Exploring the spatial dimensions of personal and social networks in place-based urban community research: a methodological review and synthesis

Alasdair Jones, Meg Bartholomew

Contact: a.jones@lse.ac.uk

Reflecting the observation that in personal and social network scholarship as broadly conceived issues of space, place and spatial mobility have not yet been fully taken up, this paper argues that even in research on place-based urban community/ies the conceptual and analytical opportunities available through accounting for the spatial dimensions of networks have only been partially and unsystematically explored. Thus, despite a recent resurgence in interest in the importance of social infrastructure to community development (Klinenberg 2018; Latham and Layton 2019), there has until recently been a dearth of studies that seek to empirically and simultaneously analyse both the social and spatio-material dimensions of urban community. As Habinek, Martin and Zablocki (2015: 28) put it, “almost nothing is known about the joint effects of network structure and geographic position” in personal and social network research. Having said this, there is a burgeoning interest in the analytical potential of exploring the spatial dimensions of urban community networks, and an increasing number of researchers have started to explore these issues using a range of mixed-methodological approaches that seek in some way to account for the ways that urban morphology and social infrastructure shape, mediate and interact with both connections between people and connections between people and place. Drawing on the findings of the LSE Cities ‘Measuring Community in an Urban Age’ study, the present paper seeks to bring together this emerging urban studies literature in order to explore the various and often innovative ways that place-based urban community as a socio-spatial phenomenon has been approached empirically. Specifically, the paper quasi-systematically reviews and synthesises the methodological designs and techniques that have been deployed in social network-and urban morphology-inflected studies of place-based urban communities. Through this process we first distil three distinctive sets of (often mixed-method) methodological approaches to understanding place-based urban community as a socio-spatial phenomenon. We then synthesise and typologise a set of network-based methodological design innovations for empirically studying the socio-spatial dimensions of place-based urban communities and of the ‘practise’ (Blokland 2017) of such communities. Finally, we identify a range of methodological gaps and synergies in the existing literature that invite collaboration and further innovation. As urban planners and policymakers seek to better account for dynamics of community formation and cohesion in a steadily urbanising world, this paper will provide a timely methodological synthesis of spatial and relational approaches to measuring community and the socio-spatial factors that shape experiences of belonging and social inclusion in urban settings. For network scholars, it will shed light on emerging methodological debates in a domain of network research in which the relevance of space and geography to social bonds is highly plausible but has only just started to be concertedly explored through mixed-methods research designs and the emergence of novel empirical data collection techniques.

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