“What’s in a Name?” Networks, Theory, and Connections in Historical Investigation

Historians’ recent interest in “networks” begs a discussion as to whether the term or its attending theory can be useful in world historical investigation.  Due to its mathematical heritage (which will be briefly recapitulated in a discussion of graph theory), network theory and its methodologies remain too quantiatively empirical to be adapted to historical ends.  Moreover, the predictive questions asked by scholars who use network theory are fundamentally incompatible with the responsibilities of an historian.  A non-specific concept of networks, however, can be an effective tool when utilized cautiously.

The proposed paper aims to explore the use of networks in historical investigation– specifically, its potential and its limitations.  Drawing on sociological, mathematical, and various historical sources, I posit that, for world historians, networks can be best understood metaphorically– that is, as a loose system focusing on connections between nodes.  Calling attention to a number of connotations inherent in “networks” (such as directionality, fixity, and empiricism), I plan to demonstrate how some uses of the term encourage inaccurate portrayals of the past, particularly through static and causal linkages.  Through examples from studies in migration, the spread of religion, and economics, I will show how the concept of networks has been utilized effectively in recent world historical research, underscoring the importance of dynamism within– especially interconnectedness between– networks.  Arguing, in general, for increased consideration of an event’s spacio-temporal singularity, the paper emphasizes the need for careful attention to a network’s individual connections– and their cultural context– before invoking a larger concept.