Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency or Network Science? Let’s get our networky jargon right!

gentlyWe’ve all heard it before, people saying stuff like “everything’s connected to everything else”. Most often this phrase is used in the way Dirk Gently would use it in Douglas Adams’ novels. Dirk runs a ‘Holistic Detective Agency’ which means that what sets him apart from other more traditional detective agencies is that he solves crimes by figuring out how all people, things and events are related to each other. In practice, it means he has very few customers since this method can never be consistently applied within an acceptable time limit. In the end Dirk is always reliant on dumb luck to solve his cases, although he backs his decisions up with pseudo-scientific jargony nonsense.

Network scientists including archaeologists and historians rarely talk like Dirk Gently-style detectives (I believe anything between Sherlock Holmes and Poirot best describes the range of fictitious detective analogies for us applying networks to figure out the past, I’m on the Poirot side if you’re wondering). They are more specific in their description of how things are interrelated, thanks to their use of network science concepts: arcs, edges, actors, nodes, centrality, cliques, path length, etc. This sadly does not mean that these academics make themselves any more understandable to their audiences than Dirk Gently does, just because they happen to use jargon usefully and consistently.

When talking to network scientists you really need a dictionary at hand. I often catch myself assuming that many terms like, closeness centrality or ego-network, which have very specific formal definitions are widely known or at least intuitively understandable. It turns out this is definitely not the case: assuming jargon is widely known leads to bad communication, assuming it is intuitively understandable leads to no communication at best and bad science at worst. This issue is particularly problematic for us network scientists who try to contribute to archaeology or history, disciplines where network jargon is entirely unknown.

I am delighted that we are finally starting to overcome this issue. Archaeologists and historians: your networky dictionary has arrived! A while ago we published a special issue of Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory on archaeological network science. Because so many network science concepts were used over and over again in each paper of this issue, we decided to write a network science glossary. You can find this  network science glossary on the Tutorials and Resources page of this blog as well as in the original paper. The glossary was written with an audience of archaeologists and historians in mind. It provides unambiguous non-technical explanations of key concepts as well as a number of examples. All of us who worked on it really hope this will help archaeologists and historians in particular to start critically engaging with all the amazing new work that’s appearing, and to produce some of it themselves.

Check out the network science glossary on the Tutorials and Resources page of this blog.

It was first published as part of the introduction to our special issue of Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory on archaeological network science.

Please cite the glossary as follows:

Collar, A., Coward, F., Brughmans, T., & Mills, B. J. (2015). Networks in Archaeology: Phenomena, Abstraction, Representation. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, 22, 1–32. doi:10.1007/s10816-014-9235-6


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