Historical Network Research Conference 2014: a summary and a small selection of projects

Together with Carolin Hahn and Emmanuelle Chaze, I recently published a review of the Historical Network Research Conference 2014, but it only deals with the workshops and keynotes. What is more, it is in German, which limits its impact, especially considering the fact that the whole conference was held in English.

There were simply too many projects for us to present each one of them in the German version, which still had the ambition of being somewhat exhaustive. So we left out the projects altogether there.

HNR 2014 in Gent - this direction please

HNR 2014 in Gent – this way please

This blog post aims at supplying some of what is missing in the German review. It summarizes the general ideas we already expressed there and sheds light on a few project presentations – those which were most impressive to us. It is a subjective choice of projects, one that certainly echoes our own research. We still hope (as mentioned at the end of the German review) that the conference organizers will publish the abstracts to the projects – it would be great especially for those who could not attend the conference.


Introduction and workshops

Ahead of the conference, three days were devoted to workshops presenting the main software used to represent networks in Digital Humanities. After two introductory seminars on methods and tools used in network analysis (Marten Düring, Luxembourg, and Martin Stark, Hamburg), two workshops underlined the functions of UCINET/Netdraw (Bruce Cronin, Greenwich), and Gephi (Clément Levallois, Lyon). Unsurprisingly, when their use is mastered, these tools allow a good visualisation of networks. However, learning to use them also highlighted weaknesses in both cases, be it the visual aspect of the networks, or the difficulties to manipulate the software’s functionalities in order to bring them to their optimal use. Parallel to these workshops, other tools were presented, including intuitive programs such as Palladio, mentioned by Marten Düring, and Nodegoat, developed by Pim van Bree und Geert Kessels (LAB 1100, Den Haag), who presented their software during the conference.


The workshops gave place to the conference, opened by Hans Blomme (Ghent), and an introductory lecture by Claire Lemercier (Paris) which emphasised the main issues that would be discussed in the following days: How to represent and organise consequent amounts of data, ever changing dynamics and timelines when dealing with network visualisation? Which decisions to make as to how to represent these changes? The answer lies in the use – often experimental – of simulations and animations, and in that very much often showing that network visualisation methods are still in an early stage of development. Another key point of Lemercier was to engage in the dialogue process between IT-specialists and the community of researchers, as she underlined the fact that tools used by researchers in social sciences should necessarily be designed in a user-friendly way, so that non IT-specialists might be able to properly represent and structure their datasets. Two concrete examples followed with keynotes delivered by Diane H. Cline (Washington DC) and Emily Erickson (Yale). Cline highlighted the various representations and dynamics of Socrates’ social network in light of the symposiums he initiated, in order to show that such visualisations allow a better understanding of social changes occurring in communities throughout a given period. Likewise, Erikson used the example of ship circulation and cooperation between both companies and individuals within the English East India Company in order to highlight the importance of network visualisation tools to understand the formation and development of a social network. As she showed networks based on data found in logbooks concerning ship captains, ship trajectories and cooperation trades’ patterns, she highlighted the fundamental importance of anthropological data in the building of historical networks.


A very short selection of projects

In the Section “Circulation of Ideas”, Clare Woods showed in her presentation (“Mapping the Dynamic Circulation of Books and Ideas in Ninth-Century Europe”) how data modeling, data visualisation and research question can interact and dynamically enrich one another. Starting from a geographical network representing book circulation, Woods explained how she realized that this network was not telling much. Only by adding a temporal dimension would the network begin to talk. When added such a dimension, it showed the importance of aggregating manuscript distribution from multiple authors in order to assess the importance of the information that circulated. During her presentation, Woods reconstructed her own research path from a traditional social network to a geographical network, now addressing the major issue represented by the addition of a temporal dimension that would be satisfactory in terms of information visualisation. The shift in the network representation, as Woods brilliantly showed, allowed and accompanied a shift towards a coherent combination of quantitative and qualitative approach. Her talk was a result of the research that she presents for instance in her 2013 paper on “Letters from distant lands“.

In the Section “Intellectual Cooperation”, Martin Grandjean made an impressive demonstration of the fineness in representation and visualisation that can be achieved when mastering Gephi. His analysis was based on a numerous corpus of letters exchanged between members of the international committee on intellectual cooperation emanating from the league of nations between the two world wars. While presenting his corpus, Grandjean outlined the conceptual importance of differentiating between chart and network on the one hand, index and network on the other hand, then showing how to extract a network from an index. His emphasis was on the relationship between micro- and macro-structure. On a macro-level, the complexity of the core of a network often makes it impossible to read. In order to gain information on the patterns linking institution structure and individual relationships, it is necessary, as Grandjean explained, to consider the network as a tool, not as an end to itself. In order to address this issue, Grandjean suggested a convincing multi-level approach as a way to highlight patterns and abnormalities. He also approached critically the nature of the corpus itself: although letters are considered as an adequate material basis especially for intellectual networks, they still present bias when you consider for instance the case of multiple addressing vs. single addressing or the case of persons writing on behalf of others.

In the Section “Spacial dimensions of (Trade-)Networks”, Claire Lagesse (Paris Diderot University) presented a very different way of working with networks. Entitled “The Way and its Structuality as revealing the growth history of roads network” her project doesn’t focus on social networks like nearly all the other participants. Her research group tries to examine the evolution of the cities’ structure through time, especially concentrating on Paris and Manaus (Brazil). Extracting graphs based on historical and contemporary maps through geographical and mathematical methods, the research group explores road networks and the centrality of public places. Lagesse outlined the interdisciplinary approach which combines physics, sociology, town-planning and geomathematics. Thanks to this research, predictions will be possible that help to plan and improve the road network of a city. The project shows a very useful method of analyses, connecting sociological and geographical aspects.

In the Section “Personal Networks”, Lieve van Hoof (Ghent University) presented her project “Greek networks under the Roman Empire: The Letters of Libanius” working with SNA-methods. Based on approximately 1500 letters concerning the sophist Libanius (314-393 n. Chr.), van Hoof outlined a different image of him than is usually assumed in ‘conventional’ research. To accomplish this she used a combination of different software: She created a node list in Excel and worked with NodeXL, Gephi and CATMA to visualise her results. Especially through her intelligent combination of (traditional) qualitative and (digital) quantitative analysis of a large corpus, van Hoof aimed to outline Libanius’ lobbying activities and the way he uses letters – as well as contacts – to establish his own network position.

These examples are meant to suggest the richness and variety of approaches that were presented at the conference, but also the solidity of methods that become more and more accessible to researchers without a background in computer science. Next year’s conference should hence bring its lot of even more beautiful visualisations and hopefully new research questions – and new answers.

A. Baillot, E. Chaze, C. Hahn

Anne Baillot

I studied German Studies and Philosophy in Paris where I got my PhD in 2002. I then moved to Berlin, where I have been living & doing research ever since. My areas of specialty include German literature, Digital Humanities, textual scholarship and intellectual history. I am currently working at the Centre Marc Bloch in Berlin as an expert in digital technologies for the humanities.

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