Social isolation, third places and precarious employment circumstances: A scoping review

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About the project

Rising rates of social isolation in Canada and other middle- and high-income countries have turned scholarly attention to the kinds of places that facilitate social connections. “Third places”—physical and virtual places beyond home (first places) and work (second places)—are thought to foster social interaction, connection, belonging and support. However, there remains a need to link understandings about third places with situations of precarious employment, given that people facing precarious employment circumstances often lack the social opportunities and resources associated with stable workplaces. This scoping review assessed what is known about the types and characteristics of third places that help maintain social connectedness and address social isolation for adults experiencing precarious employment circumstances. The project examined 24 English-language research articles published in multidisciplinary academic journals between 2012 and 2022. The review captured diverse forms of employment (i.e., gig work, involuntary part-time work, seasonal work, temporary migrant work) characterized as transient, non-permanent, unpredictable, having few worker protections or rights and associated with low or unpredictable remuneration, as well as cyclical or long-term unemployment. In addition to synthesizing results, our analysis mapped studies’ geographic locations, methodologies, methods, quality and attention to diverse social positions. We aim to use findings to a) create dialogue about how precarious workers’ engagement in third places can address social isolation and b) identify opportunities for stakeholders to partner on place-based interventions.

Key findings

  • Third places are diverse in type: The original concept of third places focused on places affording “pure sociability,” such as pubs and diners, in the lives of middle-class males. This scoping review found third places occurring in a variety of physical (e.g., alleys/curbs, parking lots, town squares, churches, stores, cars) and virtual (social media groups, gig work application message boards) places/spaces in the lives of people experiencing precarious employment circumstances. Largely, these public and semi-public places/spaces were accessible without associated costs, shared blurred boundaries with other kinds of places (i.e., work/home) and were spatially or symbolically set apart from “mainstream” society.
  • People create third places through diverse collective activities to meet a range of needs: Given their lack of access to stable workplaces and to third places requiring particular resources and social statuses, people experiencing precarious employment dynamically shaped and maintained third places to meet diverse needs. For example, they created co-working spaces to replace absent structures, routines and social connections. They repurposed “leftover spaces” (e.g., alleys/curbs, the natural environment) and community spaces (e.g., drop-in centres, collective “living rooms”) to gather, connect and make sense of their situations with others; assert visibility and/or rights in circumstances of social exclusion; and provide or receive care, resources or support. This repurposing was associated with impermanent places and social ties, illustrating that employment precarity extended to placemaking. Beyond “pure sociability,” these third places supported a broad range of collective activities (e.g., eating, shopping, resource seeking, exercising, caring, information exchange, resting, recovering and resisting).
  • Particular qualities of third places are relevant to precarious lives: Third places were open to similarly situated peers, had a loose structure with predictable time and location, were flexible (i.e., supported easy communication and multiple uses), had a judgment-free and welcoming atmosphere and were financially, socially and spatially accessible. Absence of these key qualities appeared to enhance risks of misrecognition, being surveilled or experiencing discrimination.
  • Third places can simultaneously foster inclusion and exclusion: Although third places supported inclusion for people who possessed similar social markers (e.g., culture, type of work, migration status, etc.), they could concurrently exclude those deemed as “others.” Third places also perpetuated broader forms of social exclusion, particularly when located in “leftover” spaces at social and geographical margins.

Policy implications

  • Efforts to modify or create third places for people facing precarious employment circumstances must be participatory. Approaches need to account for resource, physical and social mobility limitations that characterize precarious lives. Approaches must also provide opportunities for co-creation and co-maintenance of third places to ensure integration of valued qualities.
  • Collaborative placemaking must account for how people use and make third places through everyday activities. Placemaking should facilitate diverse social and activity needs associated with precarity (e.g., resource seeking, recovering, resisting), as well as collective activities (e.g., leisure, food-related, religious, cultural celebrations, information sharing) that bring similarly situated people together.
  • Policy makers can help counter the precarity of placemaking to ensure diverse citizens can assert their right to space and experience social connectedness. Potential actions include funding to subsidize placemaking, policies enabling diverse uses of public spaces and campaigns combating stigma linked to spatial exclusion.
  • Research funding can help close knowledge gaps to inform place-based interventions within Canadian communities. There is a need for studies that focus directly on placemaking and the qualities of contemporary third places; extend beyond migrant and gig workers’ experiences; and are situated in Canadian contexts. 

Further information

Read the full report

Contact the researchers

Lead Investigator Debbie Laliberte Rudman, distinguished university professor, School of Occupational Therapy, Western University:

Rebecca Aldrich, associate professor, Clinical Occupational Therapy, Chan Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy, University of Southern California:

The views expressed in this evidence brief are those of the authors and not those of SSHRC, Employment and Social Development Canada or the Government of Canada.

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