Exploring the Dynamics of Social Networks in Urban Informal Settlements: the Case of Mathare Valley, Kenya

Abstract

This paper pilots a different approach to the study of informal settlements, typically conceived as chaotic, disorganised and lacking social cohesion. We provide a different reading of social life in an informal settlement. While its social life may be different from other parts of the urban metropolis, its social relations are not absent. Through the use of network theory, we will demonstrate that social relations in settlements have developed a considerable level of complexity. Using the case study of Mathare Valley, an informal settlement in Nairobi, we explore the dynamics of social networks with the aim of providing a more integrated understanding of life in slums. Based on survey data, focus groups/workshops and interviews, we established that residents depend on a network of strong, highly familial ties. Life is typically defined by neighbourhood bonds and friendship. This structure underpins the development of referral systems to access services and find work. The settlement has a syncretic governance structure made up of governmental and self-styled leaders who act as gatekeepers to varying degrees. We geo-coded data to conduct a more detailed social network analysis, which revealed the positive attributes of networking as opportunities for innovation and forming weaker ties within and beyond the settlement. The negative aspects of strong ties lead to the exclusion of more vulnerable residents. In conclusion, we propose the social networks approach as essential in understanding informal settlements. A holistic understanding of informal settlements will not only overcome narrow conceptions but may also encourage networked thinking for urban planning and design.

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Change history

  • 07 July 2020

    The original version of this article unfortunately contains mistakes introduced during the production phase.

Notes

  1. 1.

    Within a context of network theory, the term interaction will refer to personalised exchanges within close proximity, whereas relations refer more broadly to different levels (low to high) of interdependence between people within the informal settlement.

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Acknowledgements

The writing of this paper did not receive any specific funding. However, the CoDEC research project referred to in this paper was supported by Leading Integrated Research for Agenda 2030 In Africa (LIRA2030) program from 2017 to 2019. LIRA2030 is a five-year program aimed at supporting collaborative research projects led by early-career researchers across Africa. The program is being implemented by the International Science Council (ISC), in partnership with the Network of African Science Academies (NASAC), with support from the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida). Additional funding for policy work in Kenya came from the Africa Climate Change Leadership (AfriCLP) program. AfriCLP is managed by University of Nairobi and is funded by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC). The corresponding author visited Kenya with support from the Leicester Institute of Advanced Studies, University of Leicester, UK. Stellenbosch University Research Office and Stellenbosch University International supported the CoDEC research project with a 2-year Postdoctoral Fellowship and project team mobility exchanges respectively.

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Morgner, C., Ambole, A., Anditi, C. et al. Exploring the Dynamics of Social Networks in Urban Informal Settlements: the Case of Mathare Valley, Kenya. Urban Forum (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12132-020-09389-2

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Keywords

  • Social network
  • Urban planning
  • Informal settlement
  • Strong ties
  • Kenya