Visit Homepage
Skip to content

Study hard, for the well is deep, and our brains are shallow… (2)

Today we’re going to swamp you with some more SNA shizzle. Before you raise your arms to our Lord Almighty in suicidal despair:
historical network analysis articles keep calm

No more general knock-you-out SNA theory, this time we’re giving you the real stuff, the funny-harry-potter-19.jpgstuff that gets us buzzing: historical network analysis.

First things first: why historical network analysis you ask? It’s true, we’ve met our fair share of historians who confess that the reason they chose for or stumbled into a career that focuses on the past was, not the hope that a time machine would be invented in the near future and would teleport them to their beloved era (although we are true believers ourselves, obviously), but their irrational fear of math, no, generally all things even remotely numerical.

Balderdash, we say, numbers are fun! For example: how many Harry Potter books are there? Seven. Way to little if you ask us! How many movies? Only 8! Why not a Hobbitsy-like 21?? (That’s 7 books x 3 movies, you pipsqueak)

Anywho, the following three articles argue why we should be using network analysis. The last one’s actually geared toward archaeologists, but, all rivalry aside, we should give them credit for discovering SNA first, and besides, it’s a nice and clear paper, and we’re not the snobby kind.

Why do historical network analysis?

Formal Network Methods in History: Why and How? by Claire Lemercier (in: G. Fertig, Social Networks, Political Institutions and Rural Societies 2010).

Netwerkanalyse in den Geschichtswissenschaften. Historische Netzwerkanalyse als Methode für die Erforschung von historischen Prozessen by Marten Düring and Linda v. Keyserlingk (Yes, it’s in German. Don’t be such a pussy, losgehen!).

Facebooking the Past: A Critical Social Network Analysis Approach for Archaeology by Tom Brughmans.

Historical Network Analysis articles

The following works then are a sample of studies in which network analysis is applied to historical data (which we’ve cleverly coined HNA (^_−)☆ Ain’t we nifty, huh?) . There’s much more out there, of course, and for a more exhaustive bibliography we again refer to the one available on the Historical Network Research site. As you’ll no doubt soon find out, network analysis of “ancient” data, i.e. all things pre-Middle Ages, is pretty scarce. Concepts like networks, links, clusters, agency, etc. are becoming more widespread, but are generally used metaphorically (for example A Small Greek World: Networks in the Ancient Mediterranean by Irad Malkin), while we’re interested in, you guessed it, the math, models, and of course the spaghetti monsters!

Six Degrees of Alexander: Social Network Analysis as a Tool for Ancient History by Diane H. Cline.
A major advocate for the application of SNA to ancient texts, Cline has taken a look at the networks of Pericles (ca. 495 – 429 BC) and Alexander the Great (356 – 323 BC) as found in Plutarch and other ancient authors’ works. I attended her talk at the latest Sunbelt in St. Pete Beach (Feb. 2014) and man, if we ever found a HNA union, she has my vote for president! IT departments around the world, hold on to your hats, you’ll be begging for our data once you’ve heard her preach! Word on the street is she’s going to tackle Socrates next!

Networks Networks Everywhere. Migration, Community Formation and Integration in the City of Rome under the Principate by Laurens E. Tacoma.
In this paper, Tacoma presents some sociological models that could be of use for the study of immigration in the Roman world. Different approaches to migration, acculturation and community formation (is it just me, or do sociologists have a fascination for words ending in –ation? Sounds like the beginning of a really tacky rhyming poem) are presented, including Granovetter’s Strength of Weak Ties. Tacoma also warns for the shortcomings of our data and the pitfalls we therefore have to take into account when applying network theory.

The Ptolemies encouraged immigration,
resulting in mixed community formation,
the Romans opposed,
the Greek ranks were closed,
now all are subject to network analyzation.

Social Network Analysis of Cuneiform Archives by Caroline Waerzeggers.
This article is more in keeping with what we’re doing in Leuven: applying network analysis to prosopographical (simply put: people, but hey, we’re expected to use big words from time to time) data extracted from archives. Waerzeggers focuses on cuneiform* archives from the Neo-Babylonian period (middle of the first millennium BC) and uses network analysis to look at larger social structures, instead of looking at the main actors of the archives on the individual level only, as is the case in traditional studies.
*For those of you who didn’t pay attention in history class: cuneiform is the oldest script in the world, and don’t be fooled by those Egyptologists proclaiming otherwise, with their silly crouching Playmobile figurine hieroglyphs. All toddlers can draw stick figures. In Dutch, cuneiform is called ‘spijkerschrift’, ‘nailscript’, as the strokes pressed into the clay tablets look like nails.


That’s my name in cuneiform for ya! Try it out yourself at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology website.

Social Networks in Byzantine Egypt by Giovanni Ruffini.
This is the book that got us started, as it includes a concise introduction on SNA and the methods used, and data we were actually more or less familiar with. The number one for ancient historians interested in HNA, this is an excellent example of how to combine qualitative and quantitative analysis. So why doesn’t it top this list, you ask? Good question. God moves in mysterious ways…

Robust Action and the Rise of the Medici, 1400-1434 by John Padgett and Christopher Ansell.
One of the first historical works to use SNA. Padgett has published many more articles ever since, but this is the one he’s best known for. It challenged (and still challenges) historians to look at their sources in a different way and to introduce new methods to the field. Crucial for any historian interested in HNA!

The Art of the Network. Strategic Interaction and Patronage in Renaissance Florence by Paul McLean.
This former student of John Padgett has gone further down the HNA-path. It is especially important for those historians interested in letters and patronage relations. No need to read the whole book as a big deal of it consists of historical and stylistic digressions.

The Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling.

A must-read for every self-respecting academic and non-academic, SNA’ist and non-SNA’ist, child and adult, muggle and wizard, vegetarian and carnivore, atheist and Belieber, … (I could go on endlessly) alike. No explanation necessary. It’s just that good. Period.

So, grab those power bars and that gallon of whatever you’re always guzzling down and snuggle up on the couch with that blanky, cuz you’ve got some looooong hours ahead of you!



  1. And of course, the best of two worlds:
    Bossaert, Goele, and Nadine Meidert (2013). 'We are only as strong as we are united, as weak as we are divided'. A dynamic analysis of the peer support networks in the Harry Potter books. Open Journal of Applied Sciences, Vol. 3 No. 2, pp. 174-185.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *