Spatial Polygamy and the Heterogeneity of Place: Studying People and Place via Egocentric Methods

  • Stephen A. MatthewsEmail author
Part of the Social Disparities in Health and Health Care book series (SDHHC, volume 1)


Since the early twentieth century, several academic disciplines have invested considerable energies in the study of people and their use of, and their connection to, place. One of the weakest areas of current practice in social science and health research is the conceptualization of place. For the most part, studies of the relationship between people and place, and specifically health and well-being outcomes, are based on several conventional, naive, and tenuous assumptions regarding place and human spatial behavior. In this chapter, I introduce the concept of spatial polygamy – briefly that we belong to multiple nested and nonnested places – and use this to critique the measure of place based on residential units such as the census tracts. It is important to note that the critique of the naïve assumption of bounded, static, and isolated units such as census tracts in studies of place is not new. To illustrate this, I will review some literature from sociology and geography and some from almost a century ago. The empirical sections of the paper introduce two different types of research that seek to explore and better understand relationships between people and place. Using data gathered in ethnographic studies, I will show the complexity of lived lives and how the use of multiple place(s) varies in juggling different individual and family responsibilities among low-income and minority families. An approach based on secondary data from the US Census demonstrates a different way in which research on places can be more explicit about issues of scale and the spatial relationships between places. These two very different examples will be followed by a brief discussion of the research potential afforded by developments in new tracking technologies, innovative data collection methods, and methodological tools. The time is ripe for updating our conceptual models of place and to take advantage of emerging technologies, methods, and data. A renewed focus on theoretical and conceptual development will help to push research on place and health forward.


Global Position System Census Tract Metropolitan Statistical Area Census Block Group Place Attachment 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



The work presented in this chapter draws on ideas that have emerged from many years of thinking about people and places and from several projects that draw on geospatial data on both individuals and neighborhoods. Several people pushed and prodded me to pursue this track and/or have collaborated with me; these include, but are not limited to, Sandy Azar, Alan Benjamin, Nyesha Black, Yosef Bodovski, Linda Burton, Steven Cummins, Mark Daniel, Jim Detwiler, Glenn Firebaugh, John Iceland, Donald Janelle, Susan Kemp, Barrett Lee, Susan McHale, Brian McManus, Anne Vernez Moudon, Claudia Nau, David O’Sullivan, Sean Reardon, Luis Sanchez, Carla Shoff, Debra Skinner, David Takeuchi, and Tse-Chuan Yang. Brian McManus, Yosef Bodovski, and Carla Shoff (all of the Geographic Information Analysis Core, Population Research Institute at Penn State) helped prepare the figures. Any errors or ­misrepresentations that remain are mine. The term “spatial polygamy” I attribute to John Odland (the late Professor of Geography at Indiana University) made during an invited seminar to the Department of Geography at UCLA in the early 1990s. John died in 2009.


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© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Sociology, Population Research InstituteThe Pennsylvania State UniversityUniversity ParkUSA

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