Nets at Work: Representing Connection in History Symposium

October 13-15, 2017, Renmin University of China, Beijing

Even though the information age in which we are living has already been called the network society, it is still difficult for us to answer what was motivated the application of the 16th century word “network” in this modern society and cultural analysis. When John Barnes left Manchester for a fishing village in Norway to accomplish his rite of passage (field research), what after all inspired him to create such a figurative but also visualized jargon and means of analysis? Although we may demarcate the possible intellectual origins and academic lineage of John Barnes, i.e. Gestalt and structural functionalism, such clear theoretic and intellectual route fails to fill the gap of visuality when we compare the two theories with the figurative model of network.

On the other hand, however, the emergence of the word seems not so abrupt. We find networks everywhere in our living spaces. These networks vary in a wide range, from the biological networks where hyphae connect fungi, to the railway network, to the electromagnetic binary network that we rely on for communication but invisible. John Barnes might have acquired his inspiration from those network images in the living spaces. Or it was likely that he might have reminisced his professor Max Gluckman and colleagues like Clyde Mitchell and Elizabeth Bott in the lonesomeness of the fishing village. The research community established by them was obviously a network founded on a certain relationship.

The concept coined by John Barnes intends to find the channel to describe the tensions between structure and flows under the cover (shadow?) of comprehensive culture and social structure. In the latter half of the 20th century, the concept was embraced in the Transatlantic community, especially at Harvard and Manchester. The social network analysis based on it is able to incorporate a mass amount of data to generate visualized outcomes, which catered to two crucial “fantasies” of the contemporary social sciences. In today’s society, the significance of network has already broken out of its academic boundaries. It has become a verb: to network is the key concept for nowadays’ professional and private communication. And various social media based on this concept has changed the life of the public dramatically.

Can historians use this concept, or is it too modern for us? Can we use it to talk about the connections between deep time and contemporary events, connecting the present generation to our most ancient ancestors? The evolution of planet earth has never followed a simple progressive line; on the contrary, it has, like any network, been a complex web stretching across multiple dimensions and whole epochs of time. From the deep history of planet earth to the evolution of human civilization, networks have been overlapping and entangled which has formed the relativeness of the “new” and the “old”, and the “ancient” and the “modern” in different time scales. Therefore, networks suggest not merely an assumptive connection, but also some direct or indirect functional links among spaces, humans and nonhuman activists. They unfold themselves in material, intellectual or practical ways.

To think about networks is not merely to imagine some entangling “web” but rather to see all the individual dots, lines, and surfaces composed of them could all serve as angles and approaches for investigation. A single dot in the historical web might be viewed not only as a “relationship” or state of “being related” and interdependent but also a social position or role. And a line is not just about connection; it is also a container or carrier of messages. The relationship between two dots in time could be unilinear or multilinear, dense or loose. It could demonstrate the process of increasing centralization, or, as it unravels, it could suggest decentralization. Multiple dimensions can co-exist in one network. For example, network analysis in history could show relationships become stratified but also how they might transcend stratification. Some network relations may be face-to-face while others are abstract and faceless. Furthermore, we choose network instead of “web” because the latter emphasizes passive construction no matter on ecological or cultural level; yet the former, while it is designed and ran, often transcends the conception of the constructors and participate in the transformation of time and space. It serves ­not only a stage or means for historical activities, but also stimulates, intensify, or limit various social, cultural, or biological activities in its own structure.

In 2017, the theme of the conference series “Writing History: Reflection during Practice” shifts from difference to network, asking how differences have been linked and woven into the panorama of the historical and contemporary world. In this conference, network will be defined both as a means of analysis and a subject for debate. We will attempt to pay attention to various networks, how they have been built, maintained or broken down. We are also interested in understanding how networks function in different spaces of history on a figurative level. We hope that our participants investigate both material and non-material networks historically and bring perspectives from different regions and disciplines into our discussion. We also would like to ask when humanities encounter digital means and established various types of network description based on numerous and complex data, what new perspectives we could discover besides dots, lines, the density and intensity of relationships. Meanwhile, how helpful could they be in terms of constructing a multi-dimensional historical landscape?

Important Events:

Keynote Speech: “Female Scientists in the People’s Republic of China and Their Networks of Knowledge” by Zhang Li (School of Humanities, University of Chinese Academy of Sciences) (15 October 2017, 13:30-15:00 pm)

“Speaking History” Series of Lectures: “In Search of Eggs: The Dynamics of Reproduction and the Establishment of Assisted Reproductive Technologies in China, 1950-1980” by Liu Xueting(Journalist and Writer)(13 October 2017, 15:30-16:30 pm)


  1. The dissemination network of geographic knowledge (Convener: HU Heng)
  2. The cultural network and political practice of modern China (Convener: GAO Bo)
  3. The intellectual network in modern Europe (Convener: WANG Wenjing)
  4. The entanglements of humans with their environments (Conveners: HOU Shen and Agnes KNEITZ)
  5. The distinction between the near and the distant: The intellectuals and their work in the human network (Convener: JIANG Meng)
  6. Network, Organization, and Historical Societies (Convener, LIN Zhan)
  7. The circulation of power in the network of information (Conveners: TU Hsuan-ying and GU Liwei)

The full bilingual programme can be downloaded from:

If you have any questions, please contact Tu Hsuan-ying, Assistant Professor of British History at Renmin University of China (

Posted: October 05, 2017