The Spatial Dimension of Social Networks: A Mixed‐methods Study on Socially Disadvantaged Persons in Rural Peripheries

Andreas Klaerner, Christoph van Duelmen


From previous research we know that social networks are an important resource for coping with poverty and social disadvantage. We have also found that the spatial context is an important dimension that matters for the formation and the functioning of social networks: while social networks represent important resources for coping with poverty in rural areas, the support capacities of these networks are weakened by structural changes, the selective out‐migration of younger and better educated individuals, and by the ageing and shrinking of the population. Based on case studies from our current research project “Social disadvantage in rural peripheries in eastern Germany and the Czech Republic: opportunity structures and individual agency in a comparative perspective” we want to show how the spatial dimension – in the sense of local opportunity structures – plays an important role in the formation and maintenance of social networks and that this has consequences for the daily lives of socially disadvantaged people. From a theoretical point of view, we are guided by Scott Feld’s ideas, which states that we must consider the social as well as the spatial contexts when we research social networks. Both contexts can be conceived of as social structures located outside the network (‘foci’) which systematically produce patterns in a social network. Next to their aid in tie formation foci are in return also created and maintained by focused action of involved actors. These foci are often bound by a physical location in space. Methodologically, in a first step, we combine problem‐centered qualitative in‐depth interviews with a standardized collection of ego‐centered social networks using the software VennMaker. In a second step, we then ask respondents to carry a small GPS tracking device for 14 days, this device records the movements of the respondent which then can be visualized on maps of daily activities. In a third step, we bring these maps to the respondents and interview them on the locations visited and how they matter to them, we also ask what the places are where the respondent meets with members of their social network. By bringing together the ego‐centered social network data with the individual time‐space activity patterns from the GPS tracking in form of two‐mode networks and interpreting the connections we find with the qualitative interview data, we address the theoretically formulated challenges of the interplay of social relationships and individual usage/ perceptions of space. Questions that motivate our approach are: - To what extent do the respondents’ personal networks converge with places relevant in their everyday lives? - Do specific types of relationships show a distinct connection to certain types of places? - Does the description and meaning of places differ with respect to the alteri that are in affiliation with them? In our presentation we will outline the theoretical and methodological framework of our study as well as first preliminary results. We will also discuss methodological and practical challenges but also opportunities we encounter during the realization of this novel approach.

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