The Socio-Spatial Paradigm in Social Work – Social Space Analyses as Method for Practitioners and Researchers

Christian Spatscheck, Karin Wolf-Ostermann

In the German tradition of social work [1], the idea of social spaces (Sozialräume) became a significant conceptual reference since the early 1990s. Starting with the seminal work "Pädagogik des Jugendraums" by Böhnisch/Münchmeier (1990) a variety of approaches based on the concept of social spaces were developed in social work debates around theory and practice. Meanwhile, after some years of discussion the idea of a "social space orientation" (Sozialraumorientierung) can meanwhile be regarded a paradigm in social work in Germany (Spatscheck 2009).
The discourse within social work currently follows two different understandings of social spaces. One group of researchers regards social spaces as fields for processes of acquirement, learning and active participation for local inhabitants and began to develop concepts around youth work, social development and a variety of other different fields of social work (Deinet 2009). This approach follows the concept to discover, analyse and shape social spaces in order to create social conditions that enable processes of social development (Deinet 2006; Deinet/Krisch 2006; Deinet/Reutlinger 2004; Böhnisch/Münchmeier 1990).
The other group of researchers views social spaces from a background of community development and an interest for modernisation of public welfare institutions and searches for possibilities for improved co-operation, flexibility and citizen participation in the creation of social services (Hinte 2006; Budde/Früchtel/Hinte 2006; Kleve 2007b; 2008). Our text is situated around the ideas of the first group of authors but also tries to find open connections for the topics of the authors from the second group.
It is interesting to see that this "spatial turn" cannot only be found in social work. Social theories around space found their recognition in very different academic disciplines especially in the social sciences and cultural studies (Dünne/Günzel 2006; Bachmann-Medick 2006, 284-328; Kessl et al. 2005).
All spatial approaches implicitly refer to a long tradition of thinking in dimensions of connected local networks. Early on, Jane Addams (1860-1935) thought and acted within categories of spatial thinking with her work in the settlements of Chicago (Engelke/Borrmann/Spatscheck 2008, 187-203). She also had direct connections to the Chicago School of Sociology and their key thinkers Robert E. Park and William I. Thomas (Löw/Steets/Stoetzer 2008, 51). Newer approaches to social work follow the idea of the interaction of the individuals and the social environment. To name only a few, we refer to the concepts of "Person in Environment" (PIE, see Karls/Wandrei 1994; 1996; Pantucek 2005, 187), systemic social work approaches that are influenced by constructivism (Kleve et al. 2006; Kleve 2007; Kraus 2002; Hosemann/Geiling 2005) or the systemic realistic perspective formed in the Systemic Paradigm of Social Work (Staub-Bernasconi 2007, Obrecht 2001, Geiser 2007; Bunge 1996).
By regarding social spaces as relational objects social work can escape the dangers of following fully individualistic perspectives that ignore social structures as well as paternalistic ideas of a society without individuals (Staub-Bernasconi 2007, 160).

1. What are social spaces?

Social spaces are regarded as relational orders of (zoological) animals and social goods that are aggregated at common places (Löw/Steets/Stoetzer 2008, 63). Social spaces are relations between coincidental plural placements. Space is formed between objects and therefore is the embodiment of coincidences.
There were two early spatial metaphors used for the description of social spaces: The model of the ecological zones by Bronfenbrenner/Baacke and the "island model" by Helga Zeiher.
In the model of ecological zones, Dieter Baacke (1984; figure 1) explained the social embeddedness of the development of children within local social spaces by referring to a ecological model that was originally developed by Urie Bronfenbrenner (Bronfenbrenner 1979; Grundmann/Kunze 2008, 179). Baacke (1984, 84f.) altered this model to describe the following different forms of embeddedness:

The model of ecological zones by Dieter Baacke

Figure 1: The model of ecological zones by Dieter Baacke

Further research during the 1980s showed that Baacke's idea of the social embeddedness of children in gradual concentric circles could no longer be held. Studies by Helga Zeiher (1983) initially confirmed Baackes ideas about the "nearer ecological environment". But later, she found out that nearer zones are no longer experienced in concentric spatial arrangements but rather in segregated worlds that could be better described by the metaphor of connected islands (see figure 2). These islands lie within a greater space that is only crossed but not fully experienced. Children realise their island of living as centre and travel on their way to schools, friends and relatives through other social spaces without a feeling of connectedness (Zeiher 1983, 187).

The "island model" by Helga Zeiher

Figure 2: The "island model" by Helga Zeiher

The acquirement of new islands happens through a development of loose networks. Supported by means of transport and modern media, children experience these islands as no longer directly connected to nearer local environments.

Based on these two models, a new debate about social spaces has emerged from the 1990s onwards. The key idea of these socio-spatial approaches is the emphasis on interactive connections between inhabitants and their social and ecological environment. These are described by the idea of relationality: Spaces are no longer regarded as absolute entities, nor can they be considered as being absolutely relative (Kessl/Reutlinger 2007, 27). Instead they seem to be determined by the interaction of inhabitants and structures.
Furthermore, new ideas about social spaces also include the connection between local, regional, national and transnational influences. In this sense social spaces can be regarded as dynamic fabrics of social and material practices that are (re)produced permanently on different levels of (inter-)action. Following these ideas, social spaces are regarded as double structures with two connected perspectives (Deinet 2007, 113-120):

The socio-spatial paradigm follows an interactive perspective that tries to focus on the mutual connection of these two dimensions. Social spaces are no finished "containers" but relational arrangements of humans and material goods at certain places that are always dynamical and changeable (Löw 2001, 271; Kessl/Reutlinger 2007, 21). Through the process of "spacing" people can acquire material places (Orte), form new relations and create new social spaces (Räume) with own qualities (Deinet 2006, 59). In this understanding, spaces are always socially determined. Also, this understanding allows several social spaces at one geographical place to be indentified. Social spaces can be altered and also vanish when their producers leave the place. Following this idea, social spaces can be regarded as small and temporary societies on local and regional levels (see Kessl/Reutlinger 2007, 23).
To cover the full socio-spatial dynamics, social space analyses need to focus on the interactive and relational interaction between individuals and social structures. The concept of the social space can be used as a metaphor for this perspective and help to analyse processes of social networking and relatedness.

2. How to analyze social spaces?

Social space analyses should be regarded as a form of practice research that can be carried out by social work practitioners or in a collaboration of practitioners and researchers (Deinet 2009, 59).
The analysis of social spaces needs to be able to focus on the dialectics of space and (social) development (Reutlinger 2009, 19). The focus of social space analyses should be on developmental perspectives and potentials within social spaces. Therefore, it seems to be necessary to find out more about different ideas of development of the actors (inhabitants, public institutions and professionals, politicians, interest groups, entrepreneurs, etc.) in a social space. Here, all contradictions and tensions could here be interesting as well as areas of common interest or consensus. Social space analyses should be sensitive to power: What is arranged in the space, who designs the order of the space, and how do spaces emerge through these arrangements.
The focus of social space analyses lies on relational connections, they should try to identify spatial differentiations and look for enabling perspectives for the participating persons and groups (Reutlinger 2009, 20).
To get a full perspective, social space analyses should be based on a mixed design of quantitative and qualitative research methods (Riege/Schubert 2005).

2.1 Quantitative approaches

Quantitative data help to represent the objective and material conditions of life in a certain social space as well as assessments of living conditions or attitudes towards special fields of interest. These data can be raised in own studies, for instance with questionnaires on the perspective of concrete living conditions from the view of inhabitants and professionals that are involved with the social space.
Regarded in a general way, empirical research in social sciences is the systematic study and survey of social phenomena. In this context, "empirical" means to verify theoretical theses by specific truths. This has to be done "systematically" and in agreement with the rules of good research practice. The process of research is determined by theoretical assumptions, the structure of the field of research and the available resources (Atteslander 2003, 5).
Pivotal Questions in empirical social research are:

  1. What will be measured / monitored?
    This implies the specification of the objects of investigation.
  2. Why will it be measured / monitored?
    Empirical research always implies the context of genesis and exploitation.
  3. How will it be measured / monitored?
    This question deals with the used methods of collecting and analyzing social data.

Before going into detail as to how to perform an (quantitative) empirical study the following Figure 3 shall illustrate the main differences between quantitative and qualitative research designs.

Description of quantitative and qualitative research designs

Figure 3: Description of quantitative and qualitative research designs

In the field of quantitative social research as well as in qualitative research a typical phrase states "The problem determines the method". That implies a proper operationalisation, i.e. to formulate hypotheses as empirical verifiable statements and an appropriate choice of instruments (which method of collecting data and which type of study is suitable?). And last but not least, it includes the choice of a reasonable methodology for analysing the data.
In order to perform empirical studies in an appropriate way researchers should be familiar with quantitative research designs, appropriate research methods, common performance criteria of empirical studies and also with statistical modelling of data and documenting and presenting results.
The typical schedule of a quantitative empirical study includes the following steps in chronological order (Ostermann 2005; Bortz/Döring 2006; Babbie 2003; Rossi/Freeman 1996; Bergs/Rossi 1998):

Previous to field research, a clear definition of the issues of interest and also of the target group (population) / sample group is very important, including previous knowledge and, of course, a scientifically founded literature research. The design and development of research instruments raises the question, "Which method should be used depending on the problem of interest?". Researchers have to decide which type of study design is appropriate. Typical types are cross sectional studies, case-control studies, cohort or follow up-studies and even randomized controlled trials. In the field of social space analyses, often cross sectional study designs are applied. To collect the data of interest a highly structured experimental design (experiment), an observational design (observation) or a (standardized) survey can be choosen. While the first type is more often used in natural scientific, technical, psychological or medical applications, the last two designs are more common in socio-scientific applications. Standardized surveys are the classical instrument of population questioning and are typically carried out either in an oral manner by performing interviews (personally or telephonic) or in a written form (internet, questionnaire). The design of a questionnaire should follow common performance criteria in questions (high relevance concerning the problem, coverage of the whole affective component, avoidance of "common" issues, description of facts and leading questions, formulation of only one thought per item, using clear, brief and self-explanatory phrases, ...c.f. Bortz/Döring, 254ff, Ostermann/Wolf-Ostermann, 11ff) and the questionnaire in total must meet the typical standards of:

Before using the survey in the study an examination of the questionnaire by a pre-test is absolutely essential. The quality of the scientific data collection depends to a considerable degree on the quality "of the preliminary work" described here and lacking accuracy cannot be corrected later.
Formal aspects in carrying out the actual survey - especially when performing interviews - which should be obeyed - are:

Especially the last two issues are closely related to ethical principles in research (c.f. Bortz/Döring, 41ff, Sieber 1982, Trochim 2006)

The whole process of collecting data should be carefully documented, especially if there are deviations from the survey plan. After the actual field research, the data management (e.g. coding of answers, etc.) has to be carefully prepared and plausibility checks have to be implemented.
Beyond the named methods (experiment, observation, survey) quantitative studies can also be built on secondary data analyses of already existing data. This often is a way of gaining data in a very cost-efficient way, but at the expense that the data may not be "well-fitting". Secondary data are often gained in the context of social and town planning, poverty and income reports, statistics on employment, governmental issues, health issues and so on. Most municipalities and regions can provide a variety of data that were already raised according to spatial categories. Therefore, it should mostly be possible, in many cases, to gain data for a certain social space within a town or region and also for villages or areas.
Interesting data could include the statistics on the social structure that could be found according to categories like inhabitants, income, gender, age, migration, public health and the quota of welfare support receivers or joblessness. Here it would be useful to have current data and also data concerning the historic development. In Germany, these data are provided e.g. by the Federal Statistical Office [2] or the statistical offices of the federal states. For Europe the Statistical Office of the European Communities provides the European Union with a high-quality statistical information service [3].
Such national or supra-national data are also of special interest for addressing aspects of regional and transregional planning. More and more cities and regions try to be part of strategic development clusters that have to be regarded on a transnational and global level (Castells 2001, 431).
Regarding urban space as a proxy for demographic, structural, economic or behavioral variables, some municipalities base their entire social planning and distribution of resources for facilities around the ideas of certain social indicators and form social space budgets. Data around these social indicators could be of greater interest for social space analyses. For example, in Berlin, Germany, there exists a detailed atlas for data concerning social structures (Meinlschmidt 2009), which is open to the public. The atlas provides data of cross-sectional as well as follow-up studies analyses concerning a broad range of data dealing with structures of population and private households, employment, income, education and state of health. From the architectural or the town planning perspective, it could be also interesting to gain data on the public infrastructure, the building structure (houses, streets, places, etc.) and the further planning perspectives.
Researchers undertaking social space analyses based on quantitative methods should, in any case, have a well-founded knowledge of statistical methods for analyzing data, or otherwise the possibility to consult a statistician. First steps in analyzing data are preparing tables of frequencies, simple but effective charts, and the use of descriptive measures (mean values, ranges, correlations, ...) which can often explain much of the information hidden in the data. For more advanced researchers, a whole bundle of more complex, classical statistical techniques like analyses of (co-)variance, factorial analyses, cluster analyses and so on is available up to the point of statistical tools for (exploratory) spatial data analyses [4] (Cressie 1993; Goodchild/Janelle 2004; Unwin 1996).

2.2 Qualitative approaches

To identify the subjective impressions and the inhabitant's life world (Lebenswelt), Ulrich Deinet und Richard Krisch developed special research methods for social space analyses that are based in the context of qualitative research (Deinet 2002, 291/292; Deinet 2009, 65-86; Krisch 2009, 97-109; for the analysis of the data refer to literature on qualitative research like Denzin/Lincoln (1998) or Flick (2005). These methods are described in the following passages.

In general, social space analyses should regard inhabitants as experts of their life world that deserve to keep their unique dignity and interests. Therefore, the methods for social space analyses should be carried out according to the ethical aspects of research. This means to protect personal data through anonymisation and to inform all participants fully about the intentions and the participating interests of the research project and to point out the fact that participation is voluntary. In this sense, it is also important to keep aspects of power in mind and to ask who will benefit from the results and whether the researcher intends to have this benefit. Also, it is important to keep participant's expectations realistic; not every interview or short participation process can lead to direct impacts and the fulfilment of all wishes of interviewed persons. In any case, it is certain that researchers undertaking social space analyses should have a profound knowledge of (quantitative and qualitative) research methods and their strengths but also their limitations.

3. A case study of a short social space analysis in Lund/Sweden

The following will show a practical example of social space analysis that has been carried out during an Erasmus teaching staff exchange between Alice-Salomon-University of Applied Sciences Berlin and Lund University in September 2008, for undertaking a teaching project with Swedish M.A. students in social work and social sciences. The intension was to introduce the idea and the methods of social space analysis to the students and then perform a joined study in a social situation familiar to the students. Therefore, the area of Klostergården/Lund (see Figure 4) was selected as an example of a well-defined area that allowed developing clear objectives.
Since we were limited to three days of study, we decided to aim at a realistic approach and called the space analysis a "social space discovery". For a full analysis, we would have needed more time and more involved partners in Klostergården.
The concrete topics of the "social space discovery" were the following:

The students worked together in small research teams consisting of two to five persons. At the end of the three days of field research, they presented the results in a small public workshop.

The main results were:

City-map Lund

Figure 4: City-map Lund (source:

Attitudes towards the area of St Lars Hospital

Figure 5: Attitudes towards the area of St Lars Hospital

Places of feeling secure / insecure

Figure 6: Places of feeling secure / insecure

In general, the results of the needle method and the additional interviews seemed to support the research hypotheses.

Associations with living in the area of Klostergården / St Lars

Figure 7: Associations with living in the area of Klostergården / St Lars

Attitudes towards the expansion of Klostergården by gender

Figure 8: Attitudes towards the expansion of Klostergården by gender

Attitudes towards the expansion of Klostergården by age

Figure 9: Attitudes towards the expansion of Klostergården by age

Survey based suggestions for improvements mostly concerned infrastructural topics. These ranged from detailed suggestions for the supply of necessary goods and services (bank/cash dispenser, postal service, larger variety of convenience stores, better restaurants) to the enhancement of the surrounding (renovate the outside parts of the buildings, clean up / renovate the centre) as well as to suggestions concerning more general the public utility infrastructure (youth club, home for the elderly, higher police presence).

4. The socio-spatial paradigm in social work - an outlook

The theoretical considerations and the case study show the necessity and the potentials to establish spatial approaches within social work and social sciences. A grounded spatial sensitivity allows gaining an understanding of social spaces that reaches beyond the otherwise often individualistic and single-case oriented concepts of social work. Also, this perspective enables interesting collaborations between social work practitioners and researchers.
In the future, socio-spatial approaches could be applied in the context of a social development perspective that follows the aims to shape positive living conditions and structures as well as the improvement of the inclusion and participation of local residents (Homfeldt/Reutlinger 2009). In this sense, socio-spatial approaches would search for solidarities and try to enhance local networks (Reutlinger 2009, 29). Spatial approaches in social work could aim to revitalise public spaces and look for an improved collaboration of social work, social policy and youth policy (Deinet 2002, 294).
Under the term of "social space work" (Sozialraumarbeit) Reutlinger and Wigger (2008) try to bring three areas of public activities together:

This approach seems to be very promising, but naturally the integration of such different areas would bring a variety of challenges for the involved institutions. For these efforts there seems to be one common denominator: The "socio-spatial view" as a basis for collaboration of different partners for the improvement of local living conditions and the social, educational and healthcare services (Deinet 2002, 295).


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This text is based on a social space analysis that was formerly described at: Spatscheck, Christian/ Wolf-Ostermann, Karin (2009): Social Space Analyses and the Socio-Spatial Paradigm in Social Work. Working Paper 2009-1, School of Social Work, Lund University.
The publication of this new text is kindly approved by the School of Social Work of Lund University.


[1] In the current German debate the term "Soziale Arbeit" (social work) is used as an umbrella term for "Sozialarbeit" (social work with adults) and "Sozialpädagogik" (social pedagogy with children and youth)

[2] Statistisches Bundesamt

[3] European Commission

[4] One of the first uses of map-based spatial analysis is the map of Dr. John Snow showing clusters of cholera cases in the 1854 London cholera outbreak (Snow, J. (1854): or


Spatscheck, Christian und Karin Wolf-Ostermann (2009): The Socio-Spatial Paradigm in Social Work – Social Space Analyses as Method for Practitioners and Researchers. In: (1) Ausgabe 2/2009. URL:, Datum des Zugriffs: 23.07.2024