Research on social networks in the city

/ Author: Jaap van Sandijk
© Sjoerd van der Hucht Fotografie
CBS researcher Marjolijn Das has held a special chair on Urban Statistics at the Leiden-Delft-Erasmus Centre for BOLD Cities (Erasmus University Rotterdam) as of April 2017. Her research work is focused on social networks in the city, particularly family networks, as well as the influence of urban environments on life cycles. This chair addresses a growing need for data in Dutch cities.

Better and more efficient use of data

Scientific research into family networks and the influence of urban environments leads to better, more efficient use of data for local policies directed towards social issues. This is interesting for municipalities, which have been responsible for the implementation of a new ‘Social Support Act (WMO)’ since 2015. Professor Das explains: ‘One particular pattern of urbanisation is the migration into cities of young adults with many elderly staying behind who do not have their children living closeby, especially in the areas with population decline.’ ‘That pattern incites relevant research questions. When assessing an application under the Social Support Act (WMO), municipalities will first consider whether informal care is available within the applicant’s own social networks.’

Position of divorced mothers

Das recently collaborated with the Netherlands Interdisciplinary Demographic Institute (NIDI) in research on the position of divorced mothers. ‘This research shows that many women move back in with their parents after the divorce, using that temporary solution as a springboard towards a new situation, for example cohabitation in a new relationship.’ Das is planning to conduct a study on the influence of grandparents living in the vicinity of their grandchildren. ‘Within the European Union, there is little knowledge about this topic. Grandparents often act as babysitters, but what happens now that children and grandchildren move into urban areas, far away? Another question which is relevant to municipalities: can elderly people stay self-sufficient for a longer period of time when their children live closeby, and can they carry on living at home for longer?’

Symbiosis of science and policy

Marjolijn Das is also in contact with the Urban Data Centres, in which CBS and municipalities pull together in order to achieve a data-driven approach. ‘A nice form of “cross-fertilisation”,’ she says. ‘I look at urbanisation from a scientific perspective, whereas the Urban Data Centre is concerned with the translation into policy implementation.’ This symbiosis of science and policy allows cities to develop policies which are based on quantitative information. Collaborating with CBS in an Urban Data Centre is interesting for those municipalities which need data and expertise for their policy information.

Das is planning to conduct a study on the influence of grandparents living in the vicinity of their grandchildren. 


By way of illustration, she provides details about the establishment of an Urban Data Centre (UDC) in The Hague. CBS, the municipality of The Hague and the Centre for BOLD Cities co-organised a data camp in March 2017. This was so successful that it formed an intermediate step towards further collaboration in an Urban Data Centre. ‘The theme of this data camp was poverty, and the purpose was to learn from each other. We asked the municipality which data were already available, which data were still needed and what their main policy questions were. This yielded new insights. For instance, we mapped out the locations where The Hague’s working poor live. And we found that schoolchildren run the risk of a so-called transmission of poverty: children from low-income families are less well represented at higher levels of secondary education (HAVO, VWO). This helps show the importance of The Hague’s policy on poverty, which is strongly committed to lending young students support.’

Practical applications

Das’ chair at Erasmus University has been established for a duration of five years. The first year has been a good experience for the CBS professor, who will present an oration on 14 September 2018. She describes the added value of the collaboration as ‘Generating ideas together and promoting science in addressing social developments’. ‘This is also important to CBS. You can only produce solid figures when you have a sound scientific basis for them.’ On her own role: ‘I am out in the public more often and aside from increasing scientific knowledge, I am also more involved with the practical side of policymaking. This works well with the present time and is well aligned with CBS’ role, as Urban Data Centres work more and more towards practical applications.’

Bringing expertise together
Das’ special chair has the effect that the expertise areas and networks available at CBS, Erasmus University and the LDE Centre for BOLD Cities are brought together. The Centre for BOLD Cities is an interdisciplinary collaboration between Leiden University, Delft University of Technology and Erasmus University Rotterdam in the area of Big, Open and/or Linked Data in urban areas. The wealth of data available from CBS registers in the System of Social Statistical Datasets (SSB) offers major research opportunities, says Das. Opportunities which cater to an increasing demand for information.