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Lookup NU author(s): Dr Jane Atterton
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Recent work in economic geography has advanced a range of ‘labels’, such as clusters, learning regions and innovative milieu, to describe the changing nature of economic activity (see for example, Camagni, 1991; Maillat, 1995; Porter, 1990; Storper, 1995, 1997). Building on Granovetter’s (1985) notion of embeddedness, much of this literature contends that local economic success is dependent on the incorporation of firms into socially embedded networks of collaborative production (Taylor, 2000). However, empirical work has been predominantly focused on core, successful economies, and limited attention has been paid to the importance and overlap of social and economic ties in rural areas, particularly in more remote locations. Moreover, despite the popularity of the embeddedness concept, debates continue about its spatiality and its potential to create both positive and negative impacts for the development of firms and localities. Using the embeddedness concept as a framework, the study empirically explores the geography of business, informal and social networking by firms in three small towns in the remote Highlands and Islands region of Scotland. The study adopts a multiple method strategy (a large scale postal questionnaire and in-depth interviews) to explore the impact of different factors on the geography of networking, including the characteristics of owners and their firms, the location of the firm in one of the three towns, and the contextual features of the localities in which the firms are located. The research reveals that firms in very remote Wick maintain highly localised business, informal and social networks and can be said to be locally embedded. Firms in accessible Dingwall were more likely than firms in the other two towns to maintain their networks at the regional scale, whilst firms in remote Tain were the most likely to maintain these networks at the extra-regional scale. Based on Granovetter’s (1973) ‘strength of weak ties’ argument, analysis also reveals the strength of social networks maintained by Wick respondents. All sample firms regard networks as an important means of increasing their power vis-à-vis competitors, and they place particular importance on informal, personalised networks that they initiate themselves rather than those established by other organisations. In-depth analysis of interview data reveals that contextual factors play an important role in explaining the varying geography of networks across the three towns, including the predominance of ‘locals’ in Wick and the influx of ‘incomers’ in Dingwall and Tain, the culture of ‘Wick’ers’, and Dingwall’s historical importance as a regional centre. The thesis discusses the implications of the differing geographies of embeddedness for the future development of the towns. Although the local Wick economy is apparently characterised by high levels of trust, it has limited adaptive capacity and is at risk of ‘lock-in’ (Grabher, 1993) and over-embeddedness (Uzzi, 1996) as social obligations override economic imperatives, and as firms become closed to new information and markets. The extra-local nature of the networks of Dingwall and Tain firms means that the economies of the towns are more flexible and open to new information. The policy implications of the findings are discussed, with particular reference to the notion of small towns acting as connectors between local and extra-local economic processes, through the networks of their trading firms.
Author(s): Atterton J
Publication type: Report
Publication status: Published
Series Title: Geography
Type: PhD Thesis
Institution: University of Aberdeen
Place Published: Aberdeen