Abstract: Social infrastructure is made up of various material as well as non-material goods, ranging from venues for leisure such as movie theaters to indispensable everyday commodities, like sidewalks and streets. This is true both for urban and rural areas. However, the increasing emergence of digital aspects of social infrastructure has seemed to go unnoticed to some extent, with research specifically focusing on these digital aspects of social infrastructure being scarce at best—even though digitalization is currently a major emerging meta-development worldwide. The goal of our contribution is therefore to investigate the digital sphere and integrate it into the concept of social infrastructure. Drawing on descriptive findings from a multi-sited, community-based survey of residents in four rural areas in Germany (N = 413) as well as from 40 qualitative interviews, we present an integrative and expanded conceptualization of what we term a tangible digital social infrastructure. To do so, we examine digital neighborly connectedness as a social resource during the Covid-19 pandemic as a case study. We argue that digital neighborly connectedness served as both an integral part of on-site social infrastructure and as a social resource, especially during pandemic times. We discuss our results in light of current research on social infrastructure, with a specific focus on the scope of what counts as social infrastructure, as well as current discourse on social infrastructure in rural areas.
Keywords: digital neighborly connectedness; digitalization; Germany; qualitative analysis; rural areas; social infrastructure