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Understanding Community: A review of networks, ties and contacts

ESRC National Centre for Research Methods
Publication Date
  • 4.3.1 Mixed Methods Approaches (General)
  • 4.3.2 Social Network Analysis
  • Communication


This is an overview of different approaches to the study of social networks, relationships and contacts situated in the context of debates on the interpretation of the changing nature of ‘community’. Three approaches are considered; a traditional ‘community as locality’ approach that sees contacts as bound to a particular geographic location; ‘social network analysis’ that considers the ‘networked’ nature of an individuals’ contacts; and the idea that individuals are connected through ‘small worlds’ that attempt to understand the linked nature of different networks (see Larsen et al., 2005). Implicit in these competing approaches is the link between ‘community’ and social networks (though the two are far from mutually exclusive). This is particularly evident in explanations of how social, spatial and technological change has altered the ways in which social relations are ordered. Simplified, this forms a somewhat evolutionary narrative of shifts in the organisation of social relations from ‘face-to-face’, to ‘place-to-place’, to ‘person-centred’ contacts and relationships (Wellman, 2001). It is the later, encapsulated in ideas such as ‘networked sociality’, that some suggest has had most impact on our understandings of social networks and community (Wittel, 2001). This is evident in discussions of how the rise of instantaneous communication technology such as the internet, e.mail or mobile phones have facilitated the ‘death of distance’ and enabled individuals to overcome the problem of time when contacting others (Cairncross, 2001). As the review goes on to discuss, this does not mean that the need for embodied travel or face-to-face contact is now redundant. If anything, some argue that travel has increased in frequency and distance, and produced more dispersed and flexible social ties which continue to be maintained through ever complex processes of physical co-presence (Urry, 2002; 2003). While some present almost utopian claims about networked individualism and how new travel and communication technologies can empower individuals to ‘choose’ or create better networks, and therefore better social lives, the review warns of the dangers of overlooking what, for many, is exclusion from the ability to engage in such socially enabling networking. Furthermore, the alleged ‘death of distance’ and freedom from spatial fixity of networked individualism has not eradicated the relevance of the spatial and temporal contexts of social networks.

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