I have no idea what you’re talking about, but it sounds fascinating: A Case for Methodology-Based Conferences

In an age of increasing specialisation, it is sometimes easy to feel lost in the sea of case studies, chronological enclaves and geographic isolates that are so often the norm at mega-conferences. Indeed, even at society-based conferences, which ostensibly have a common theme throughout, it is all-too-common to be placed on a panel in which the speakers have only the vaguest thematic or evidentiary links, and it is all-too-common to feel frustrated by this turn of events. I have more than once felt like grabbing the programme organiser by the shoulders and shouting ‘Did you even read our abstracts?’

Having organised several events myself, I know that they did, but it’s usually just not possible to sort 20, 50 or 100 individual papers into 5, 12 or 25 coherent panels. That’s just the way the cookie crumbles. But it is still frustrating.

When I began to organise ‘Numbers are your Friends‘ this summer, I knew I was running a terrible risk. I had been to a few workshops where a methodology was the central theme, but these were usually practical in nature and only a few hours long. I was planning a seven-hour event comprised of 2 ‘theory’ sessions followed by 7 case studies on the use of network science in historical research. Besides the use of network theory, these seven papers had absolutely nothing in common. At all.

They included:

  • An Introduction to Network Theory: Concepts and Methodologies
    Thomas House (Warwick Mathematics Institute, University of Warwick)
  • Counters Don’t Think and Thinkers Don’t Count? Different Ways of Accessing Network Data
    Edmund Chattoe-Brown (Department of Sociology, University of Leicester)
  • A Network of Wife-givers and Wife-takers:Exploring Babylonian Marriage Practice through Social Network AnalysisBastian Still (University College London)
  • The medieval peasantry and social network analysisDavid Postles (Centre for English Local History, University of Leicester, Emeritus)
  • Economic Networks in 15th century FlorenceHelen Roberts (Department of Economic, University of Warwick)
  • Social and economic network between merchants and peasants 1755 ‐ 1772Søren K. Poder (Aarhus City Archives)
  • A Network Approach to Book-Trade HistoryJohn Hinks (Centre for Urban History, University of Leicester)
  • Plagiarising Presses: Georgian Information Networks in Scotland’s Imperial News
    Melodee Beals (School of Comparative American Studies, University of Warwick)
  • Networks of Commerce and Christianity: Two Afro-Atlantic Lives
    Bronwen Everill (Global History and Culture Centre, University of Warwick)

As you can see, they ranged chronologically from the ancient until the modern and geographically from America to Assyria, Scotland to Sierra Leone. Moreover, there were economists, mathematicians, sociologists and archivists intermingling with historians. Was this ever going to work?

The short answer is, yes. It worked wonderfully. And the reason it worked is that we simply weren’t looking for content similarities to begin with.

Not only did the speakers have little in common except the use, or intended use, of Social Network Analysis, the audience was generally uninitiated to the very idea of SNA, let alone the contexts of the seven case studies presented in the afternoon. But this did not seem to matter. The two morning speakers, the wonderfully knowledgeable and accessible Drs House and Chattoe-Brown, provided an excellent primer to the purpose, use and limitations of SNA in qualitative and quantitative research. This, in turn, provided enough background for the audience to engage with the afternoon papers, exploring the manifold ways and manifold situations in which network theory could be used to augment historical research.

I had been very worried about using a methodology as a unifying theme for a historical conference. Academics are often deterred from attending conferences that are not very closely related to their subject speciality as they have only limited resources, time and money, to attend professional events. And yet, in addition to the 9 speakers, we had over two dozen delegates from throughout the Midlands and London (and even one brave postgraduate from Scotland), which brought the room to the limits of its comfortable occupancy.

Moreover, the MA and Ph.D. students in attendance were particularly pleased about the interdisciplinary nature of the event. Many, especially those with cognate links outside history, such as historians of medicine or economic historians, had been feeling very much cut off from their cognate colleagues. Thomas House’s experience in epidemiology and Helen Roberts and Søren Poder’s analyses of quantitative economic realities, helped reconnect them to world they were studying.

Moreover, Edmund Chattoe-Brown’s exploration of Lady Mary Wortley’s letters, and the use of SNA in such seemingly data-deprived fields as medieval demography and Babylonian marriage by David Postles and Bastian Still, reassured listeners that they, too, could find the numbers they needed to make SNA a useful tool.

As I nervously poured over my 30-something feedback forms on the train home from the workshop, I was delighted to see that I had received 100% positive feedback, something I had never seen before. No one even complained about the catering or lighting, two constants in any organiser’s life. The only complaint, if it can be rightly be called one, was the desire for an additional day to be planned to offer sessions on the use of SNA software.

Despite the blush-inducing praise from my colleagues (which I was too exhausted to properly acknowledge at the time) there were, of course, some pitfalls to the day, which should not be glossed over.

First, it may be useful to have speakers develop a unified view of purpose of their case-studies before they are drafted. About half the papers focused upon their actual research project, interweaving social network theory into their narrative, while others spent their time explaining how they had use SNA explicitly. Some, including myself, found this variety refreshing, but others had wished certain papers to be more balanced or to shift their focus from one extreme to another. You can’t please everyone, but making sure there is a method to the madness will stave off confusion and complaints.

Second, a brief overview of the requisite technology may not be out of place. SNA is tricky because obtaining a sufficient level of competency with the software can take days if not weeks to develop. Moreover, many of the analytical tools require experts in network theory and advanced mathematics to successfully employ. Nonetheless, even a basic primer would have set many minds to rest.

Finally, a written explanation of ‘Where to go for more information’ will save many from feeling lost at the end of the day.

Nevertheless, the level of support I received from speakers before the event, and the praise and hopeful requests for further workshops I received from delegates, make me confident in recommending methodology-based symposia to other organisers. Learning from those outside your specialism can be supremely beneficial, and this sort of conference allows us the luxury, without the need for too much justification, to dip our toe outside our comfort zone.

A full conference proceedings is currently being drafted and will be available via the University of Warwick shortly. In the interim, I would like to thank all the speakers, and our sponsors at the Centre for Global History and Culture and the Learning Development Centre, for allowing me the opportunity to hold this workshop. I cannot thank you enough for your generosity and support.

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