kinship by affinity is a type of relationship with a distant relative or neighbour regarded as a family member, although there is no blood tie (Taylor et al., 2013).
  • [4]
    Among the Sereer, the concept of a hearth is similar to that of a household. This way of organizing the domestic group is not specific to solidarity-based societies, but it is significant because in this context it is the main basis for day-to-day solidarity (Guigou, 1999).
  • [5]
    A compound is a kinship-based residential unit that may be composed of several hearths (Adjamagho et al., 2006).
  • [6]
    Name generators are generally considered to fall into three groups: those based on interactions (‘Who do you talk to most often?’), those based on the most important ties (‘Who are the people dearest to you?’), and those based on exchange (‘Who has helped you when you have needed financial help?’) (Bidart and Charbonneau, 2011).
  • [7]
    They are more often egocentric surveys, meaning that they record the respondent’s personal network without interviewing members of their contact circle.
  • [8]
  • [9]
    The qualitative data collection was approved by the Society and Culture Research Ethics Committee (CERSC-2019-094-D), Université de Montréal. Each respondent’s free and informed consent was obtained verbally before starting the interview.
  • [10]
    Reflexive thematic analysis has a flexible structure that allows for creative qualitative analysis in which the researcher’s subjectivity plays a part. The method involves iterative development of a coding structure in which topics are developed from the researcher’s interpretations rather than ‘emerging’ from the data (Braun and Clark, 2019).
  • [11]
    All names are fictitious.
  • [12]
    That is, people who were moving between village and town at the time of the survey (current migrants). Those interviewed in 2019 were visiting the village while we were there. ‘Past migrants’ are those who were not currently migrants but had been in the past.

Although sub-Saharan Africa is undergoing major social changes, including those in the support role played by families, the phenomenon of social isolation has been little studied. This article sets out to identify a theoretical framework for studying social isolation in the solidarity-based societies of sub-Saharan Africa and to describe how such isolation manifests among the Sereer Siin in Senegal. The analysis is based on 52 interviews conducted as part of a survey on social networks by the Niakhar Social Networks and Health Project. These data suggest that isolation happens through the inability to maintain membership of the informal social insurance system. They further suggest that migration (men migrating for work, women for marriage) is an explanatory factor for social isolation when it occurs in such situations as family conflict and impoverishment.

  • social isolation
  • informal support
  • social networks
  • insurance system
  • rural areas
  • Senegal

L’isolement social dans une société de solidarité. Le cas des Sereer Siin au SénégaL

Bien que l’Afrique subsaharienne soit le terrain de mutations sociales importantes, notamment quant au rôle de soutien que jouent les familles, le phénomène de l’isolement social y demeure peu abordé. Cet article a pour objectif d’identifier un cadre théorique pour étudier l’isolement social dans les sociétés de solidarité d’Afrique subsaharienne et de décrire comment cet isolement se manifeste chez les Sereer Siin au Sénégal. L’analyse s’appuie sur 52 entretiens réalisés dans le cadre d’une enquête sur les réseaux sociaux menée sur le territoire de l’Observatoire de population de Niakhar (Niakhar Social Networks and Health Project). Ces données suggèrent que l’isolement se manifeste à travers l’incapacité à se maintenir dans le système d’assurance informelle et que l’expérience migratoire (migration de travail pour les hommes et matrimoniale pour les femmes) est un facteur explicatif des situations d’isolement, lorsqu’elle intervient dans certains contextes comme ceux de conflits familiaux et d’appauvrissement.


El aislamiento social en una sociedad de solidaridad: el caso de los serer-sin en Senegal

Aunque el África subsahariana sea un espacio de importantes mutaciones sociales, sobre todo en cuanto al papel de apoyo que desempeñan las familias, el fenómeno del aislamiento social sigue siendo poco estudiado. Este artículo tiene como objetivo la identificación de un marco teórico para el estudio del aislamiento social en las sociedades de solidaridad del África subsahariana y la descripción de cómo se manifiesta este aislamiento entre los serer-sin de Senegal. El análisis se basa en 52 entrevistas realizadas en el marco de una encuesta sobre redes sociales llevada a cabo por el Observatorio de Salud y Población de Niakhar (Niakhar Social Networks and Health Project). Los datos sugieren que el aislamiento se manifiesta por la incapacidad de permanecer en el sistema de seguridad informal y que la experiencia migratoria (migración laboral para los hombres y migración por matrimonio para las mujeres) es un factor explicativo de las situaciones de aislamiento, cuando se produce en ciertos contextos, como los conflictos familiares y el empobrecimiento.


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Véronique Deslauriers
Université de Montréal.
Simona Bignami
Université de Montréal.
Valérie Delaunay
Institut de recherche pour le développement (IRD).
John Sandberg
George Washington University.
Translated by
Harriet Coleman
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