CAA 2011 networks session introduction

Next Thursday I will chair a session on critical network analysis approaches in archaeology at CAA 2011 in Beijing. I made a new page on this blog dedicated to this session. Beijing is pretty far away, I know. That’s why I made this page, so you can stay up to date and in touch. Don’t hesitate to start discussions about the session on this page. It includes the session abstracts, contributors and reviews of the talks, once I’ve written them that is.

It also includes my introduction to the session, which I have pre-published here:

“Relationships matter. They did in the past and they do in the present. If we want to understand the structure of our datasets, the particular actions of past individuals, or the properties of past large-scale processes, the explicit study of relationships is crucial. And this can be done through a networks perspective.

In recent years the network as a research perspective and as a set of analytical techniques has become more popular in archaeology. This thanks to the work of people like Carl Knappett, Tim Evans, Ray Rivers, Fiona Coward, Clive Gamble, Shawn Graham, Leif Isaksen, Alexander Bentley, Herbert Maschner, Stephen Shennan, Cyprian Broodbank, Jessica Munson, Martha Macri, Koji Mizoguchi, Søren Sindbæk, and others. These archaeological applications have been influenced by a similar rise in the cultural anthropological and historical work of scholars like Irad Malkin, Anna Collar, John Terrell, Johannes Preiser-Kapeller, John Padgett, Paul McLean, Paul Ormerod, Andrew Roach and Christopher Ansell.

The network is a research perspective, if anything. It is not a homogeneous method as titles like ‘social network analysis’ suggest. Rather, it should be seen as a set of ideas, techniques and applications sharing some key assumptions. A first assumption states that the relationships between entities (like people, objects or ideas) matter and that these should be examined if we are to understand the behaviour of these entities. The importance of relationships implies a second assumption: the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Through the interactions of entities collective behaviour emerges that cannot be understood merely through the study of entities in isolation.
Network analysis provides a scientific framework to examine relationships and their effects directly. It allows archaeologists to bridge the gap between the reductionist study of parts and the constructionist study of the related whole as Bentley and Maschner put it (2003, 1). These allow for two main fields of applications in archaeology: exploring complex datasets in data-rich environments and examining past complex systems.

Two scientific traditions have been particularly influential to archaeologists. Firstly, social network analysis, which focuses exclusively on social entities. Secondly, complex networks in physics, or what has been termed as the “new” science of networks. Archaeologists cannot adopt network techniques and applications from these traditions directly and uncritically, however. The nature of archaeological data makes the direct identification of social entities, like past individuals and communities, and how they related problematic. Similarly, archaeological data, which are typically material reflections of particular actions performed by individuals or groups of individuals, force archaeological attempts of identifying emergent self-organising properties in past complex systems to be rooted in individual-level data.

This session aims at confronting such issues. I am delighted that so many scholars from different disciplines with original applications of a networks research perspective have answered to the call for papers. It is hoped that confronting these diverse applications will reveal the issues as well as the potential of networks in archaeology. I sincerely hope that this session will give rise to multi-disciplinary discussions and collaboration. This is a necessity if we want to take our work beyond the current generation of network-based approaches, if we want to do more than the mere identification and description of emergent-properties or the structure of connectivity. Rather, we should aim to think through a networks research perspective, to acknowledge the implications of imposing the ‘network’ as a modern concept on past phenomena, and to explain the identified structures through re-contextualisation, the confrontation of the local with the global and explicit archaeological reasoning and data critique.”

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