Spatial Polygamy and Contextual Exposures (SPACEs): Promoting Activity Space Approaches in Research on Place and Health

Am Behav Sci. 2013 Aug 1;57(8):1057-1081. doi: 10.1177/0002764213487345.


Exposure science has developed rapidly and there is an increasing call for greater precision in the measurement of individual exposures across space and time. Social science interest in an individual's environmental exposure, broadly conceived, has arguably been quite limited conceptually and methodologically. Indeed, we appear to lag behind our exposure science colleagues in our theories, data, and methods. In this paper we discuss a framework based on the concept of spatial polygamy to demonstrate the need to collect new forms of data on human spatial behavior and contextual exposures across time and space. Adopting new data and methods will be essential if we want to better understand social inequality in terms of exposure to health risks and access to health resources. We discuss the opportunities and challenges focusing on the potential seemingly offered by focusing on human mobility, and specifically the utilization of activity space concepts and data. A goal of the paper is to spatialize social and health science concepts and research practice vis-a-vis the complexity of exposure. The paper concludes with some recommendations for future research focusing on theoretical and conceptual development, promoting research on new types of places and human movement, the dynamic nature of contexts, and on training. "When we elect wittingly or unwittingly, to work within a level … we tend to discern or construct - whichever emphasis you prefer - only those kinds of systems whose elements are confined to that level."Otis Dudley Duncan (1961, p. 141)."…despite the new ranges created by improved transportation, local government units have tended to remain medieval in size."Torsten Hägerstrand (1970, p.18)"A detective investigating a crime needs both tools and understanding. If he has no fingerprint powder, he will fail to find fingerprints on most surfaces. If he does not understand where the criminal is likely to have put his fingers, he will not look in the right places. Equally, the analyst of data needs both tools and understanding."John Tukey (1977, p.1)"When we observe the environment, we necessarily do so on only a limited number of scales."Simon Levin (1992, p. 1945)There is a desperate need to develop methods with the same precision for an individual's environmental exposure as we have for an individual's genome … even a partial, targeted understanding of exposure can provide substantial advantages."Christopher Wild (2005, p.1848).