Social patterning of sleep

Despite sleep being commonly viewed as a non-social, physiologically determined act, a major theme within all of our work is that how we sleep, when we sleep, where we sleep, and with whom we sleep, are all influenced by social, cultural and historical factors. The investigation of these influences and the ways in which they manifest themselves within the meanings, methods, motives and management of sleep contribute both to our understanding of the sleep/wake cycle and how social factors are implicated in poor or disrupted sleep.


Completed research projects

Using longitudinal dyadic data analysis techniques to explore gender identity and sleep within couples

Secondary analysis of dyadic data over time to explore the dynamics of gender identity and couples’ sleep.

Key facts

  • Principal investigator: Dr Rob Meadows
  • Co-investigators: Professor Amanda Sacker
  • Funding amount: £10,000
  • Funder: British Academy
  • Project start date: 2014
  • Project end date: 2015


The study used longitudinal dyadic data analysis to explore:

  1. The dynamics of gender identity within heterosexual couples over time
  2. How gender dynamics within couples over time are associated with reports of sleep.

Results were used to engage with ideas surrounding how traditional masculinities are constructed in relation to emphasized feminities and how they are constructed in the areas of face-to-face interactions over time.  The findings also enabled us to engage with recent sociological literature which suggests that sleep is a gendered arena.

SomnIA: sleep in ageing

Optimising quality of sleep among older people in the community and care homes: an integrated approach. See project website.

Key facts

  • Principal investigator: Prof Sara Arber
  • Co-investigators: Professor David Armstrong, Dr Ingrid Eyers, Professor Kevin Morgan, Professor Roger Orpwood and Professor Debra Skene
  • Funding amount: £2,332,599.50
  • Funder: New Dynamics of Ageing
  • Project start date: 1 December 2006
  • Project end date: 30 May 2011


Good sleep in later life reduces risk of falls and depression, is essential for maintaining activity and performance levels, and reduces challenging behaviour encountered in dementia sufferers. This multi-disciplinary research project addresses practice and policy relevant issues arising from the nature, impact and management of the sleep-wake balance in later life. It will extend and join up strategically targeted areas of sleep research relevant to understanding and improving autonomy, active ageing, and quality of later life. 

Academic partners from six disciplines and four institutions, together with five non-academic partners, will achieve these objectives through research within eight inter-linked work packages. Multiple methods will be used to improve understanding of disrupted sleep and associated medication use in later life, using secondary analysis of existing large databases, and in-depth research with older people in the community and care homes. Interventions will be conducted to evaluate the effects of ‘blue-enriched’ light on quality of sleep in the community and care homes, evaluate a supported self-management programme for insomnia among older patients in general practice, and evaluate newly-developed sensor-devices to improve sleep. A user-friendly information and advice website on sleep will be developed, and a sleep education module prepared for the DIPEx website.


View project report (PDF).

Couples’ sleep

Negotiating sleep: gender, age and social relationships amongst couples.

Key facts

  • Principal investigator: Prof Sara Arber
  • Co-investigators: Dr Jenny Hislop and Dr Rob Meadows
  • Funding amount: £211,375.12
  • Funder: ESRC
  • Project start date: 30 September 2003
  • Project end date: 30 July 2006


The research examined social factors influencing the quality of sleep and sleep negotiation between working age men and women at varying stages of the lifecourse. It used a multi-method approach, which included the integration of social scientific and physiological data:

  1. Qualitative interviews with 40 couples, to obtain information as to their described sleep reality and to understand how this differs from their normative views on sleep.
  2. Individual qualitative audio recorded sleep diaries for a period of one week (x80), to provide qualitative data on each partners sleep behaviour.
  3. Quantitative actigraphy data for a period of one week (x80).

Sleep in ageing women

A study of how patterns of sleep change with age, the kind of sleep problems common among women aged 40 and over, how these problems affect their lives, and what strategies and treatments they use to overcome them. See project website.

Key facts

  • Principal investigator: Prof Sara Arber
  • Co-investigators: Dr Jenny Hislop
  • Funder: Commission of the European Communities
  • Project start date: 30 September 2003
  • Project end date: 30 July 2006


This project aimed to investigate:

  • The effect of ageing on sleep patterns for women aged 40 and over,
  • The nature of sleep problems experienced by these women,
  • The impact of these problems on women's daily lives, and
  • The strategies and treatments women use to overcome sleep problems.

It employed a multi-method approach, including 15 focus groups (N=124), in-depth interviews (N=35), audio sleep diaries (N=35), and a national postal questionnaire (N=1500).

Understanding Society Scientific Conference 2015

Watch Professor Sara Arber's keynote address.

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Department of Sociology
Elizabeth Fry Building (AD)
University of Surrey