Spatializing Social Networks: Quantification Gone Too Far?

In their 2010 article, Radil, Flint and Tita attempt to combine spatial analysis techniques with a social networks approach to tease out spatial patterns in gang activity across Hollenbeck, CA. While successful in presenting a three-tiered distribution of gang activity with interesting spatial phenomena, including the effect of ‘relational betweenness’ on violent crime (p.321) and elements of ‘north-south’ (317) and ‘core-periphery’ (p.320) territoriality, the authors highlight the potential of the technique to be used ‘in concert with other ways of knowing’ (p. 322) and suggest that the static nature of their study is an important limitation considering the ‘dynamism’ (p.321) of gang activity across space and time.

While I do appreciate the author’s efforts to quantify a traditionally qualitative area of Geography, their detachment from the subject of study leaves me very uneasy. Gang violence affects the day-to-day experience of hundreds of thousands of Angelenos, and to ‘focus on methodology’ (p.322) and engage so little with its repercussions leaves the door wide open for criticism from a cultural geography standpoint.

Could these patterns had been identified through a qualitative approach? How do testimonials acquired ‘in the field’ stack up to the matrices, network diagrams and spatial analyses in this paper? As discussed in class, quantification (quite like the term ‘science’ as a qualifier for the ‘S’ in GIS) has traditionally been associated with a higher level of recognition and funding in academia. While there are undoubtedly benefits to this, the value of the study assigned this week is limited so long as we agree that it uncovers little new information and only bolsters (or at least claims to bolster) the legitimacy of known patterns and distributions.

The First Law of Geography was derived from a similarly complex attempt to model urban sprawl; a simple message with enormous repercussions drawn from a paper riddled with number crunching and model making (see Tobler, 1970). The degree to which we can use quantitative methods for inductive reasoning in social geography is, in my opinion, an interesting debate that I would love to expand on in class. Let’s remember that Los Angeles is more than a collection of statistics…


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