Early Modern Post

The problem with the history of news?

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Early modern news networks: workshop in Venice.

A couple of weeks ago, I went to a fascinating workshop on early modern news networks. If you’re wondering what ‘news networks’ actually means, or you’re interested in news history and are annoyed you weren’t there, read on and I’ll try to give a sense of (in this post) one of the discussions that filled the three days.[1]

The workshop was part of the Leverhulme Trust-funded project ‘News Networks in Early Modern Europe’, which has brought together five leading scholars from around Europe, and many other guests and associates, in order to re-think the history of news. The project will result in co-authored volumes of essays, and is culminating in a 3-day symposium in London in July.

I’m actually going to start in the middle, with the final paper of the second day, because this paper goes some way to explaining the larger project; why it’s needed and what it’s trying to achieve. Professor Joad Raymond delivered this one, entitled: ‘News Networks: putting the ‘news’ and the ‘networks’ back in’ – so you can see why it’s a good place to start.

What the Victorians did to us[2]

Taking a British (or rather English/Welsh) perspective, Professor Raymond first discussed how we got to where we got to where we are, historiographically, by taking us through the legacy left to us by Victorian historians. He suggested that ever since, this narrative has only ever been expanded on and added to in terms of detail; the shape of it hasn’t really been questioned, let alone rewritten. It is this rewriting of the whole narrative that Joad wanted to spur us to think about.

He qualified this with the recognition that some of the Victorian ideas of newspaper history not only still stand but remain significant and valuable. Further, he stressed that of course much important and influential work has been done to add to and affect the development of this narrative of the history of news; it’s just that he sees this as still being held within the grand Victorian narrative.
He listed some of these key influences (though you’ll have to forgive the imperfection of memory):

  • great bibliographic resources that have supported the historiography. He was primarily referring to the Wing STC, which makes life so much easier for British historians.
  • Roger Chartier, and theories of books and texts
  • microeconomics
  • the history of reading, as a field. Here he was thinking about the analysis of material marks, and attention to demography and literacy rates, replacing the assumption of an implied reader.
  • the growth in interdisciplinary research. Thinking about history, bibliography, politics, literature, sociology, manuscript studies, the linguistic turn, social history and orality, anthropology, even maths…

The point is that despite all this great work and new influence, we still haven’t moved past the Victorian legacy. A big part of the blinkered-ness of the current picture is that it is at its core nationalistic – and this problem is not confined to the British perspective, rather it is persistent in the writing of the history of news everywhere. The perseverance of ‘residual national interests’ is something that the News Networks in Early Modern Europe project explicitly works to overcome. National interest and national focus are often so deeply rooted that they silently constrain the rewriting of this history; a pan-European perspective could change this.

But, he offered, how do you know when you need a whole new narrative? And, if the grand nation-based story is replaced with an appreciation of the many details of different histories, can you ever form an encompassing narrative: or put another way, how many case studies make a big picture?

Network Theory

Those were two big questions. For now, however, Joad was going to spend an hour or two shaking the Victorian narrative up with a little maths and IT from the 21st century. My maths AS-level reared up in my memory, ready to screw its brow and try to remember that graphs and equations are not the enemy. This was Network Theory.[3]

Kevin Bacon - centre of the universe

Kevin Bacon – centre of the universe

Networks have become rather fashionable in history and early modern studies of late. And as with any sexy new idea, there have been variations in what it is understood to mean, accusations of misuse, and accusations that it’s just another fancy word for something we essentially did before. In this context, as well as being a way to describe a connected bunch of people, the term network also has more complex theoretical and mathematical meanings, and this is what Joad wanted to recognise in his paper.

Network theory can show us when a group of connections is not random, as it might first appear, but actually is organised. Nodes, points in the network, have connections, or edges, and if a node has many connections it is a hub, i.e. a key point through which many others are connected (the Kevin Bacon of the network theory world). When a small number of nodes in a network have many of the connections, and a large number have very few, the pattern displayed is something called a ‘power law’. This is that all important sign of self-organisation, rather than randomness; and guess what – early modern news networks would seem to present this pattern.

Power Law distribution

Power Law distribution

So, the implication is that early modern news networks are self-organising. A key aspect of this is the importance of hubs in the networks of postal routes: places like the economic and mercantile centre of Antwerp, a city connected to so many others by virtue of this status. Hubs, being helpful connectors, make the world smaller: connectivity is the thing that means that letters can travel more quickly, even to the extent that the connections in the postal network(s) can be more important than geographical distance in determining how fast a letter could travel from A to B. Mapping the routes by which a letter could travel across early modern Europe, and the connections between all these places, can give us fresh insight into the history of news: it can identify hubs, and can respond to and reflect the changes in the relationships between different cities and countries.

This way of viewing Europe, as a series of interconnected points in a network, can be useful, but one could question how far people on the ground actually abided by the logic of the network that they’re part of; by its nature they can’t see the whole structure and so may not perceive the most direct route. It would appear, however, that skilled and experienced individuals (as the writers of newsletters were) often did seem to navigate the network with impressive ability and knowledge.

Joad suggested that network theory can defamiliarise our evidence, so we can look at the world anew: we can finally see the wood for the trees.

This was an important gain in the context of his earlier comments. He questioned the approach that he saw much recent research undertaking, that is, a case studies approach, asking what we needed to do with the case studies we had in order to create the bigger picture. Can they be joined up, or compared, or used as representative of something beyond themselves: at the end of the day, will they add up to what we want them to?

In the question time afterward, the case study was defended: Professor Carmen Espejo commented that one should see the approach as microhistory rather than ‘case study’, and that the aim was to find symptoms rather than singularities. Discussion moved to what modern technology could offer, with Professor Paul Arblaster commenting on the potential that large data sets present – historians and large archival projects often have the data; what we need to do is utilise the technology in order to reveal the patterns.

A collaborative sketch of European news networks from a previous meeting – perhaps man and machine together is the way forward!

I don’t have the space here to report all the responses, but invite you to add your own thoughts in the comments section. I think there’s a risk sometimes of the assumption being made too readily that a computerised element can be added to a historical project, that number-crunching is straight-forward or that programming or data analysis just happens. I wonder also whether complicated network analysis, with its time-consuming IT requirements, wouldn’t end up confirming what we as historians and scholars have already determined: isn’t the human element – our ability to assimilate large amounts of data and identify patterns and networks – always going to be better than machine? Saying that, there’s no denying the huge promise of this kind of approach, and personally I think it has an important role and could refresh the larger picture, providing that we don’t see the digital as panacea.

Does network theory offer a way to find a new and encompassing narrative to explain the history of news? I don’t know, but the subject sparked a lot of debate, with champions and sceptics, and that space of debate seemed an excellent place to start.

In the next blog post, I will return to the beginning, and cover some of the papers delivered by other members of the group, ranging from censorship to privileges, manuscript versus print, and Roman cardinals who like a good party.


[1] My post doesn’t aim to be exhaustive, so to see an excellent recap of the day you can check out the official blog of the project, here. Instead of giving a run down of everything, I’m going to pick out one paper in this post, and discuss a few of the others a little more briefly in the next.

[2] If you’re thinking this is a catchy title, you’re right – but I should point out that it isn’t mine: it’s taken from a panel title from CELL’s Permissive Archive conference in November 2012 (see my previous posts), and was thought up by the talented Helen Graham-Matheson (@helenjgm). Thanks, Helen!

[3] Important disclaimer! I’m far from an expert on network theory, so these are my musings rising from scribbled notes during Joad’s paper; any errors are most likely mine, from misunderstanding, misremembering, or misreading aforementioned scribbles.

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3 thoughts on “The problem with the history of news?

  1. Thanks for the report!
    As someone working on a news network case study, I must insist that these remain important. But at the same time, I think there are beginning to be enough of them for some macro-level observations to be made by those who have the knack. ..I was browsing Braudel sometime, who basically said microstudies of the kind what I was/am working on don’t tell us anything new. I think this ties in with concerns of whether data-crunching can reveal anything “we don’t already know”. As an erstwhile data-cruncher, I can say that yes of course it can. And that’s rather the point. But this is not to say that there can’t be negative results – there may be no signal in the noise, and it is all too easy to ask the wrong questions (although there are data-driven approaches too, which allow the data to reveal correlations).
    I’d be interested in seeing how a network analysis would correlate with geographical data – do nodes become hubs because the connection is good, or do connections become good because nodes turn into hubs? My instinct says both, but it’s not something I’d bet money on – I’d rather wait and see what the number-crunching reveals!

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