A (not so) short history of historical network research – part 2


Let us resume our dive into the history of historical network research! In this (three-part series) post, I first recounted the history of computational thought in historical research, and next I will discuss networks for history, before highlighting some of the cornerstones of network methodologies in historical studies.1 This is part 2 on the development of network research.

While now we are diving deep into the history of network research, it is time to review the fundamental developments in the field of social network research, which are the basis for integrating network methodology/ies into historical research. This second post builds upon the long history of computational thought and computation-based methods in the historical studies (part 1 of this series), before I tackle networks in historical research (in part 3).

Networks! On the development of (social) network research

In social network research, interactions between (social) entities are modeled through the relational perspective of a network–a semantically annotated graph with a set of links (the so-called edges) among a set of entities (nodes) in order to “interpret the social behavior of the persons involved” as Mitchell (1969) classically defined this.

The ready availability of computers and increasing capabilities of computing since the 1950s did not only influence the rise of quantitative history, as we have seen in part 1 of this series, but also that of network research. The key breakthrough in the formalization of social network research was to describe these social networks and their mechanisms mathematically in the 1950s.

Fig. 1: Historical map of the city of Königsberg in the 18th century. Highlighted in green are the name-giving seven bridges of Königsberg of the problem, whose singular crossing Euler solved mathematically in 1736. Bogdan Giuşcă, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Building upon the mathematical foundations laid by Dénes König’s breakthrough in graph theory in 1936 (which itself was based on Leonhard Euler’s “Königsberger Brückenproblem” of 1736)2, the 1950s saw the birth of the mathematical description of substructures of social structures (Cartwright and Harary 1956), insights on the behavior of random graphs and their transferability to social networks (Erdös and Rényi 1959), and the description of the small world phenomena (Milgram 1967; Travers and Milgram 1969), colloquially popularized under the term “Six Degrees of Separation” named after the Broadway Show written by John Guare (1990). These formal innovations coincided with the advancement of the computerization of the universities, and quickened the analysis of quantitative data–the time had been “ripe” for a relational turn, as Raab (2010, p. 32) put this.

Fig 2: Sociomatrix depicting friendships in student classes by Joannes Delitsch (1900; reprinted in Heidler et al 2014, p. 5).

The historiography of network research commonly associates the inauguration of network research with the studies on sociometry by Jakob L. Moreno and Hellen H. Jennings in the 1930s. However, the origins of depicting social relationships in networks and matrices are continuously traced back further to, e.g., the sociomatrices by Johannes Delitsch depicting friendships between pupils as early as 1880 (Heidler et al. 2014).

The origins of studying social relationships in networks, however, are closely related to the evolvement of the field of sociology: studying how people form social relationships, groups, and societies. As such, intellectual ancestors of network research include the work by Georg Simmel (1908, who theorised the concept of “social circles” into which individuals were born into or choose to belong), and his student Leopold von Wiese’s theories and studies on relationships (1924/1933) in order to explain the formation of society (Schnegg 2010, p. 21-2).

Modern network research centers emerged in the late 1930s and 40s in

Fig 3: “Lady Bountiful”. (Lundberg and Lawsing 1937, p. 329, Chart. I) on the friendship constellations in a village; actors of high social-economic status are depicted as centrally placed bigger nodes.
    • New York, such as most famously the study on ‘Lady Bountiful’ by Lundberg and Lawsing (1937) theorising a connection between social status and prosperity, which mechanism would be later known as “homophily” (Schnegg 2010, p. 25),
    • Harvard around structural functionalist Radcliffe-Brown, who devised ethnology as the study of “networks of actually existing relations” (Radcliffe-Brown 1940, p. 2). His student W. Lloyd Warner was affiliated with the famous study on the ‘Hawthorne Works’ and the effect of the same name (1924–32; Roethlisberger & Dickson 1939), and directed/co-authered the “Old City” and “Yankee City” studies on the emergence of cliques in the latter (Warner and Lunt 1941) and the racial biases in the class society of Natchez, Mississippi  (published under the moniker “Deep South”, Davis et al 1941), which is regarded as an exemplary data set of two-mode matrices (Borgatti and Everett 1997; Nitschke 2016, p. 15),
    • as well as in Manchester and London in the 1950s, which ethnologist research objective led to the development of ego-centred network analysis of personal ego networks instead of more broad analysis of societies (Freeman 2004, pp. 103–5; Nitschke 2016, p. 16-8), such as the innovations in data collection and perspectives on networks in the survey of both marriage partners in the studies by Bott (1957) on family structures (Jansen 2006, p. 43).

In the 1960s, a new network research center formed in Harvard around Harrison White of a relational sociology perspective, which led to a renewed interest in network research; as well as by the group surrounding Linton Freeman at UC Irvine California and the group by Edward Lauman and James Coleman at the University of California. Since the late 1970s, network research experienced a successive formalization and upturn in reception under the joined efforts of the “International Network for Social Network Analysis,” founded in 1978. Key methodological innovations included the concept of embeddedness (Granovetter 1985), equivalence (Borgatti and Everett 1989), structural holes (Burt 1992), small world networks (Watts and Strogatz 1998), and power law (Barabási and Albert 1999), to name just a few in the wake of the professionalization of the field of network research since the 1980s.

Further developments of formalized network methodologies and their implementations in case studies have since resulted in an increasingly unmanageable amount of publications since the late 1990s: for example, on exponential random graph modeling (Lusher et al. 2012), temporal network analysis (Freeman 2003), brokerage (Burt 2005), or studies in context-aware network analysis as by my former colleagues Mirko Schönfeld and Jürgen Pfeffer (2020).

Network terminology and methodology are increasingly adopted in other disciplines, such as history. This incorporation of a network research methodology in historical studies is considered a transdisciplinary research paradigm by its practitioners.

In the final part of this series, I will tie together the influence of these inaugurating network methodologies on historical studies, and the creation of the field of historical network research.


  • Barabási, Albert-László and Albert, Réka. 1999. “Emergence of scaling in random networks.” Science, no. 286: 509–512.
  • Borgatti, Stephen P. and Everett, Martin G. 1989. “The class of all regular equivalences: Algebraic structure and computation.” Social Networks 11 (1): 65–88.
  • Borgatti, Stephen P. and Everett, Martin G. 1997. “Network analysis of 2-mode data” Social Networks 19 (3): 243–270.
  • Borgatti, Stephen P. and Lopez-Kidwell, Virginie. 2011. “Network Theory.” In The SAGE Handbook of Social Network Analysis, edited by John Scott and Peter J. Carrington, 40–54. London: Sage Publications. doi:10.4135/9781446294413.n4.
  • Bott, Elizabeth. 1957. Family and social network: roles, norms, and external relationships in ordinary urban families. London: Tavistock Publications.
  • Burt, Ronald S. 1992. Structural Holes. The Social Structure of Competition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Burt, Ronald S. 2005. Brokerage and Closure: An Introduction to Social Capital. Oxford University Press.
  • Cartwright, Dorwin and Harary, Frank. 1956. “Structural Balance: a generalization of Heider’s theory.” Psychological Review 63 (5): 277–282.
  • Davis, Allison, Gardner, Burleigh B., and Gardner, Mary R. 1941. Deep South. A social anthropological study of caste and class. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Erdös, Paul and Rényi, Alfréd. 1959. “On Random Graphs I.” Publicationes Mathematicae Debrecen 6:290–297.
  • Freeman, Linton C. 2003. “Finding Social Groups: A Meta-Analysis of the Southern Women Data.” In Dynamic Social Network Modeling and Analysis, edited by R. Breiger, C. Carley, and P. Pattison, 39–97. Washington DC: The National Academies Press.
  • Granovetter, Mark S. 1985. “Economic Action and Social Structure: The Problem of Embed- dedness.” American Journal of Sociology 91:481–510. 
  • Guare, John. 1990. Six Degrees of Separation. A Play. New York: Random House.
  • Heidler, Richard, Gamper, Markus, Herz, Andreas, and Eßer, Florian. 2014. “Relationship patterns in the 19th century: The friendship network in a German boys school class from 1880 to 1881 revisited.” Social Networks 37:1–13. doi:10.1016/j.socnet.2013.11.001.
  • Jansen, Dorothea. 2006. Einführung in die Netzwerkanalyse. Grundlagen, Methoden, Forschungsbeispiele. 3. überarbeitete Auflage. VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften.
  • König, Dénes, 1986 [1936]: Theorie der endlichen und unendlichen Graphen. Teubner-Archiv zur Mathematik, vol. 6, Teubner: Leipzig.
  • Lundberg, George and Lawsing, Margaret. 1937. “The sociography of some community relations.” American Sociological Review, no. 2: 318–335.
  • Lusher, Dean, Koskinen, Johan, and Robins, Garry, eds. 2012. Exponential Random Graph Models for Social Networks Cambridge Core – Research Methods In Sociology and Criminology. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511894701.
  • Milgram, Stanley. 1967. “The small world problem.” Psychology Today 2 (1): 60–67.
  • Mitchell, J. Clyde. 1969. “The Concept and Use of Social Networks.” In Social Networks in Urban Situations: Analyses edited by J. Clyde Mitchell, 1–50. Oxford: Published for the Institute for Social Research University of Zambia by Manchester University Press.
  • Nitschke, Christian. 2016. “Die Geschichte der Netzwerkanalyse.” In Handbuch Historische Netzwerkforschung: Grundlagen und Anwendungen, edited by Marten Düring, Ulrich Eumann, Martin Stark, and Linda von Keyserlingk, 11–30. Münster: LIT Verlag.
  • Petz, Cindarella. 2022. “On Combining Network Research and Computational Methods on Historical Research Questions and its Implications for the Digital Humanities.” Dissertation at the TUM School of Social Sciences and Technology, Technical University Munich. http: //mediatum.ub.tum.de/node?id=1624881.
  • Raab, Jörg. 2010. “Der ’Harvard Breaktrough’.” In Handbuch Netzwerkforschung, edited by Christian Stegbauer and Roger Häußling, 4:29–38. Wiesbaden: VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften.
  • Radcliffe-Brown, Alfred R. 1940. “On social structure.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain no. 70: 1–12.
  • Roethlisberger, Fritz J. and Dickson, William J. 1939. Management and the worker: an account of a research program conducted by the Western Electric Company, Hawthorne Works, Chicago. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
  • Nitschke, Christian. 2016. “Die Geschichte der Netzwerkanalyse.” In Handbuch Historische Netzwerkforschung: Grundlagen und Anwendungen, edited by Marten Düring, Ulrich Eumann, Martin Stark, and Linda von Keyserlingk, 11–30. Münster: LIT Verlag.
  • Schnegg, Michael. 2010. “Die Wurzeln der Netzwerkforschung.” In Handbuch Netzwerkforschung, edited by Christian Stegbauer and Roger Häußling, 4:21–28. Wiesbaden: VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften.
  • Schönfeld, Mirco and Pfeffer, Jürgen. 2020. “Networks and Context: Algorithmic Challenges for Context-Aware Social Network Research.” In Challenges in Social Network Research, edited by Giancarlo Ragozini and Maria Prosperina Vitale, 115–130. Cham: Springer. doi:10.1007/ 978-3-030-31463-7_8.
  • Simmel, Georg. 1908. Soziologie: Untersuchungen über die Formen der Vergesellschaftung. Leipzig: Duncker & Humblot.
  • Travers, Jeffery and Milgram, Stanley. 1969. “An experimental study of the small world problem.” Sociometry 32 (4): 425–443.
  • Warner, W. Lloyd and Lunt, Paul Sanborn. 1941. The social life of a modern community. New Haven: Yale University Press.
  • Watts, Duncan J. and Strogatz, Steven H. 1998. “Collective dynamics of ’small-world’ networks.” Nature 393 (6684): 440–442.
  • Wiese, Leopold von. (1924) 1933. “System der Allgemeine Soziologie als Lehre von den sozialen Prozessen und den sozialen Gebilden der Menschen.” München.

Image Credits: Featured Image: Charles-Joseph Minard: Carte figurative des pertes successives en hommes de l’armée française dans la Campagne de Russie 1812-1813. Régnier & Dourdet 1869. https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b52504201x/f1.item.zoom#.

Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
Cindarella Petz (2022, 29. Juli). A (not so) short history of historical network research – part 2. Digital Humanities Lab. Abgerufen am 17. April 2024, von https://doi.org/10.58079/nl6f

  1. This series draws in large parts on the chapters on historiographical perspectives on the digital humanities and network research of my dissertation (Petz 2022). []
  2. Compare also to the “Introduction to historical (social) network analysis” part 1 and part 2 by my colleague Demival Vasques Filho. []

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