Managing Distance Small Firm Networks at the Geographic Margins

University dissertation from Stockholm : Department of Human Geography, Stockholm University

Abstract: Small businesses located in the most sparsely populated and peripheral parts of Europe are frequently believed to be marginalised with respect to the processes of economic globalisation. This thesis proposes to explore an alternative perspective for understanding how small businesses that are located at the geographical margins engage with the globalised economy. Distance is no longer a purely physical phenomenon. Meanwhile, networks are considered to be the primary means for small firms to mobilise external resources and stay competitive. Acknowledging these conceptual shifts, this thesis explores how peripheral small businesses develop network configurations with multiple actors across multiple geographical scales to engage in the global economy.This thesis consists of four papers and a cover essay. The four papers share the theme of the network interaction of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in peripheral regions and discuss this theme from various perspectives with different research questions. The papers use combinations of quantitative and qualitative analytical methods to empirically investigate the configuration of small firm networks in the case study of Upper Norrland in Sweden.The cover essay introduces the overarching conceptual framework that is grounded in ideas from the seminal work of Granovetter on the social embeddedness of economic interactions and the ‘strength of weak ties’, and this essay contributes to the debate in geography on multi-scalar proximity dynamics. The empirical findings of the papers describe the collaborative and transactional forms of firm relations in peripheral regions and discuss the role of key actors—such as international customers or regional intermediary organisations—in bridging the local and extra-local dimensions of small firm networks. The conceptual contribution of this thesis corroborates the understanding that small firm development requires a balance between regional and international networks. This thesis also contributes to the debate on development policies for peripheral regions by offering insights into the manner in which institutional support for the design and implementation of open, flexible network arrangements may provide a leverage effect for small firm development.