Review of Malkin’s A Small Greek World published

9780199734818_450The end of 2011 for me was marked by the publication of two new networky books. The first one was Knappett’s An Archaeology of Interaction, which I reviewed for Antiquity (and I wrote a more in-depth review on this blog). The second one was Irad Malkin’s A Small Greek World, my review of which finally appeared in the journal Classical Review. You can access it on the journal’s website, download it from my bibliography page or read it here.

IRAD MALKIN. A small Greek world. Networks in the ancient Mediterranean. xix+251 pages, 18 illustrations. 2011. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 978-0-19-973481-8 hardback $60.

History books too often read like a series of unconnected events, dates, places and people, the sum of which is considered the historical narrative. In ‘A Small Greek World’ Irad Malkin does the exact opposite by focusing on the ties that bind and give meaning to historically attested entities. The reader is taken on a guided tour through the web of countless historical relationships between people, places and cultural practices in the Archaic Mediterranean and Black Sea. One is invited to explore this “Greek Wide Web” as a set of nodes and links to appreciate its small-world network structure and how long-distance links were instrumental to the emergence of “Greek civilization as we know it” (p. 5). At least, this is the hypothesis Malkin advocates in his latest book.

The introductory chapter sets out Malkin’s network perspective, which forms the book’s main innovative contribution to the study of ancient history (mainly due to an adoption of concepts from physics), which is why this review will be largely concerned with evaluating this aspect of the book. Malkin adopted the concept of small-world networks from two physicists, Duncan Watts and Steven Strogatz, who use the term to refer to a range of networks with a high degree of local clustering and a low average shortest path length. This means that although nodes are largely only connected to nodes within their cluster, every so often a link appears that bridges the gap between clusters and facilitates the flow of material or immaterial resources between clusters. Malkin was also influenced by two other physicists, Albert-László Barabási and Réka Albert, who coined the term scale-free networks for networks that exhibit a power-law distribution in the number of their nodes’ links. For the creation of this type of network structure, Barabási and Albert suggested a process of preferential attachment in which nodes are continually added to the network and preferentially create links with nodes that are already well connected, thus giving rise to super-connected hubs. In this book Malkin argues that during the Archaic period people and places around the Mediterranean and Black Sea were connected in a way that resembled a small-world structure, driven by processes of preferential attachment. Malkin stresses throughout the book that it was the long-distance links and decentralization of the small Greek world that facilitated the emergence of what he calls Greek civilization.

These network ideas are not expressed and validated in a quantitative manner, however, since historians of antiquity are considered not to possess enough data to identify such patterns and processes with any statistical significance (pp. 19, 25). Instead, Malkin takes a qualitative approach by adopting the vocabulary of network science, and the key features of small-world and scale-free network models in particular, and applies it to a series of historical examples in chapters two to six. Regardless of this, Malkin does consider his qualitative network perspective more than a mere description of the historical Greek network and stresses the explanatory value of his approach. The aims of the book are therefore twofold: to point out networks and processes of network formation through numerous examples, and the interpretation of the implications of describing structures and processes using a formal network vocabulary.

Chapters two and three illustrate reverse processes of the emergence of identity (as identified by Malkin through abstract as well as concrete historical examples) through networks. In chapter two the Rhodians’ dispersal overseas is seen as the reason for the consolidation of the island identity of Rhodes. Chapter three turns this process on its head by arguing for the emergence of the Sikeliôtai identity of Greeks from all over converging in Sicily. The altar of Apollo Archêgetês, only accessible to the Greek residents of Sicily, is considered the earliest expression of this ‘Greeks away from home’ identity. Chapter four brings Herakles the Greek and Melqart the Phoenician to the stage as examples of the existence of mythical and cultic networks, facilitating coexistence and peaceful mediation as well as justifying antagonism between ethnic groups. Malkin continues his series of example networks by focusing on the Phokaian network in the western Mediterranean in chapters five and six. Most interestingly, the evolution of this network is seen as changing from a many-to-many structure to one consisting of local clusters dominated by hubs with long-distance links, giving the example of Massalia and the coastal zone in southern France (described as a middle ground). In chapter six Malkin explores the similarities in cults (Artemis of Ephesos) and institutions (nomima) of the Phokaian network, which are considered to express the Phokaian’s self-perception. The concluding chapter rephrases many of the examples into a rich description of Malkin’s small Greek world hypothesis, which shows strong similarities to his previous work on the emergence of Greek identity but now seen from a network standpoint.

The sheer number of examples and the detail to which they are described makes the book’s narrative difficult to follow in places. Indeed, for most chapters the approach taken and crux of the argument are not clearly stated in the introduction and conclusions. At times this leads one to loose track of the bigger picture and the general aim of the book. The figures are of high quality although they are limited (with the exception of chapter one) to maps indicating the places mentioned in the text.

The descriptive first aim of the book is definitely achieved, through the identification of historical links, networks and problems that are better served by a networks approach. The second aim of interpreting the implications of the network perspective is very thorough as far as the description of the small world hypothesis is concerned. In this reviewer’s opinion, however, it does seem underrepresented in one important respect: the absence of convincing argumentation why the emergent property that is “Greek civilization” could not have emerged on a “Greek Wide Web” with a structure other than the hypothetically identified small-world. Malkin’s discussion of the alternative network structures advocated by Braudel (pp. 42-44), Horden and Purcell (pp. 44-45), and Jean-Paul Morel (p. 153) does not give the impression that the likeliness of his hypothesis is any greater. On the other hand, Malkin rightly argues that dynamic network processes add explanatory power to these structures, and he illustrates this throughout the book for his own hypothesis. Malkin seems to be very aware of this issue when stressing that “The identification of connections and particular networks falls within the historian’s search for ‘what was there’ (the factual, or the truth level); the suggestion that network dynamics forms the Greek ‘small world’ is by contrast an interpretation, but to my mind it is one that has a high probability of being right” (p. 207). Yet the book too often reads like a summing up of historically attested ties in a one-to-one relationship with complex network concepts that are by no means exclusive to small-worlds (e.g. emergence, self-organization, hubs, fractal patterning, preferential attachment, decentralization, multi-directionality, phase transitions, clustering) to allow for disregarding alternative network structures out of hand. The innovative network perspective is also only to a limited degree utilised to revisit concepts like ethnicity, Greek civilization, and identity. It is a new hypothesis that focuses largely on explaining past processes of emergence from given states.

Malkin, therefore, piles up evidence for his hypothesis to create the fascinating concept of the small Greek world, which will no doubt prove a rich and useful perspective for future research. However, he does not increase its credibility through falsifying other possible structural incarnations of this network approach. ‘A Small Greek World’ illustrates the potential of a network perspective for understanding the emergence of Greek culture and identities (concepts that themselves are by no means less ambiguous than the ‘small Greek world’ hypothesis), but it is really only a starting point that requires further formalisation and explicit confrontation with the implications of alternative hypothetical network structures.

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