Networking in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland : a case study of the embeddedness of firms in three small towns
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 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.