A (not so) short history of historical network research – part 3


Finally, we have arrived at a comfortable depth after recounting the history of computational thought in historical research (part 1) and the development of network research (part 2).1 It is time now to delve into networks in history in part 3 of this series!

Networks and historical research

“The roots of HNR go back to the year 2009 when Ulrich Eumann, Martin Stark, Linda von Keyserlingk-Rehbein and Marten Düring decided to organize a workshop for historians interested in social network analysis,” such recounts the website of the “Historical Network Research Community” on their contribution to the community formation of HNR within Central Europe. Nevertheless, there were multiple strands influencing the creation of the field of HNR, and its growing popularity since the late 2000s. The history of historical network research in my opinion cannot be characterized as a genealogy, as historical studies employing a network methodology did not progressively build upon each other (except when within greater research projects). Instead, they referenced the inaugurating methodological studies of the general (social) network research. 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.

The very first historical network research studies have not even been conducted by historians. Network studies based on historical research topics started to emerge in the 1990s under the moniker of ‘historical social network research’  after SNA’s “maturing” in the late 1980s–but historians had been slow to adopt the approach, as one of the pioneers in this field, Charles Wetherell, had lamented (1998, p. 125).

This limited reception of a formalized network analysis in the historical studies was a result of the change in focus from the more quantitative-inclined social history to postmodernist thought (such as the cultural or the linguist turn) during the 1980s (compare e.g., to Wetherell 1998, p. 125; Reynolds 1998; Gamper et al. 2015, p. 24). The historian Edward L. Ayers (1999) had summarized this development in the contention that “texts [had] replaced tables.”

Fig. 2a in Padgett & Anselm (1978, p. 1276), which highlights the marriage and economic block model structure of the Medici family.

Consequential, the (until today highly-regarded) study on the rise of the Medici in Florentine (1499–34)–which linked the Medici’s economical influence to their specific marriage strategy by employing a formalized network approach based on the concept of “strong ties” by Granovetter (1973) and blockmodel analysis (influenced by Harrison White)–wasn’t conducted by historians, but by the political scientists John F. Padgett and Christopher K. Ansell (1993). The historian’s involvement in this project was an indirect one: Padgett & Ansell had based their analysis on work of the historian Dale Kent on the “The Rise of the Medici” (1978).

Network studies conducted by historians began to emerge in the quantitative-inclined niches of economic, business, and social history:

Alongside historically-working sociologists such as, e.g., Gould (1995), who studied social movement in the Paris communes in revolutionary France in the 19th century from a network perspective (and consequently theorised a collective identity as reason for protest mobilisation), business historians drew from sociological organizational theory and studied e.g.,

      • inter-firm relations of the textile engineering industry of mid-19th century Yorkshire (Cookson 1997); or
      • the influences of fire insurance offices in England on the economic development of British industrialization (business and economic historians Pearson and Richardsson 2001); or
      • bank network relations and credit distribution (in a joint venture between the economist Andrew Godley and economic historian Duncan Ross, 1996).
      • These studies however entailed a relational perspective based on the “concept of `networking’” as Pearson and Richardsson (2001, p. 657) expressed this, or avoided the term `network’ altogether in favor of “wheel” as the former would “implie[] the equal status of each member” (Cookson 1997, p. 5).

In the field of social history, e.g., Charles Wetherell solicited a network methodology in the study of historical kinship and community in order to prove the merit of the method for historical studies, but complained how historians have been “slow to adopt the approach” (Wetherell 1998, 125).

An exception within these early (and sparse) engagements of historians with networks were the works by historian Wolfgang Reinhard: he coined the concept of “Verflechtung” (embeddedness) focusing on different types of relationships as a result of social contexts and roles. At the same time, he deliberately avoided the usage of the term `network.’ Our soon-to be new co-director at the IEG, Nicole Reinhardt (2002, p. 236), argued that Wolfgang Reinhard’s concept would be better framed today as patron-clientele-relationships.

Since the early 2000s, network studies have seen a steady growth in historical research (and the humanities)–of which a regularly updated online bibliography tries to keep track of and currently records almost 1100 publications (vol. 7, accessed 2022-09-08). This has to be assessed on the backdrop of the growing popularity of computer-assisted (research) work since the mass digitization of the 1990s, and popularization of the digital humanities.


In 2010, Reitmayer and Marx (2010, pp. 870-1) differentiated between two research strands within HNR: (a) researching networks as regulatory mechanisms for its entities, which permit/restrain action (e.g., on social capital or rational-choice theory) as most prominently present in business or economic history, and (b) considering networks per se as an interpretative framework, as mainly in social history. Since this assessment, the scope of research has extended dramatically to include/explore network methodologies and approaches in studies over all periods.

In the following, I will put spotlights on (in my opinion) noteworthy studies incorporating network methodologies (and more soft approaches, that incorporate network methodologies and terminology in a pragmatic-eclectic fashion as an addition to the historian’s tool box, which e.g., Reitmayer and Marx (2010, p. 876) have criticized). This list does not aim for completeness but instead is intended to show the scope of research areas and methodologies used in historical research:

  • correspondence and citation networks, in which network edges are constructed based on mentions (in the same place or sources) or direct referencing (citing). An early example would be the reconstruction of (multimodal) intellectual networks of two astronomers at the Res temple in Uruk during the Seleucid period based on colophons of astronomical tablets; Ossendrijver (2011) however focused on visual reconstruction and abstained an formal analysis. In the study on astronomer’s networks in the Early Modern period, Knopp (2018) formally identified the most important individuals, and studied selected ego-networks, e.g. by Johannes Kepler or Johannes Hevelius. One of the biggest research endeavours in correspondence networks are the (on-going) projects related to mapping the Early Modern “Republic of Letters”
    Manually drawn network in Schaffer 2008 (p. 39, Fig. 4) tracking the sources of cometary observations in Newton’s Principe Mathematica.

    (Grafton 2009; Winterer 2012; Edelstein et al. 2017; Hotson 2019) – this innovative project combined digitization of sources, text processing, and formalized network methodologies in order to study the epistolary exchanges and migratory patterns as spatial networks of a “cultural space” in a series of case studies (Edelstein et al. 2017, pp. 421-2). Network methodology used in these projects range from manually drawing networks on maps

    Created using the software nodegoat [edited, 2022-10-05], this multilayered co-occurrence networks shows the epistolary exchanges between the Early Modern scholars Heinsius, Magliabechi, and Dati (Vugt 2017, p. 27, Fig. 5). Time stamps for these exchanges allow for a time-sensitive analysis of their contacts.
    such as in the reconstruction of flows of information from and to Isaac Newton and his contacts, which led to debunk the notion of Newton as a solitary genius (Schaffer 2008), to the computational analysis and mapping of multi-layered dynamic networks of letters (Vugt 2017), which incorporate a longitudinal perspective on changes in the network over time as well. In the course of the “Mapping the Republic of Letters” project at Stanford University, a prototype of the tool Palladio was created by the Humanities Design Lab in order to easily plot these Early Modern correspondence (metadata) networks, and was subsequently further developed for broader use.
  • organizational, business, and economic networks, often in cooperation with the economic and business studies. Noteworthy here are studies on personal and capital embeddings, such as about the social influence on economic success in a historical credit market (Stark 2014; Reupke and Stark 2015), or on the interlocking of positions in inter corporate networks (compare also to the overview in Carroll and Sapinski 2011).
  • clientele networks. An example would be the prosopographical patronage-clientele study by Graham and Ruffini (2007) on the professional relationships recored in stamped bricks of Rome (0-300 Common Era), which allowed to identify important players in the Roman brick industry utilising formalized centrality measures, as well as computing the network density of occupational communities. Coincidently, this study did not publish network visualizations.
  • political and elite networks. An early example for this would be the network mapping of Jesuit travels and their knowledge distributions, in which Harris (1999, pp. 228-9) hypothesized “thread maps” as schematic models, which he differentiated using a network terminology. As he lacked the tools to depict those networks systematically, Harris (1999, p. 227) voiced regret that these remain “an exercise in imagination” as “the actual mapping of provenance for all the constituents of a scientific text would be an exceedingly tedious task.” Common are studies to reconstruct personal networks, too, such as of the aristocratic abbot of Cluny in the early Middle Ages, for which Rosé (2011, pp. 214-5) built a relational database in Microsoft Excel. The studies by Preiser-Kapeller (2015) geographically mapped conflict among power elites in Medieval Europe and the Near East using non-linear time-series analysis and agent-based modeling. Noteworthy are the works by Robert Gramsch (now Gramsch-Stehfest) and Jean-Paul Rehr. Gramsch (2013) reframed the empire in the 13th century as a “networks of princes”,
    Network of princes of Friedrich II and Heinrich (VII) in 1225, highlighting the structures of the communities based on a clustering algorithm (Dahmen et al 2017, p. 10, Fig. 4).

    which was succescently extended with a formalized analysis to detect communities in the emperor’s aristocratic circles (Dahmen et al. 2017, Gramsch-Stehfest 2020). They could debunk the notion that inefficacy led to Heinrich VII being removed from Power by Friedrich II, but instead traced this back to them supporting oppositional political factions. The formal network analysis employed on the Dominican investigation of Cathar heresy in 1245–46, based on a digital edition of the recordings of the “Great Inquisition” which was created in the course of the project by Rehr (2019) . The network methodology allowed Rehr (2019) to identify the actual targets of the “Great Inquistion” against Cathar Heresy by Dominican monks as the village consulates (p. 1).

  • criminal networks. In this context, the analysis of the organization of helper’s clandestine networks organizations during the NS-regime by Düring (2015) deserved mention as maybe one of the most cited studies in historical network research. Another example would be the network reconstruction of the conspirators of the July 20th assassination attempt on Hitler, which represents the state of knowledge of the Gestapo investigation (Keyserlingk-Rehbein 2018) utilising centrality measures. In criminology, often times historical datasets are used as well, as e.g. the network reconstruction of South African arms deals in the late 1990s drawn from secondary literatures (Kriegler 2014), the analysis of the Al Capone networks (Papachristos and Smith 2012), or formalized regression analysis of dyadic relational data which tested the influence of kinship and violence on cooperation in criminal organizations in Italy based on phone transcripts (Campana and Varese 2013).
  • judicial networks. In legal studies, judicial network analysis is used to study judicial decisions and the genealogies of law (e.g., Shomade and Hartley 2010; Kastellec 2010; Clark and Lauderdale 2012; for an overview compare to Box-Steffensmeier et al. 2016) or the internal and external organizational effects of courts such as the influence of amicus curae networks on court decisions (Box-Steffensmeier and Christenson 2014). These kinds of analyses are based on court documents, and interview data, bridging from the social sciences to legal studies.
    Multimodal network of court proceedings, where an edge signifies a conviction (Petz & Pfeffer 2021, p. 190).

    Within historical research, recently these have been studied as in the on-going project by Schwandt (2021) to reconstruct judicial practices of the Kings Bench justice in competition to the county courts through spatial networks of traveling judges of the Kings Bench, which are mentioned in the courts protocols of English counties in the 13th century. Analyzing multi-modal cooccurrence networks, in my PhD project I studied the extend of political judiciary during the Austrian Corporate State and assessed differences in convictions based on the political partisanship of defendants (Petz and Pfeffer 2021). 

In an on-going initiative to advance historical network research and to build a HNR community, yearly workshop meetings have been organized since 2009 by the “HNR Community” within Germany, as well as a series of Europe-wide HNR conferences since 2013 (compare to this website).  Since the mid-2010s, a variety of introductory and overview works has been published on network analysis (such as e.g., Jansen 2006; Scott and Carrington 2011; Hennig et al. 2012; Kranakis 2013; Ragozini and Vitale 2020) and its applications in the humanities (compare to e.g., Gamper et al. 2015; Düring et al. 2016; Düring et al. 2020), which every year increase in scope and depth.

It is time for our decompression stop before resurfacing again.

For the first time, the yearly SUNBELT conference (of the “International Network for Social Network Analysis”, INSNA) incorporated a track on historical network research in 2013. This has since become a recurring part of the program under varying names, and suggests the firm location of HNR as part of the general network research community.

Whereas the adoption of network terminology and methodology in the humanities, and especially in the historical studies, is considered a transdisciplinary research paradigm by its practitioners (see e.g., the proclaimed “Network Turn” by Ruth and Sebastian A. Ahnert 2021), its spread and (reflective) usage is yet to become mainstream. Instead, it is (eclectically) absorbed into the toolkit of the historian, and applied by a small but steadily growing number of trained historians. As a result of this eclectic approaches, the methodology often times remains under-utilised: Relational perspectives on historical research objects featuring a formalized network methodology offer powerful tools for reframing questions on the respective research objects, and  hold the possibility to uncover non-obvious connections and interrelations.  Networks are models–as such they are subjectively biased due to the selection of important parameters to approximate a reality, but used sensibly can provide a step closer to an accurate interpretation of the past.

Now, upward! There are still many things to do.

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Bildnachweis: 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#.

  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). []

OpenEdition schlägt Ihnen vor, diesen Beitrag wie folgt zu zitieren:
Cindarella Petz (9. September 2022). A (not so) short history of historical network research – part 3. Digital Humanities Lab. Abgerufen am 23. Juli 2024 von https://doi.org/10.58079/nl6g

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