Solitude is voluntary. Loneliness is not. But the two can become unintentionally intertwined. They can coalesce into one another from either direction. Intentional solitude can lead to unexpected loneliness. And loneliness can cause a person to isolate—to avoid contact with others as protection against revealing the pain brought on by loneliness. Not terribly long ago, I was introduced to Dunbar’s Number, a theoretical limit on the number of people with whom an individual can maintain social relationships. The theory is further clarified as the number of relationships a person has in which she knows each person in the social circle and how each individual relates to every other one. According to Robin Dunbar, the anthropologist who proposed the number, the concept can be explained informally as “the number of people you would not feel embarrassed about joining uninvited for a drink if you happened to bump into them in a bar.”

I doubt I am living evidence of the legitimacy of Dunbar’s Number. The actual number, variously proposed by others as between 100 and 250, with 150 being a fairly well-accepted middle range, seems quite high to me. Though I know well over 250 people, I seriously doubt I would feel comfortable joining them uninvited if I happened to run into them in a bar. As I contemplate the idea, in my mind the number dwindles rather quickly to the mid double digits; actually, it is probably considerably lower than that. That reality seems to set me apart from most other people—assuming, of course, Dunbar’s Number is a legitimate concept. If the reasonably close social sphere for other people is between 100 and 250 and if my number is closer to 15—or fewer—there must be some significance in that gulf of difference. What that significance might be, though, is beyond me. I suppose, though, having a larger sphere allows a person to maintain contact with “important” people, regardless of how many within a person’s sphere are out of touch—busy with family or other friends, out of town, engage with business commitments, etc., etc. I imagine a smaller sphere can quickly evaporate when members of that sphere have other obligations and commitments. In that case, the isolation associated with smaller numbers can transform into loneliness.

This is all supposition, of course. I know very little about Dunbar’s Number, really. The concept was advanced in the 1990s, long after my college career was over. And, besides, my college career was geared toward sociology, not anthropology, so I may be dealing with comparisons between apples and alligators here. I sometimes wonder why I explore things that are clearly beyond my experience and expertise and relevance. Perhaps it’s simply a way to avoid things that matter. Things that are more difficult to address that hypotheticals about which I have little to no exposure. Hmm. I should think more on that.


I cannot think clearly this morning, for some reason. I should leave this attempted blog post and return to it…or another one…when my mind is more attuned to such matters.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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