The intersect of Digital Genealogy and Historical Social Network Analysis: extraction of data from bureaucratic text for prosographical consideration

Iain Riddell

Time and Place: Friday, 02.07., 09:00–09:20, Room 2
Session: Kinship and Geneaology

Amongst the methodologies generated from first-wave Digital Humanities was historical social  network analysis (HSNA). HSNA can treat people as nodes and then capture and analyse the links  and types of connection between them, both at a certain moment in time and longitudinally. Gould in 2003 noted that HSNA can consider concrete structural relationships as well as less concrete  connections and therefore can reveal dense cliques where every person is in relationship with all  others, as well as those on the peripheries. Further, to which Gould identified that is important for  users and readers of HSNA to consider that few networks are fully or capable of being fully worked  through. (Gould 2003, 241) Interestingly, such descriptions can also be layered onto Digital  Genealogy especially once the desire to privilege notions like lineage, household and conjugal family  groups are stripped away. Consequently, a merging of Digital Genealogy as a research system and  reformatting of data with HSNA as a means of interpretation is a natural fit and creates a second wave Digital Humanities methodological device under the terms set by Pressner et al (Schnapp,  Presner, and Lunenfeld 2009, 2012)

The potential for a combined methodological construction of genealogy and network analysis to  break down official records, reassign them to individual people across their lifetimes and establish  the network linkages that force the bureaucratic population record to give up further additional data  on a mass scale is immense. The obvious qualitative implications derived from the recovery of  prosographical studies mapping and plotting people as they move between the ever-varying  conjugal family units and household groups is clear (Bloothooft 2010). But the generative qualities  of the combined method of further interrogating the records to understand how the enumeration  districts cut across functional communities and gave shape to statistical communities are less well  appreciated. The interpretative necessity for such a breakthrough is clear when it is understood that  it is the statistical communities established by the bureaucracy that has come to shape western  theorisation of the individual, family and nuclear household. The paper will initially discuss the  struggle to unlock the potential of Digital genealogy and HSNA through an understanding of the  stalled three-party conversation between data visualisation/analysis, genealogy and academic  history and then consider the detail of the British bureaucratic record that has yet to be unlocked for  nineteenth-century social network recovery. 

Experimentation with modern genealogy has become somewhat of a rite of passage for scholars of  data visualisation and interactive analysis. The reasons for this are clear, as genealogy creates  complex, ramified and simultaneously sprawling visualisations of relationships primarily between  people. The endurance of the family tree as the basic model for the visual expression of these  relationships presents as timeless, definitive and expected. Unfortunately, it is also deterministic,  ideological and pre-determining of analysis. Modern genealogy though ought not to be  automatically bound in such ways given that the digital tools release the various locks that hold  genealogically based analysis in the family tree form. Unfortunately, the scholarly conversations  which data visualisation specialists have been part off have been predicated around an orthodox  view of lineages, households, nuclear families and the like rather than an understanding of socio anthropological ideas of reciprocity in society, mutuality of connectivity and social habitus. 

The broad community base of western genealogy, looks to the academy of history for guidance as to  what is valuable and valued; and has classical been informed directly and indirectly, that lineages,  family household groups and patri-connectivity followed by the coalescence of the superior nuclear  family were the tropes to find, explore and exhibit. Consequently, when data visualisation and  analysis reached out to both historical and genealogical communities to understand how their experimentations might contribute, what they were told was; connectivity and visualisation of  conjugal family household groups and predominately male lineage relationships were not just  fundamental but pre-eminently foundational to Western society. These values have been put into  place again and again in such programmes as Timenets, Geneaquilts, Kinship Britain and  GenealogyVis. Indeed, the choice of nomenclature followed by Borges, the Contextual Family Tree  visualisation for his effort in the field sums up the problem. What is repetitively created are data  visualisation tools that respond to a medieval method to control land and titles which is then applied  over all of society and a system predicated to the socio-cultural markers of the western middle  classes rather than functional cultural-economic markers of the broader society. Indeed, it should be  argued that western genealogy, unlike fields such as biology and linguistics, currently presents as  immune to discourses on the traps created by eighteenth and nineteenth ideologies of pedigree and  development (Gontier 2011, 515-538). 

As the classic approach to genealogy informed by academic history has downplayed varied parts of  the bureaucratic text and process, the three party-conversation has not resulted in a technological  approach that understands a society that (i) valued horizontal relatedness (ii) fostered reciprocity rather than the transfer of tangible and intangible assets. Consequently, the identity of witnesses of  marriages, the juxtapositioning in the record of related people, the very assignment of individuals to  households has been kept out of the digitisation and algorithm systems employed by commercial  visualisation of genealogy, leaving the prosographical outputs of Digital Genealogy impoverished. An  application of second-wave Digital Humanities generative and interpretative demands via HSNA could shift the current scenario with a understanding that it is now possible to recover the webs of  relatives that surrounded individuals from multiple socioeconomic situations, not just the elites and  middle, and then interrogate those webs with network analysis; with an appreciation of who was  enumerated on the same page or in the same enumeration district and how those districts sat within  the landscape, built environment and transport system.  

The paper will examine the potential to use historical network analysis and genealogical  methodology in combination and simultaneously explore how the imposition of established  ideologies of what is valued continue to oppress the prosographical and data extraction processes. 


Bloothooft, Gerrit. „Data Mining in the (Historic) Civil Registration of the Netherlands from 1811- Present.“MNHN, 2010. 

Gontier, Nathalie. „Depicting the Tree of Life: The Philosophical and Historical Roots of Evolutionary  Tree Diagrams.“ Evolution: Education and Outreach 4, no. 3 (2011): 515-538. 

Gould, Roger V. „Uses of Network Tools in Comparative.“ Comparative Historical Analysis in the  Social Sciences (2003): 241. 

Schnapp, Jeffrey, Todd Presner, and Peter Lunenfeld. „Digital Humanities Manifesto 2.0.“ Retrieved  September 23, (2009): 2012.