From Neighborhoods to Nations: The Economics of Social Interactions

By Yannis M. Ioannides | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 10
Urban Magic: Concluding Remarks

Social interactions are fundamental in the functioning of economies at many scales. We engage in social interactions throughout our lives, though we do not label them as such, just as we speak prose without labeling it.

New technologies, from writing to steam to the internet, have facilitated new ways to interact. Nevertheless face-to-face contacts remain strikingly important to us. They are an extraordinarily efficient communications technology fundamental to the functioning of cities. They solve incentive problems, facilitate socialization and learning, and provide psychological motivation. Moreover, face-to-face contacts as a mode of social interaction are particularly valuable in environments where information is imperfect, rapidly changing, and not easily codified (all features endemic in today’s economy).

The present chapter speculates about the prospect for deeper understanding, first, of social interactions in spatial settings, and second, of their significance for the functioning and future role of cities and regions. The research discussed here has identified promising tools. For instance, researchers can look at social exchange in terms of the number of interactional steps between economic agents (individuals, firms, and others). We can then ask how those interactions affect us at different scales. New tools provide foundations for exploring properties of urban networks, from the lowest microscale up to the highest levels of aggregation. Graph theory offers particularly promising tools for exploring the urban social fabric and the interactions that define it: it facilitates analysis that starts from face-to-face contacts and goes all the way up to interactions among population groups, regions, and nations. Its tools can be used to study the physical structure of cities, of aspatial social networks, and of their interaction.

The interplay between social networks in urban settings and a city’s physical structure has many dimensions. Social sciences deal with social connections between individuals in ways that complement each other. While economists are increasingly using graph theory as a mathematical tool, sociologists have used it for much longer. For example, investigations of the small-world phenomenon have provided empirical evidence that randomly identified individuals surprisingly often have a common acquaintance or can reach each other through a short chain of first-hand contacts. Much attention has been paid to startling empirical findings, starting with those of Milgram (1967), who

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