Camel caravan

Camel caravan
Mosaic from Deir al-Adas, Syria, 8th century (photo: J.C.Meyer)
The research project Mechanisms of cross-cultural interaction: Networks in the Roman Near East (2013-2016) investigates the resilient everyday ties, such as trade, religion and power, connecting people within and across fluctuating imperial borders in the Near East in the Roman Period. The project is funded under the Research Council of Norway's SAMKUL initiative, and hosted by the Department of archaeology, history, cultural studies and religion, University of Bergen, Norway.

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Monday, 27 May 2013

Networks in history and archaeology, some early reflections

Just back from the 33rd Sunbelt conference on Social Network Analysis, and after hosting a stimulating guest lecture by Giovanni Ruffini from Fairfield University last week, I've had the pleasure of watching a number of accomplished social scientists, archaeologists and historians applying formal network approaches to their material. This gives rise to some observations and some thoughts on what Social Network Analysis (SNA) can, could and maybe should contribute towards the study of the ancient world.

This year's Sunbelt conference gathered 690 speakers from all over the world, almost all of them engaging with contemporary material, but there were also one panel dealing with archaeological networks and three addressing historical networks. Most researchers working with SNA gather their data from questionnaires, allowing them to ask their informers whatever they'd like to know, such as, if working with a group of students, "who do you turn to for advice?", "who are you spending time with outside class?", "name up to three persons in the group with whom you do not get along" and so on. This data can then not only be conceptualized and visualized as a network, but also be subjected to quantitative analysis. This of course is a major difference from working with historical or archaeological material, where the nature and availability of data severely restricts what questions can be asked. Historical material can often tell that people moved, or that they were in contact, but sources revealing attitudes or feelings will almost invariably be too anecdotal to useful for statistical purposes. Archaeology has to rely on objects as a proxy in order to understand understand social interaction. This can be done, but it goes without saying that it is challenging.

What then, do researchers working with past societies apply SNA for? There are at least three main approaches with varying degree of methodological stringency. Stringency in lack of a better word, as I think they all have their merits.

One school of research has used Social Network Analysis primarily as a framework for understanding and visualizing interaction in history. This is the approach of Irad Malkin's, A Small Greek World: Networks in the Ancient Mediterranean. Greeks Overseas (Oxford University Press 2011), where he addresses the formative stages of Greek society and culture in the Mediterranean from a network perspective, offering, in my view, an interpretative framework far superior to earlier competing diffusionist and minimalist, but invariably Aegean-centric narratives of early Greek history. My own first journal-published foray into network studies, which will be come out in November, is inspired by this approach, and addresses the social cohesion of early Indian Ocean networks. I'll put it online in due time. An objection to studies such as these, of course, is that they use the concepts and terminology of SNA, without actually carrying out the analysis. This is not necessarily a problem, but it is different from from the quantitative analysis that the concepts and terminology were developed for.

Scholars engaging with archaeological networks have perhaps even fewer options as to what questions their material can answer than historians. The movement of objects surely indicate contacts, but of what kind, by which roads and which carriers? Are distribution patterns suitable proxies for social networks? It is hard to see how purely archaeological network studies can get beyond the analysis of potential networks, but this in itself can be a great contribution in settings of incomplete or fragmentary data. Also, unlike historians, archaeologist dealing with the ancient world often have large amounts of data available, facilitating the kind of statistical analyses that make SNA a powerful tool in the hands of social scientists. The Sunbelt panel on archeological networks, organized by the people behind the new Nexus 1492-project, addressed issues such as these, focussing on how network theory can be adapted so serve the needs of archaeology, and proved a very stimulating methodological lesson. In the NeRoNE project I hope that archaeological approaches can help map potential religious networks by proxies such as the distribution of temples, churches, synagogues and votive inscriptions.

Closest to mainstream SNA is perhaps the approach advanced by Ruffini in his 2008-monograph Social Networks in Byzantine Egypt (Cambridge University Press), and by most of the contributors to the historical panels at the Sunbelt conference. These scholars use documentary evidence, attesting that people were actually interacting, whether in juridical or commercial transactions, or through ties of marriage, kinship, friendship and so on. This combines the advantage of testability with potential for mapping and visualizing interaction, but requires a suitable and sufficiently large set of data. The problem of course, which is also relevant to a number of studies of contemporary social networks, is that many such studies reveal little about the nature and depth of the relationships mapped. This could in some cases be addressed through qualitative analyses of parts of the material, but these in turn, face problems of representativity. These are possibilities and challenges I hope to take on in the NeRoNE project in studies of networks of power.

Ending this post on an optimistic note, as I really do think that SNA has a lot to contribute to the study of the ancient world, I'd like to mention John F. Padgett's keynote address to the Sunbelt conference, which was on Networks and History. Padgett is Professor of Political Science at Chicago University and is among the senior figures of SNA. Among other fields, he has published on economics, organization theory, law and probability theory, but primarily on history, and employing historical source material from renaissance Florence. In his plenary lecture in Hamburg, he made two important points: Everything is networks, because all change involves interaction and everything is history, because current networks are results of past processes.




Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Guest lecture: Giovanni Ruffini – Social Networks in the Ancient World

Photo: Cambridge University Press
Giovanni Ruffini visits the research group Ancient history, culture and religion and the NeRoNE project in order to give a talk on 'Social Networks in the Ancient World'. Ruffini is Associate Professor of classical studies at Fairfield University, Connecticut, USA. His 2008 monograph Social Networks in Byzantine Egypt was the first full scale study applying Social Network Analysis on the ancient world. In addition to revisiting his study of Byzantine Egypt in light of later work, Ruffini will also discuss the advantages and limitations of applying network perspectives to ancient history.


Venue: Seminarrom 1, Øysteinsgate 3.
Time: Tuesday May 21, 2013: 14.15-16.00

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

SAMKUL – Cultural conditions underlying social change

The NeRoNE-project is funded under the Research Council of Norway's SAMKUL-programme (2011-2020), which supports projects from the social sciences and humanities investigating the cultural conditions underlying social change. 15 projects were funded in the first call. Links to their web-pages can be found here.