Working with Networks
Scott Weingart’s “Demystifying Networks” serves as a great, easy-to-read introduction to Network Theory and Network graphing. Network theory, as Weingart notes, is a growing interest for many scholars– especially art historians! He defines Network Theory/Studies as such:
Generally, network studies are made under the assumption that neither the stuff nor the relationships are the whole story on their own. If you’re studying something with networks, odds are you’re doing so because you think the objects of your study are interdependent rather than independent. Representing information as a network implicitly suggests not only that connections matter, but that they are required to understand whatever’s going on.Scott Weingart
I find his last point to be key– that relations between people, objects, places, concepts, etc are necessary to understand a complete context (story). For art history, I think this makes sense– in fact you could argue that network theory is woven into the foundation of the discipline (art, after all, doesn’t exist in a vacuum, but rather in many networks– private and public, local and global, etc. My point is not to argue that Art History is a form of network studies, but rather use this idea to say that Network Theory is definitely a viable and at times lucrative tool to art historical scholarship.
So how does this translate into Digital Art History? The rest of Weingart’s article describes and explains the ways one can graph networks– that is, turn the idea of a network into a visual. He outlines the many parts of a network and how they can split into different forms (ig. nodes can have two parts, bimodal). He gives some (very basic) examples of what a graphed network might look like, which I think help to reinforce his description. But when looking at these graphs, I think back to his explanation of Network Theory– “Representing information as a network implicitly suggests not only that connections matter, but that they are required to understand whatever’s going on.” Nodes can be connected with lines, symbolizing an interaction. But do these lines necessarily communicate the necessity of that interaction? Take his example:
This network graphs the relationships between Authors and Books, with the lines indicating that the Book (teal) was written by the Author (red). Again, this is a basic graph to serve as an educational model, but the question still applies– is it necessary? Do we need Network Theory to understand the relationship between an author and his books? Not really. Furthermore, is this a network in which we must understand the connections (the lines) to understand the author and or the book? Of course, books wouldn’t exist without authors, but I think the point here is that the network is not producing anything new about the book, the author, or the relationship between the two. We don’t need a visualization like this to know that a book was written by an author.
In fact, Weingart warns us of blindly applying network theory and visualizations to our research, what he calls methodology appropriation. He cautions us to be mindful about when it is best to apply network methodology to our work and critical in evaluating its usefulness. A fancy graph might look cool in your publication, but could be superfluous.
This leaves me with some questions: How can art historians train their critical eye to know when and when not to graph a network? With a strong push for data visualization, it might seem oh-so-appealing to supplement your text with a network graph, but how can we learn when this is actually the wrong move? Furthermore, how can we begin to reimagine network visualizations to communicate the dependency of networks– not just that relationships exist, but that they are necessary to understand the two (or more) parts/nodes. Lines just don’t seem to work, in my opinion. But what will? All in all, I am for network theory and graphing as a method to art historical scholarship, but believe that there is still room for improvement.
Scott Weingart, “Demystifying Networks”, http://scottbot.net/lets-talk-about-networks/