Hurray for workshops!

methodsThe last few weeks of my professional life were nice and hectic, wouldn’t want it any other way of course. There were a lot of events that kept me and my friends quite busy and happy. Here is a short personal review of a few of these: Mathematics of Networks and The Connected Past workshop.

On Monday 16 September there was the Mathematics of Networks meeting in Southampton. This was another one of those excellent multi-disciplinary events that are so popular these days. You obviously don’t hear me complaining, I love these things. But however multi-disciplinary the event, there is always a stronger emphasis on one discipline and you never quite know which one it’s going to be. So in this case it was probably maths/stats. I very much felt like the token humanist offering some light entertainment after lunch. But the questions I and other social scientists got as well as all discussions made it clear that the audience was very much prepared to think about each others problems and provide answers from their respective experiences. What always surprises me is the ability of the more mathsy people among us to come up with algorithms to solve a humanities problem during pub discussions. Love that stuff! I was particularly interested to find out about Jake Shemming and Keith Briggs’ work on Anglo-Saxon communication networks and visibility networks. All slides can be found online.

The pub session of the Mathematics of Networks meeting quickly turned into a promising start for The Connected Past Workshop. Quite a few of the delegates and tutors managed to arrive the evening of the 16th for drinks and dinner, from about ten countries in fact, some as far away as the USA, Canada and Australia. That made me feel a bit nervous, I was really hoping everyone would get out of the workshop what they were expecting. Or even better, some new ideas or research directions they never thought of. As the two days of the workshop passed everything seemed to go smoothly (except for those tiny logistical mistakes that are totally useless but tend to dominate my mind). We had some great discussions, all the delegates and tutors were really switched on, knowledgeable and contributed from their own experiences. What we ended up with (and that was only partly planned) was a set of honest statements by scholars giving their own perspectives on network science in archaeology and history, guiding us through the decisions they made, and sharing their many mistakes and revelations with us. Sometimes it felt very much like being in an Overly Honest Methods meme! Which is great because every academic knows these things actually happen. The best we can do is be aware of them and be honest. And hopefully something useful will emerge at the other end. Many delegates were surprised that we did not sell Network Science as the new hot things to answer all our research questions. Rather the message seemed to be “if it offers the best approach to your research questions then use it, if not then ditch it”. And of course that is exactly how I see network science being useful in our disciplines. We need to be able to understand what it can do for us and evaluate whether it’s the tool we are looking for. No network science in archaeology just for the sake of it, it’s no science if it doesn’t offer anything unique. We decided we will do this workshop again, modified slightly thanks to all the feedback we got. See keep an eye out for future announcements!

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