June 6, 2012
by Kenneth Weisbrode
A frequent criticism of the prosopographical approach, at least as it is applied to modern history, is that it lacks an argument. Pick a group of individuals, trace their networks, elaborate their points of contact and association, and so on, and what are you left with? A fuller characterization, to be sure, but what else? What does a network analysis really tell us other than that a network exists? This is similar to the charge leveled against much of sociography: that it tells only part of a story and only provides part of a study. What did these people think and do? Why are they and their actions significant? And what does the understanding of their network tell us that we don’t already know about their life and times?
These are all fair questions. Yet there comes a point at which sociography does blend into ontology. That is, in knowing much more about how some people operated—especially at the level of high politics, though often behind the scenes, as they like to say—we come to reconceptualize and possibly even overturn notions of why some events occurred. One common result is a stronger appreciation for the continuities of international relations, since networks and the principles, norms and ideas they generate tend to last beyond particular events, even crises. A study of nurses and nursing education in the 20th century, or of architects, for example, may challenge the before-and-after cleavages of the century’s wars and politics. Styles, patterns and such things persist and evolve following related but not necessarily identical, chronologies. They affect and are affected by ‘larger’ continuities and changes but suffer at the hands of both narrative and structural historians. If anything, prosopography reminds us that argumentation follows a particular methodology, not the other way around. We need not necessarily invent new methodologies to follow alternative arguments, unless there are important, deductive reasons for doing so. For now it helps to be reminded that network analysis, despite its novelty among modern historians, need not be mere social mapmaking.