(Many thanks to Roey Sweet (University of Leicester) for sending a post summarising the thought-provoking reflections that she presented in the roundtable session on the network metaphor at the ‘Institutions as Networks’ workshop.)

My own research is on antiquaries and the Society of Antiquaries during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  Like many other scholars, I suspect, I’ve been accustomed to think loosely about antiquaries as forming part of a network of individuals and, to a lesser degree, a network of corresponding societies around a metropolitan hub in the nineteenth century.   The papers given during the workshop prompted me to think rather harder about the network metaphor and how we apply it to institutions of literature.

The original Society of Antiquaries  evolved from a ‘network’ of like-minded men, drawn from the middle classes as well as the aristocracy who used to meet in local taverns and coffee houses: the network was one of personal contact and epistolary communication – like so many others of the period – but at what point did it become an institution?  Was it in 1707 when Humfrey Wanley (above) first started to keep minutes of their meetings, or in 1717 when continuous records of the Society began, or in 1753 when they acquired their charter of incorporation, or even in 1780 when they moved to formal premises in Somerset House?   Can an institution be a network, or does the network metaphor convey a flexibility, a transience, a mutability that the formalised structures of an institution negate?   But if the institution itself is not a network, is it helpful to think of networks within the institution?  The Society of Antiquaries, for example,  was riven by internal conflicts in the 1790s – there was a ‘network’ of individuals, most but not all of whom were FSAs, around Richard Gough and John Carter who had a vision for a more interventionist role for the Society with greater emphasis upon national (gothic) antiquities;  similarly in the 1820s and 30s when  resentment against the inertia and ossification of the Society was increasing, another ‘network’ of more energetic antiquaries emerged, a number of whom broke away to form themselves into an institution (or rather two, as the  British Archaeological Association split from the Royal Archaeological Institute in 1845).  In these cases, the interesting angle seems to be the relationship between the creation of the informal network and the challenge to the formal structures of power within the Society.

The informal exercise of power and influence is one of the reasons why historians are particularly drawn to networks.  But in addition to thinking about who belonged to these networks, it is equally important to think critically about who was excluded.   A network connects certain points or individuals but leaves many unconnected, and the implications for those who are left out also need to be considered.  The most obvious exclusion which came out of the workshop was women: almost every network discussed, certainly in the eighteenth century and to a lesser degree in the nineteenth century, was one of men.  If we are to argue that a network is distinct from the institution (which in most cases explicitly excluded women) it opens up the possibility for the inclusion of women – but nonetheless they remain largely invisible in the archival record.  This is not a problem unique to studying networks, of course.  Take the daughter of the antiquary Philip Morant, for example, who was regularly mentioned in her father’s letters, collected coins, transcribed documents, clearly knew many of her father’s antiquarian friends and married another antiquary, Thomas Astle: there could be a case for arguing that she was part of an antiquarian network in terms of common interests, personal contacts and correspondence.  However, her male peers would have been unlikely to think of her as part of their circle of connections.  There is a difference, then, between tracing the connections or networks which individuals in the past actively acknowledged and were aware of and in tracing connections and labelling them as ‘networks’ with historical hindsight.

This made me think about how contemporaries conceptualised such relationships.  ‘Network’ was not a common word in the eighteenth century, and was generally used as a descriptor: network as in a netted purse or a mesh; or a network of veins or nerves.  It did not carry the connotations of connectivity which it has acquired in the modern era.  Different metaphors were used instead – the human body, the great chain of Being, or, in the case of Erasmus Darwin in his address to the Derby Philosophical Society, the ‘band of Wampum’ or ‘chain of concord’.  The concept of a dynamic network which can be mapped is a product of modernity – of electricity and railways, of gas mains and sewers.   Modern technology facilitated the operation of networks (through travel, through the postal system) as well as providing tangible and visible instantiations.  As Laura Forsberg’s paper showed, nineteenth-century devotees of microscopy were aware of themselves as part of a network, connected by post, which could be visualised on a map (but again, as her paper also demonstrated, these printed realisations of the network are equally interesting for their exclusions).

Discussion of networks has greatly increased since the advent of Actor Network Theory (ANT) and arguably this is another area where historians (as they so often do) have simply appropriated the language rather than engaging systematically with the concept.  But equally the concept of the network preceded Bruno Latour and it is perfectly legitimate to deploy the metaphor without subscribing to all that ANT entails.  We do, however, need to think harder about what work the network metaphor is doing when we apply it and exercise a greater degree of reflexivity in its use.  Do we assume that individuals in the past were aware of belonging to a network or is this a relationship that we as historians project back upon individuals who were aware only of corresponding with fellow enthusiasts or meeting once a week to discuss a literary paper?  Is there a danger of assuming a degree of connectivity that was simply not felt at the time?  The tendency to visualise networks in the form of arrows, Venn diagrams and heat spots, greatly facilitated by the advent of digital humanities, creates a fixity and permanence that never existed and endows tentative relationships with unwarranted certainty.