Emerging technologies, spatial behavior and community belonging

New media and emerging technologies continue to change not only our communication (Gunn, 2006; Jones, 2006), but also our relationships, our work, and our communities (Contractor, 2006; Walther, 2006). At the same time, our societies and organizations – i.e. the bodies within which we interact (our interactive vehicles) – have changed dramatically in the last century, becoming more global, more mobile, and more reliant upon use of technology. How these factors interact and influence one another, as well as our sense of belonging to a community, is the focus of this paper.

What is it that makes us feel that we belong to a community? We know that affinity to one’s community is shaped by social interaction (Dewey, 1920; Park, Burgess, and McKenzie, 1925). In addition, we know that media use (Internet, newspaper, TV, radio) influences our interactions and connectedness to a community (Ball-Rokeach et al, 2001; Shah, McLeod, and Yoon, 2001; Rothenbuher, Mullen, DeLaurell, and Ryu, 1996).

But our communities today are different than those of 100, 40, or even 20 years ago. We are more mobile, and our use of information and communication technologies allows us to transcend barriers of space and time that previously defined a village, neighborhood, town, or city. There has been much research and debate on whether these shifts have disrupted our sense of community, and our participation in community activities (Putnam, 1993; 1995; 2000). But there seems to be a growing recognition that instead of broken or weakened communities, what we may have are new forms of community (Wellman, 1979; 1982; 1988). If this is true, what are the factors that influence forms of community that are mobile and not defined by space and time boundaries? What factors other than social interaction play a role in influencing the strength of belonging?

Our sense of belonging or connectedness to a community may also be influenced by our sense of space and physical surroundings – that is, our spatial knowledge, orientation, and behavior. This is not just of theoretical interest, but has implications for emerging technologies and understanding of modern communities. As our communities, interpersonal relations, and patterns of information seeking become increasingly mobile, it will be important to understand the role of space in our communication infrastructure, as well as our information seeking patterns and behaviors. In addition, there are practical implications for the construction of location-aware information devices and the contribution that spatial knowledge can bring to social integration and community belonging.


Emerging issues in Communication and Technology

Development and emergence of new media – both information and communication technologies – continues at a rapid pace. Jones (2006) describes a new generation of users for whom communication technologies define social behaviors in new ways. Gunn (2006) indicates that technological convergence and global development predict cell phone technology will become a globally used all-purpose device, for communication, information delivery, as well as social and spatial navigation purposes. Walther (2006) reminds us that past research on relationships conducted in online environments have yielded many theories, but that most recent research suggests that online and offline relating – once the element of time is removed – may be much more similar to one another than we previously expected. Finally, Contractor (2006) discusses emergent forces in our use of technology and in forms of organizing, that can be enhanced through understanding both social networking and communication network theories. His work is based upon the foundational notion that how we organize in groups (and communities) is based upon the technologies that enable us to connect and network.

In response to growing demands for ubiquitous access to information and communication, development of mobile technologies and devices continues at a rapid pace. These devices allow one to gather information, get news, connect with the office, and also with one’s peers, regardless of spatial location. Location-aware devices, provide an additional dimension in functionality, allowing us to be more cognizant of our surroundings, and to shape the kind of transactions and information seeking we do, based upon our location. Such awareness of our location may also influence resulting actions and behaviors. Thus, orienteering, navigating, and information seeking using location-aware devices may embellish and enhance one’s sense of belonging and affiliation to an area. Contributing to this possibility is the development of handheld social networking devices (Contractor, 2006) that sense location of others and provide us information about potential social interactants, thus shaping the strategies and decisions we make about social behavior.

Spatial Behavior

But there is not yet a lot of research about the role that our sense of place or space plays in our connectedness to our environment, and ultimately our community. Spatial behavior has long been considered an invariant characteristic, or structural property, of our community surroundings. With increased mobility of individuals and movement, this characteristic can no longer be considered invariant. Thus, it becomes important to understand the processes that underlie our communicative interactions with people (interpersonally and through mediated communication), as well as our spatial awareness and behavior (cognition and movements), through our neighborhoods and communities – i.e. our interactions in space.

Tocqueville’s work (1835/1961) tells us there is a vital connection between the individual and his social surround, and that one’s habits of action, shaped by the physical attributes of one’s surrounding, plays an essential role in how we organize and relate socially. Thus, our actions, as well as our communication and relationships, play an important role in establishing and strengthening our ties to a community (Rothenbuhler, Mullen, DeLaurell, R, and Ryu, 1996). It is the nature of this influence of spatial behavior in community belonging, that we examine in this paper.


The theoretical background of this issue is drawn from four areas: (a) early research on the role of social interaction in building community belonging; (b) the role of media (and communication technologies) as contributing factors to a communication infrastructure that strengthens our community ties; (c) evidence that community forms are changing; and (d) newer questions about the spatial context of communities that influences social interaction, media use, and community belonging. These are reviewed herein.

Community Belonging

There is extant research that indicates that social interactions strongly influence our sense of community belonging. Earlier work in sociology, particularly that from the Chicago School (Dewey, 1920; Park, Burgess, and McKenzie, 1925), provided theoretical and empirical evidence for the notion that our communities are formed primarily through our social interactions, and in fact are integrated by communication (Dewey, 1920). Park’s work (Park, 1922; 1925) at the same time extended this idea to note that early mass media structures, i.e. newspapers played a role in these social interactions, particularly in the integration of urban communities (Park, 1922).

The role of media in establishing a communicative infrastructure

Somewhat later, with the introduction of Habermas’ theory of communicative action (Habermas, 1979; 1984), came the notion of a communicative action context which revealed the importance of additional factors that can encourage or discourage discourse in a public sphere, leading to variations of its “closedness” versus “openness” for communicative interactions. The role of media systems and technologies in influencing our communicative infrastructures was also examined. Ball-Rokeach (1985, 1988) proposed a theory of media system dependency that highlighted the interplay between media and interpersonal storytelling in communities, and the resulting effect on community belonging. Rothenbuhler and colleagues supported this work in noting that communication activities, and particularly the use of communication media, are “seen as essential for the growth and maintenance of attachments to and involvement in the communities in which we live” (Rothenbuhler, et. al., 1996, p. 445).

The logic of this work is that the use of media focuses one’s attention away from individual matters and toward larger concerns of the community and society at large. For example, research indicates that newspaper reading influences affective, cognitive, and active ties to the community (Rothenbuhler, et. al., 1996). In other words, social life within a community is influenced by and dependent upon communication systems, which are connectors of individuals to their social milieu.

From this work came the development of the notion of a communicative infrastructure of belonging (Ball-Rokeach, 2001; Friedland, 2001), suggesting that storytelling is the process that transforms occupants from residents of a neighborhood to community members. This “active construction of neighborhoods through discourse” (Ball-Rokeach, 2001, p. 394) suggests that our communities are created and strengthened through infrastructures that enable storytelling. Thus, storytelling (through media and communication technologies) becomes a mediating force in belonging in neighborhoods.

Ball-Rokeach and colleagues (1985; 2001) also examined the influences of the Internet on social integration, and developed a “belonging index”, that tested and measured the strength of one’s affiliation within a community. Additional research confirms this notion that communication environments are constituted by media and social discourse, which in turn influence community formations (Friedland, 2001).

Forms of community

At the same time, there was a proliferation of research examining the new role of the Internet on community structures, suggesting that the growing use of Internet and broadcast media (i.e., entertainment television) was responsible for what appeared to be a rising breakdown in communities (Putnam, 1993, 1995, 2000). Putnam’s work on social capital suggested that communities are being eroded by the increasing time spent using emerging technologies such as broadcast television and the Internet. His work indicated that declining civic participation and interpersonal trust was diminishing connectedness and stability in communities.

However, Wellman (1979, 1982b, 1988) and others have indicated that perhaps our community structures and our participation in civic and community activities was in fact simply transforming, i.e. taking on new forms where connectedness is characterized differently. Communities are no longer characterized as stable and localized, as our rural villages of 150 years ago and even suburban towns of 50 years ago may have been, but instead are more migratory, and in some cases transcend barriers of both space and time. Friedland (2001) notes that as our communities became more migratory, the role and use of communication technologies to sustain ties over time and space becomes more critical (p. 364). In fact, Matei & Ball-Rokeach (2003) examined connectnedness in Internet environments, and found that such connectedness is associated with enhanced civic participation, and indirectly contributes to belonging to a residential community” (p. 642). In addition, this research examined the intersection between the use of online resources with community involvement and spatial knowledge.

But we must also consider other potential forms of community – including virtual communities and immersive virtual environments (Jones, 2006; Lonsway, 2002; Matei and Ball-Rokeach, 2001). Lonsway (2002) notes that mobility, virtual space, and immersive virtual reality environments challenges our “traditional assumptions about space and its inhabitation,” (p. 61) and present us with new spatial conditions that require us to reconsider the factors that mediate and facilitate interaction – our physical spaces, virtual spaces, and our medium of communication.

As virtual environments continue to develop, it is important to understand the interacting relationships between spatial cognition and behavior and the use of information and communication technologies, and on community belonging. Ball-Rokeach’s work focused primarily on the interaction between the social and media processes, but did not examine the locational, spatial, factors of neighborhood belonging. Rothenbuhler and colleagues (Rothenbuhler, et. al., 1996) noted that through our daily routines and activities –how we move through our neighborhoods and are aware of our environs – we define a “geography of relevance” for ourselves. Rothenbuhler suggested that the degree of localism in our activity space might be related to our media use, community attachment, and community involvement.

A sense of space or place

When we consider the changing forms of communities, and the social and communicative contexts that underlie the relationship between communication and community life (Shah, McLeod, and Yoon, 2001), we must also question whether spatial awareness and activity plays a role in community belonging.

We know that structural properties of a community can influence how individuals use and respond to media, and also how they interact socially (Shah et al, 2001). Ball-Rokeach and colleagues (Ball-Rokeach et al, 2001) note that space is “part of a much larger fabric of association and identity that merges geographic with other spaces that do not require shared locales (e.g. ethnic, cultural, lifestyle, or professional)” (p. 393). Features of a residential area that influence the context of whether communication is encouraged or discouraged can include physical (layout, presence of ‘common’ structures), psychological (freeness to engage (fear/comfort), sociocultural (individual vs. collectivism), economic (time, resources available), and technological (access to communication technologies, transportation systems, etc.) factors (Ball-Rokeach, et al, 2001).

Vela-McConnell (1997) discusses the concept of social affinity, as shaped by social-locational variables such as spatial and temporal distance and proximity to one’s environment. Baker and Ward (2002) also examined the spatial and temporal roles of technologies in communities, and suggested that geographic linkage is an important factor in determining the strength of ties in virtual communities of interest. That is, those communities that affect our daily lives as “physically-instantiated and geographically-centred individuals and citizens” (p. 207), are the ones with the strongest bonds (Baker and Ward, 2002).

Newer research examines the physical context of community neighborhoods and their influence of and by communication technologies and media, as well as their role in community belonging (Matei, Ball-Rokeach, and Qiu, 2001). Matei and colleagues (Matei et al, 2001; Matei and Ball-Rokeach, 2003; Matei, 2005) have suggested that community residents construct mental maps that are influenced by communication technologies and media, and which in turn influence one’s sense of belonging in a community. Through GIS modeling and using spatial-statistical methods, Matei found that how individuals imagine their space, has an affect on their connection to their neighborhood and communication infrastructure (Matei, Ball-Rokeach, and Qiu, 2001). This work was extended to demonstrate that fear in communities is directly influenced by one’s use of media (television), which plays a role in the construction of collective memories of community residents (Matei and Ball-Rokeach, 2005).

However, the specific nature of the relationship of spatial awareness and behavior to community belonging, and particularly its interaction with social interaction and media use, is still not yet fully understood.


With this empirical and theoretical background, we conducted a research study to better understand how spatial factors influence connectedness in a community, and how this is related to the known influences of social interaction and media use (Kisselburgh and Matei, 2006). We describe basic elements and findings from that study here.

Using data from a survey of 334 students in the Purdue community, we proposed a structural relationship between media use, social interactions, spatial cognition and behavior, and their influence on the strength of belonging of students to a university community. We used structural equation modeling to examine these modeled relationships. We also examined how spatial cognition contributes to social integration, and how these factors are influenced by information gleaned from media sources.

Research Questions and Hypotheses

In this study, our research question was: What is the role of spatial cognition and behavior in influencing community ties? More specifically, what influence does spatial cognition and behavior have on the strength of belonging to a community, in relationship to social interactions and use of media. From this, we formulated a series of hypotheses: H1: Stronger social ties will be positively related to stronger ties to the community; H2: More extensive use of media will effect social integration; H3: Media use will have a mediating effect on attachment, an indirect effect through its direct effect on spatial and social behaviors; H4: Stronger spatial cognition and behavior will be positively related to stronger ties to the community; H5: More extensive use of media will positively affect spatial cognition and behavior. In addition, recognizing the alternative hypothesis that spatial behavior will have direct influences on social interaction, an additional hypotheses is examined: H6: There will be a positive relationship between spatial cognition and behavior and social integration.
These predictions are presented graphically in the path diagram in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Path Diagram of Research Hypotheses.
Figure 1: Path Diagram of Research Hypotheses.


The hypothesized model, predicting direct influences of Social and Spatial, and an indirect/mediating effect of Media, on Community ties, represented a significantly good fit to the observed data, χ2 (16, N=334) = 32.608, p=.008, χ2 /df = 2.038, CFI = .947, RMSEA = .056, NFI = .907. Thus, our hypothesis fit these data very well, and accounts for 33% of the error in factors influencing Community ties. All of the predicted paths between social behavior, media use, and community ties were significant at the .001 level (Table 1). However, none of the predicted paths from the Spatial construct were significant predictors of other factors (Figure 2). Further examination of the standardized parameter estimates indicates that, consistent with previous research, social interaction has a significant and positive influence on community ties, and (surprisingly) that media use has an inhibiting effect on social interaction and spatial behavior (although the latter is non significant). The influence of spatial behavior on community ties was not significant.

Figure 2: Standardized parameter estimates for hypothesized structural model.
Figure 2: Standardized parameter estimates for hypothesized structural model

These findings provide both supporting and disaffirming results for our hypothesized relationships. Results confirmed theoretical and empirical predictions about social interaction and its influence on stronger ties (H1): Social interaction has a significant and positive influence on Community ties. (β = .508, SE=.159, p=.001). Findings for the influence of media use were mixed (H2, H3 and H5). The results indicate that Media use had a significant, but negative, influence on Social interaction (β =-4.991, SE=1.162, p< .000). However, there was no support for the predicted influence of Media use on Spatial behavior (β =-.559, SE=.335, p=.095). Examination of the predicted mediating effect of Media use on was confirmed: Media use had a mediating effect on Community through its direct effect on Spatial and Social interaction. However, the findings for predicted influences of Spatial behavior on Community ties were not confirmed (H4, H6). Spatial behavior had a non-significant influence on Community (β =.098, SE=.130, p=.453). Furthermore, Spatial behavior had a non-significant influence on Social interaction (β =.153, SE=.268, p=.568). The analysis confirms the hypothesized structural relationship of the factors influencing community ties. However, these data do not support the more specific predictions regarding spatial behavior. DISCUSSION The findings of this study both support and disaffirm our hypotheses about the relationships between social interaction, media use, spatial behavior, and community ties. Consistent with earlier work, we found social interaction had a strong influence on community ties. In addition, media use had a significant, but negative, influence on social interactions, as well as a mediating effect on community belonging. However, these data did not provide support for the predicted influence and relationships of spatial behavior: the influence of spatial behavior on community ties was non-significant, as was its influence on social interactions. Thus, while we find statistical confirmation in the structure of the relationship of the factors influencing community ties, these data do not support the more specific hypothesis that spatial behavior has a significant influence on community ties. This means we can’t yet confirm, through empirical data, whether connectedness to a community is also influenced by your sense of space, i.e., the breadth of your awareness (spread) and the depth of your knowledge (depth). Furthermore, we were unable to find any testable relationship on the role of spatial cognition. Limitations The lack of significant findings regarding the influence of spatial behavior on community ties may have been influenced by limitations in this study. First, the insignificance of the paths leading from the Spatial construct to Media and Community suggest that this factor, as operationalized here, does not yet play a significant role in Community Ties – even though the model fit is good. However, we feel that additional work is needed to construct better measures of spatial cognition and spatial behavior from the collected data, with further analysis, in order to more reliably assess these hypotheses. In spite of a strong Cronbach’s alpha, there’s still considerable variability in the depth and spread measures of spatial behavior, and these need to be further examined to ensure there is not measurement error resulting from the codings and transformations. Second, the operationalization of the measures for social interaction needs additional review and analysis. The communication media indicator may in fact be related to both the media and the social interaction constructs. Further factor analysis is needed to determine whether these indicators load on both constructs. In addition, it’s possible that the attachment scale in Community may also be related to the social interaction construct, and analysis of possible loadings on this construct should be conducted. In other words, the neatness of these constructs may bely the complexity of the indicators, and additional analysis is needed to understand these complexities. Future research The results of this study suggest immediate extensions of this research. Specifically, as discussed earlier, there is a need for further analysis and examination of the data to improve operationalization of the measures of spatial behavior, to provide reliable testing of the relationship that spatial behavior plays in community belonging. Secondly, additional analyses of the demographic information in this data set, such as the influence of location and length of residency on campus and academic major, should be analyzed to provide a more nuanced picture of community belonging, particularly with respect to ‘neighborhoods’ in a University campus. For example, it is possible that students living in on-campus residences have different relationships than those living in off-campus apartments. In addition, Engineering majors may behave differently in their social interactions, spatial behavior, and media use than those majoring in Agriculture. Finally, although differences are not expected, an examination of possible gender differences – particularly in spatial behavior and media use – can provide more nuanced information about these factors influence community belonging. Implications With changing forms of communities, and the rising prevalence of technologies that influence not only our information gathering but also our social interactions and spatial navigation, understanding the relationship among these factors has important theoretical and practical implications. The structural influences of space in community behavior has not previously been empirically tested. Thus, understanding the role that spatial cognition and behavior plays in strengthening community belonging, has implications for how we provide information about our geographic space to community residents. Matei (2003) suggests ‘mental maps’ shape our conceptions of communities and our sense of belonging, as well as our use of media and information. This work, then, provides new empirical data examining the role of spatial cognition and behavior in community belonging. Although the findings are not confirmatory with respect to the influence of spatial behavior, we feel additional refinement of the measures and models may allow us to better examine this question. Through this work, researchers can broaden theoretical understandings of what defines and constitutes modern communities, and how we use information about our space to strengthen community ties. Understanding the influence of spatial behavior also has practical implications for the development of emerging technologies that combine social networking and location-awareness tools. Conclusion In conclusion, results of this study provide insight into the influence of spatial behavior on strength of belonging to a community. These data provide confirming evidence of the influence of social interaction and media use on community ties, but do not provide support for the hypothesized relationship and influence of spatial behavior. However, this work lays a foundation for empirical measuring of spatial behavior and its influence on community ties, and through future research we expect to uncover additional information about the influences and relationships underlying community belonging. In future work we plan to expand and establish theories that acknowledge and define the relationship of spatial cognition and behavior in our use of information and communication technologies as well as our interactions in our communities. This will provide a foundation for building a theories of community belonging that are both communicatively-constructed and location-aware. In summary, mobile, location-aware, and social network technologies create new opportunities for information access, as well as connectivity within work and social environments. With more mobile and transient community structures, technologies that can enhance one’s awareness of and interaction with a community provide societal benefits. Thus, research that investigates the relationship between spatial cognition and behavior, our social interactions, and use of new media technologies provides important insights into understanding to our sense of place, and also our sense of belonging. REFERENCES Baker, Paul M. A., and Ward, Andrew C. (2002). Bridging temporal and spatial 'gaps': The role of information and communication technologies in defining communities. Information Communication & Society, 5 (2), 207-224. Ball-Rokeach, S.J. (1995). The origins of individual media systems dependency: A sociological framework. Communication Research, 12, 485-510. Ball-Rokeach, S.J. (1998). A theory of media power and a theory of media use: Different stories, questions, and ways of thinking. Mass Communication and Society, 1(1/2), 5-40. Ball-Rokeach, S.J., Kim, Y-C., and Matei, S.A. (2001). Storytelling neighborhood: Paths to belonging in diverse urban environments. Communication Research, 28(4), 392-428. Contractor, N. (2006). 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Bowling alone: The collapse and revival of American community. New York: Simon and Schuster. Rothenbuhler, E.W., Mullen, L.J., DeLaurell, R, and Ryu, C.R. (1996). Communication, Community Attachment, and Involvement. Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, 73(2), 445-466. Shah, D.V., McLeod, J.M., and Yoon, S. (2001). Communication, context, and community: An exploration of print, broadcast, and Internet influences. Communication Research, 28(4), 464-506. Tocqueville, A. (1835/1961). Democracy in America. Vela-McConnell, J.A. (1997). Who is my neighbor? Social affinity in a modern world. Dissertation Abstracts International Section A: Humanities and Social Sciences, 58(6-A), p. 2418. Walther, J. (2006). Personal communication (lecture at Purdue University). Table 1

Maximum likelihood parameter estimates of hypothesized model
			                    Standardized	          Unstandardized
			                    Estimate	            Estimate	SE	CR          p
COMM	         < ---	SOCIAL	    .923            .508          .159    3.203   .001
group2	           <---	   SOCIAL     .458 	    1.000
interpersonal  <---    SOCIAL	-.514	        -.143           .030 -4.833	***
SOCIAL	         <---   MEDIA	  -.529	        -4.991        1.162  -4.294	***
SPAT	           <---	   MEDIA     -.184	     -.559          .335  -1.668   .095
infomedia	 <---    MEDIA	    .443           1.000
commmedia    <---    MEDIA	.948	      2.494          .649    3.844     ***
attachment2   <---    COMM	.334	       1.000
belonging	  <---    COMM	    .667          2.372	         .649     3.657     ***
COMM	         <--- 	 SPAT	     .057	      .098	   .130       .750    .453
depth10	          <--- 	  SPAT	    1.025	   2.338        1.157     2.021    .043
spread10	 <--- 	 SPAT	     .522	   1.000

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