Between cell phones, email and online social networks, keeping in touch with friends and family has never been easier, whether you're only five or 5,000 miles apart. As we become ever-more reliant on technology for staying connected, do where our contacts live still matter?  
 
"Despite the power of information technology to keep us connected across long distances, geography still plays a role in shaping our social relationships," says UCI sociologist Carter Butts. "Location and spatial structure affect our opportunities to interact with others, our perceptions of the neighborhoods in which we live, and how we share information during emergencies."  
 
With a newly awarded $750,000 National Science Foundation grant, Butts is leading a research team to discover just how much our social networks are impacted by geographic and spatial structure as well as socioeconomic status. Working with him are John Hipp, UCI criminologist, and Nicholas Nagle, University of Colorado geographer. Findings from their study will have wider applications for urban planning and models of communication during crisis situations.  
 
Over the course of the three year study, the researchers will conduct a large scale survey throughout Southern California to find out who residents contact most, how well they feel they know their neighbors, who they call when emergencies happen, and where those contacts are located. They will then pair the information with census data to determine how interconnected people within neighborhoods are and how far out - geographically - those connections go.  
 
Findings from the survey and social network models derived from the results will help researchers understand how physical space and closeness contribute to perceived feelings of safety and cohesiveness among neighbors based on where their networks exist - information they say will be useful to urban planners interested in developing and shaping communities to fit residents' social and interpersonal needs.  
 
Their findings will also be helpful for first responders in the development of future information dissemination and emergency warning systems by suggesting the best places to inject messages into residents' social networks.  
 
"When emergencies happen, getting information out to the largest number of people in the shortest amount of time is a critical but often difficult task," says Butts, who has studied the topic at length as part of UCI's on-going Calit2 Project RESCUE study. "Knowing where to find the key contacts for reaching the most members of a given community can be extremely useful in developing more focused, effective crisis communication plans."  
 
After mapping out the relationship networks of Southern Californians, the research team plans to expand the project nationwide in order to learn more about the impact geography plays on our social connections to others and how such information may be applied to keeping more people "in the know".  
 
The three year NSF study began in October and will continue through September 2011.  
 
Pictured at right: A social network model based on information collected in a prior study for an area the size of Phoenix. The model shows how information would be expected to pass following an emergency with blue representing those who receive information first. The colors shade into green and yellow for those who take longer to receive it. 

 

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