“Contextualizing Context”: Reconciling Environmental Exposures, Social Networks, and Location Preferences in Health Research


Purpose of Review

The aim of this paper is to review the recent advances in health and place research and discuss concepts useful to explore how context affects health. More specifically, it reviews measures and tools used to account for place; concepts relating to daily mobility and multiple exposure to places, and further points to the intertwining between social and spatial networks to help further our understanding of how context translates into health profiles.

Recent Findings

Significant advances in environmental or neighborhood effects have been made in the last decades. Specifically, conceptual and methodological developments have improved our consideration of spatial processes, shifting from a residential-based view of context to a more dynamic activity space and daily mobility paradigm. Yet, such advances have led to overlooking other potentially important aspects related to social networks and decision-making processes.


With an increasing capacity to collect high-precision data on daily mobility and behavior, new possibilities in understanding how environments relate to behavior and health inequalities arise. Two overlooked aspects need to be addressed: the questions of “with or for whom”, and “why”. While the former calls for a better consideration of social networks and social interactions, the latter calls for refining our understanding of place preference and decision-making leading to daily mobility and multiple exposures.

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Fig. 1


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Yan Kestens holds a Canadian Institute of Health Research Applied Public Health Chair in Urban Interventions and Population Health. Rania Wasfi holds a post-doctoral fellowship from the Fonds de Recherche du Québec—Société et culture (FRQ-SC). Alexandre Naud holds a doctoral fellowship from the Fonds de Recherche du Québec—Santé (FRQ-S).

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Yan Kestens, Rania Wasfi, Alexandre Naud and Basile Chaix declare that they have no conflict of interest.

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This article is part of the Topical Collection on Methods in Environmental Epidemiology

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Kestens, Y., Wasfi, R., Naud, A. et al. “Contextualizing Context”: Reconciling Environmental Exposures, Social Networks, and Location Preferences in Health Research. Curr Envir Health Rpt 4, 51–60 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40572-017-0121-8

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  • Environmental exposure
  • Neighborhood effects
  • Social networks
  • Causality
  • Spatial decision-making
  • Daily mobility