HST6087: Before Facebook: Social Networks in History

HST6087 Image

15 credits (Semester 2018-19: Spring | Semester 2019-20: Spring)

Module Leader: Dr Kate Davison

Module Summary

"Social networks ... have been at the core of human society since we were hunters and gatherers" Charles Kadushin

In a world of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, social networks seem a distinctly modern phenomenon, but are they only a product of our digital age? This module explores historians' efforts to reconstruct social networks in diverse contexts, from the ancient to the modern world. Drawing upon techniques first developed by social scientists, and increasingly digital methods too, they have found networks of trade and business; religious groups and political exiles; family, friends and much more. This innovative work is revealing how far lives and communities cut across boundaries of time and space—with important consequences for historical debates and issues.

The module uses case studies of historical research to introduce you to how and why historians have sought to reconstruct past social networks: the theories and approaches that have guided their efforts, and the results of their findings. We will look at how social network analysis first developed in the social sciences, before considering how these techniques have been adopted and adapted by historians working in diverse fields and with different source material. We will also consider the new opportunities and challenges presented by historians' use of digital methods for network visualisation. The goal of the module is to equip you with the knowledge and techniques to identify and reconstruct social networks in your particular area of historical interest, while also encouraging critical discussion about the uses and limitations of social theory for historians.

Module aims

This module aims to:

  1. Introduce you to concepts, theories and methods of social network analysis in the social sciences; 
  2. Use case studies to introduce you to the ways in which historians have adopted and adapted social network theories and methods in their research; 
  3. Develop your capacity to handle theories and methods in historical research; 
  4. Develop your fluency of expression in speech and writing.

Learning outcomes

By the end of the module, you should be able to:

  1. Explain the origins and significance of social network analysis, and its use as a historical method (Aims 1, 2); 
  2. Demonstrate a critical awareness of the uses and limitations of social network analysis in historical research (Aims 2, 3); 
  3. Demonstrate knowledge of examples of historical research using network approaches (Aims 2, 3); 
  4. Demonstrate confidence in expressing ideas verbally, both in individual seminar contribution and group work (Aims 1, 2, 3, 4);
  5. Advance interpretations and supporting evidence in clear and persuasive prose. (Aims 1, 2, 3, 4).


Learning hours
Seminar hours Tutorial hours Independent Learning
10 1 139

The module will be taught in five, two hour classes. Seminars will provide you with an opportunity to discuss theoretical and methodological issues (A1, LO1, LO2), while also exploring historiography (A2, LO2, LO3). You will be expected to participate in class discussion and undertake independent research on the use of social network approaches in historical research, which you will be asked to share through informal discussion and (depending on numbers) group-led sections (A4, LO4). Some time in seminars will be given to considering host to turn the issues explored into strong written work (A4, LO5). You will, in addition, have individual tutorial contact with the module leader in order to discuss your written work for the module.



Assessment methods
Assessment % of final mark Length
Coursework 100% 3000 words

You will prepare a 3,000-word paper on a topic agreed with the tutor. The paper will be expected to draw critically on relevant secondary sources in exploring a historiographical debate of a new area of historical inquiry, and, if appropriate, will also involve scholarly analysis of primary sources (LOs 2, 3, 4).


Selected reading

  • Joanna Innes, ''Networks' in British History', East Asian Journal of British History, 5 (March 2016), pp. 51-72
  • Charles Kadushin, Understanding Social Networks: Theories, Concepts, and Findings (Oxford, 2012)
  • Charles Wetherell, 'Historical Social Network Analysis' in M. van der Linden and L J Griffin (eds), New Methods for Social History (Cambridge, 1999)



*The content of our courses is reviewed annually to make sure it's up-to-date and relevant. Individual modules are occasionally updated or withdrawn. This is in response to discoveries through our world-leading research; funding changes; professional accreditation requirements; student or employer feedback; outcomes of reviews; and variations in staff or student numbers. In the event of any change we'll consult and inform students in good time and take reasonable steps to minimise disruption.