Prosopography and Historical Social Networks

Social scientists working to study modern society have an array of data sources available, from government censuses to digital social networks. But for researchers trying to study people who lived, say, 2500 years BFB (before Facebook), trying to figure out which people were friends (or business associates, family members, or political allies) can pose significant challenges.

Enter “prosopography,” the practice of gaining insights into individuals based on attributes of relationships that are recorded in historical documentation. Prosopography has long been an important tool for the study of all kinds of past societies; the word stems from the Greek prosopoeia, or "face created,” suggesting how this methodology enables researchers to “put a face on” individuals about whom little is known based on their connections with other people.

Social Science Matrix is sponsoring a seminar focused on exploring how prosopography and historical social networks analysis could potentially be used by researchers working in different domains. The seminar is led by Laurie Pearce, lecturer in Near Eastern Studies at UC Berkeley, who uses prosopography to discern the relationships among elite individuals in ancient Mesopotamia, as well as Patrick Schmitz, Berkeley’s Associate Director for Research IT and Strategy. Both have been active in forming Berkeley Prosopography Services, or BPS, which has created an XML-based tool to help map out relationships and discern individuals from each other.

“Prosopography has traditionally been used in the humanities, but it became clear to us that social scientists and some natural scientists are facing similar challenges of disambiguation and understanding relationships,” Pearce explains. “In the Matrix seminar, we are exploring how our approach and tools might benefit them. The point is not just to get together people from Near Eastern Studies who want to do this; it’s to say, what can we learn from other disciplines? We are specifically searching for folks that we don’t know who work anywhere near this area to understand how they would use a tool like this.”

Visit Berkeley Prosopography Services to learn more, or read a paper that Pearce and Schmitz published explaining their process.