Social Safety Nets Between People

For years, people have studied how people make space.  Edward T. Hall is most associated with proxemics, the study of the human use of space within the context of culture.  In The Hidden Dimension (1966), Hall developed his theory of proxemics, arguing that human perceptions of space, although derived from sensory apparatus that all humans share, are molded and patterned by culture.  He argued that differing cultural frameworks for defining and organizing space, which are internalized in all people at an unconscious level, can lead to serious failures of communication and understanding in cross-cultural settings.  This book analyzed both the personal spaces that people form around their bodies as well as the macro-level sensibilities that shape cultural expectations about how streets, neighborhoods and cities should be properly organized.

Hall’s most famous innovation has to do with the definition of the informal, or personal spaces that surround individuals:

  • Intimate space – the closest “bubble” of space surrounding a person. Entry into this space is acceptable only for the closest friends and intimates.
  • Social and consultative spaces – the spaces in which people feel comfortable conducting routine social interactions with acquaintances as well as strangers.
  • Public space – the area of space beyond which people will perceive interactions as impersonal and relatively anonymous.

Cultural expectations about these spaces vary widely. In the United States, for instance, people engaged in conversation will assume a social distance of roughly 4-7′, but in many parts of Europe the expected social distance is roughly half that with the result that Americans traveling overseas often experience the urgent need to back away from a conversation partner who seems to be getting too close. At the level of fixed and semifixed feature space, the terms Hall uses to describe furniture, buildings and cities, every culture has similar internalized expectations about how these areas should be organized. United States cities, for instance, are customarily set out along a grid, a preference inherited from the British, but in France and Spain a star pattern is preferred.

Hall’s work inspired developments in several fields. In the field of anthropology, he was one of the first to consider the “anthropology of space.” Today, this is a robust area of research pursued by anthropologists interested in how the built environment expresses culturally shared ideas and sustains relations of inequality between people (Lawrence and Low 1990). Hall’s ideas have also had a significant impact in communication theory, especially intercultural communication, where it inspired research on spatial perception that continues to this day (Niemeir, Campbell and Dirven 1998). In geography, Hall’s work has inspired geographers to consider the importance of relative and relational, as opposed to absolute, space, and to ask the questions about how different human communities create and make use of space.

In the midst of such rapid urbanization, urbanites use space by creating social safety nets so that their surrounding makes sense.  The massive and densely populated city tends to create a sense of being disconnected with other people.  Urbanites, however, react by creating social safety nets in the form of segments or social groups – a type of space whereby their need of belonging is fulfilled.  These social safety nets take on a variety of forms and flavors.  Urbanites, moreover, often associate with more than one social safety net or segment.  As such, social safety nets sometimes have a blurring at points of connection.   Through careful research, though, lines of demarcation are found between these various social safety nets.  It is possible to group these social safety nets or segments into several dimensions.  Those dimensions include . . .

The Demographic Dimension.  Social safety nets are sometimes found in how people gather together in a particular area of the town as found in the population density, age groupings, gender groupings, etc.  Bangkok has two and a half times the area of DKI Jakarta or Metro Manila, hence its population is less dense. Semarang’s core is much less densely populated than those of Jakarta or Bandung.  But differences in the morphology of these cities also affect their density. Bangkok has few of the crowded urban slums so prevalent in Manila, for example.  The population of these cities roughly doubles when we add the zones to the metropolitan core; in the cases of Bandung, Semarang, and Surabaya there is much more than a doubling.  The inner zones are where the action is – migrants come there from both the core and elsewhere in the country; net migration in many cases contributes as much as two thirds of the population growth in these zones.  Such demographic dynamics segments the city creating social safety nets for both new and recent residents as seen in the next dimension.

The Migrant-Resident Dimension.  Migration changes the educational structure of the inner zone. As migrants tend to be relatively well educated, especially those moving out from the city core, they help raise the average educational level of the population of the inner zone. This is particularly marked in the case of Jakarta, where the educational attainment of the original population of the inner zone was very low.  Nonetheless, the city may also be segmented along lines of migrant populations versus more long term resident populations. 

The Ethno-Linguistic Dimension.  Lines of demarcation are also found in terms of ethnicity and linguistics.  It is common place to find some cities with Chinatowns, Italian sections, etc. with each segment retaining its own particular ethno-linguistic characteristics.

The Geo-Political Dimension.  This dimension is often found in physical boundaries: such as roads, railroads, rivers, etc.  It is also found in how cities are divided into districts, wards, townships, etc.

The Socio-Cultural Dimension.  This dimension is often discovered in layers of economic status, caste type systems, etc.  This is probably one of the more common ways that people segment and view cities.  However, it is not necessarily the main way that people in the city group into social networks.

The Commonality Dimension.  Segments of commonality are unearthed in special needs (e.g. prostitutes, prisoners, deaf, etc.), clubs (sports, etc.), occupations (e.g. taxi drivers, medical professions, public services, waiters, restaurant owners, factory workers, blue collar businesspeople, white collar businesspeople, etc.), education (e.g. primary and secondary school students, university students, primary and secondary educators, university educators, etc.)

The Religious Dimension.  Lines of demarcation are also found along religious lines, such as distinctions between Muslims, Buddhists, etc.

An Explanation and the Vantage Points of a Multi-Dimension

Obviously, each one of the above dimensions are different ways to segment a city.  Why look at segmentation from the vantage point of different dimensions?  First, we often speak of discovering and focusing in on receptive people.  Looking at segmentation from a multi-dimensional perspective causes our strategy to be better positioned to discover those peoples in the city who are receptive to a gospel presentation.

For instance, we start out looking at the dimension of commonality and discover that students are a primary segment in the city.  We would not divide the students into those who are Buddhist and those who are muslim to build a strategy.  Instead, we would seek to first discover the primary or central question that all students are asking concerning life.  Once we have discovered that question we develop a culturally packaged gospel presentation for all students in general that seeks to answer the students question.  We also look at the religious dimension and discover that the city is filled with large populations of Muslims and Buddhists.