Closing the Net: Letter Collections & Quantitative Network Analysis

It seems as if everyone these days is talking about networks. The word ‘network’ has its origins, as one might expect, in net making, describing the weaving of materials such as threads or wires. Now, more often, it is used metaphorically to denote various kinds of complex systems of interrelated things, from telecommunications routes and computer networks, to neural pathways and biological regulatory networks, ecological systems and social networks. More specifically, ‘complex networks’ describes a burgeoning field of study: despite the hugely divergent nature of different networks listed above – and, indeed the differing scholarly fields within which they are normally studied – a series of key publications in the 1990s and early 2000s showed that complex systems like these share an underlying order and follow simple laws, and therefore can be analyzed using the same mathematical tools and models. This paper seeks to explore what these methods offer to the humanities. It will provide an introduction to the methods and measures employed in network analysis, highlighting algorithms particularly useful for social network analysis, using two separate bodies of early modern letters as a means of illustration. As such, then, this is a paper about methods rather than findings, and its ultimate aim is to show that network analysis provides a realistic way of reconstructing and analyzing the movement of people, objects, and ideas.

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Digital Day of Ideas | College of Humanities & Social Science | The University of Edinburgh

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