Growing Pains: the ‘Connected Past’

Arriving in a rainy Paris in the early hours of Saturday morning, 26th of April, Alexander and I attended the 2014 Paris Conference on ‘The Connected Past’.[1] The prestigious Sciences Po played host to this second interdisciplinary gathering, inviting historians, computer scientists, archaeologists, and social scientists alike to discuss their use of social network analysis in researching the past. The lively introduction by organisers Claire Lemercier (CNRS, Sciences Po Paris) and Tom Brughmans (University of Southampton) proved to be the start of an interesting conference, not only connecting us to other researchers but surprisingly also touching upon some of our own transregional challenges.

Dividing the day into thematic sessions, rather than focussing separately on each scientific discipline, we came across the divers range of uses of social network analysis. Whereas archaeologists and computer scientists immediately delved into complex mathematical and topographical applications, some of the historians put forward the complications combining quantitative methods with qualitative sources. Ana Sofia Ribeiro laid out the network of sixteenth-century merchant Simon Ruiz in the Spanish Habsburg Empire based on letters of exchange and private correspondence, touching upon the difficulty of constructing satisfactory categories in order to denominate relationships. Francisco Apellániz, conducting similar research on late medieval commercial networks and notarial culture in Egypt, illustrated the need to link relationships not only at a micro-level (individual to individual) but also on a wider scale, researching interactions between individuals and communities as well as communities among themselves.

A general methodological discussion brought about some of the obstacles in using social network analysis for researching the past. Is social network analysis a method leading to new fundamental insights into historical behaviour, or a mere hype used as an illustration? Can it then be applied to every research topic? Starting from the idea that ‘everything’ is connected, of course it can, and it has. However, not every paper we saw, convinced us that this is always a useful approach, and that it is necessary for social scientists to weigh all options before applying themselves industriously at constructing vast databases. Archaeologist Eivind Heldaas Seland succeeded in demonstrating the added value of social network analysis to his research question, when none of the ‘conform’ methods resulted in an adequate answer. For historians researching networks and relationships, the current question seems to be: do we have the right tools at hand? The seemingly inaptness of current computer programs in visualizing complex interactions beyond simple lines from A to B, has more to do with the fact that historians aren’t computer scientists, and vice versa, although cross-over projects seem promising.[2]

Surprisingly, we have encountered similar challenges in our recent transregional research group. Even though discussions surrounding the transnational turn have mostly excluded research into the early modern world, none of the other similar fields such as global history, histoire croisée or cultural transfers have been able to provide us with a clear methodological stance or exemplary cases. Furthermore, as sceptics point to the same idea that ‘everything is transregional’, we are tackled with an new and exciting field of historical research, whereof we don’t yet know the limits. Just as one of the participants suggested in answer to the question whether social network analysis would ever be more than a ‘hype’, we should take our time to experiment and find out which research questions this approach won’t be able to answer, all the while reflecting on our own position as historical researchers in a modern globalized world.

Sophie Verreyken

[2] Scott B. Weingart, a Ph.D.-student in information science with a history of science minor, manages to explain some of the fundament struggles in digital humanities in a series on his personal blog called ‘Demystifying networks’: