Social Networks in History

This study of social networks in Homer’s Odyssey (via Foreign Policy’s ideas blog) is the latest in a string of network theory studies that have examine history under the lens of network theory.  Earlier researchers analyzed Homer’s Iliad, the Old English story Beowulf and the Irish epic Tain Bo Cuailnge. I am somewhat wary of some of these kind of studies, particularly when the authors claim that the networks are at least partially based on real life due to the similarities with real social networks.  Why can’t a good story based on humans naturally have a realistic looking social networks?  Wouldn’t that make the story even better?

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Revere group-viewA different historical approach was taken by Kieran Healy in her brilliant satire Social Networke Analysis metadata to capture Paul Revere.  In this posting Kieran had the British Crown use network analysis in order to track down Paul Revere.  I  think this is a fascinating juxtaposition in light of the current debates about government surveillance programs, and a good way to engage students in thinking about both history, nature of governments, and social networks.

There are lots of other important work that is being down with social networks in history for example, scientific history is being mapped through using correspondence networks.  This article on Coffeehouses as the Social Media in the 1600’s by the always excellent Tom Standage, is another thought provoking example of social networks in history.

For a geography or a history teacher there are lots of potential exercises that can be done that would appeal to students while teaching them about the history of the world.  If you have any ideas please leave comment.

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