Seed funded: Measuring community in an urban age

Bringing urban form into social network-based measures of community

This LSE Cities’ seed fund project covers the initial phases of a planned multi-year empirical investigation into the social and material dimensions of community belonging.

The notion of ‘community’ is an enduring concern both in urban studies and urban planning despite numerous critiques of its utility as a social scientific concept. One methodological domain of sociology that retains particularly strong links with ideas of community is social network analysis (SNA). This is not only conceptual, but also technical, insofar as ‘community detection’ techniques have become a core analytical approach in SNA.

Technical SNA procedures offer one set of empirical approaches for measuring (dimensions of) community. In an increasingly ‘urban age,’ however, and in the era of research impact and evidence-based policy making, a more pressing concern is arguably how do we build community (or, under what sort of conditions is a sense of community for urban dwellers likely to emerge). This project seeks to provide the research basis for developing a theoretically-informed multi-year study to address one facet of this urban policy problem, namely how to measure community belonging not only in relation to social networks (or connections between people) but also as a function of material-institutional embeddedness (or connections to physical and institutional components of ‘place’ or neighbourhood).

To establish the basis for this larger multi-year study, the research supported by the LSE Cities seed fund will comprise rigorous and highly structured reviews of three interrelated sets of literature pertaining to the wider proposal described above.  The first two sets of literature are more substantive.  The first review will focus on gathering and thematically synthesising existing studies that have employed an understanding of social and/or infrastructural networks to understand issues related to community and belonging.  This review would be delimited to the broad ‘urban studies’ literature.  The second would be concerned with studies that use network approaches to analyse the social (including wellbeing) consequences of different modes of transport in a range of urban settings.  The third piece of work would be a ‘methodological review’ (Kennedy 2007), conducted to distil the range of methodological approaches that have been employed to date to analyse neighbourhood-level networks constituted by both ‘soft’ (social) and ‘hard’ (infrastructural/institutional/service-based) networks.  This review would include SNA literature from across the social sciences.

This seed-funded research will form the substantive and methodological basis for a larger funding application for the wider study described earlier.  By providing a rigorous review of existing network-based studies of urban ‘community’ (and related concepts), and of studies that have emphasised travel behaviour in particular, a much clearer case for the proposed empirical study (and the precise parameters of the gaps in the existing literature) can be provided.  Moreover, a research design for this work can be developed that builds on recent methodological developments from across network science.


Photography: Belgravia, Kevin Allen