Social networks in fact and fiction

SIAM News arrived this afternoon and had an interesting story on the front page: Applying math to myth helps separate fact from fiction.

In a nutshell, the authors hope to get some insight into whether a myth is based on fact by seeing whether the social network of characters in the myth looks more like a real social network or like the social network in a work of deliberate fiction. For instance, the social networks of the Iliad and Beowulf look more like actual social networks than does the social network of Harry Potter. Real social networks follow a power law distribution more closely than do social networks in works of fiction.

This could be interesting. For example, the article points out that some scholars believe Beowulf has a basis in historical events, though they don’t believe that Beowulf the character corresponds to a historical person. The network approach lends support to this position: the Beowulf social network looks more realistic when Beowulf himself is removed.

It seems however that an accurate historical account might have a suspicious social network, not because the events in it were made up but because they were filtered according to what the historian thought was important.

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8 thoughts on “Social networks in fact and fiction

  1. I was going to come here to make the comment that it may be the process of embellishment and elaboration over time that distinguishes Harry Potter. But it seems that in the paper, they compared myths thought to be historical to myths thought to be invented.

  2. That’s an interesting aspect to consider when creating fiction. Did the authors measure also the LoTR?

  3. Yes, they also mentioned LoTR.

    I would expect fiction to have more connections among the main characters; it taxes the reader’s attention to introduce new characters unnecessarily. Then you have soap operas that take this to an extreme: the social network is a bird’s nest.

  4. That article shows an astonishing disregard (ignorance?) for the need to historicize narrative conventions. Greek epics were produced under vastly different social and cultural conditions than Beowulf or (I would guess, not having read it) Táin. Cultural and material conventions – the richness of the shared social narrative you might expect of your audiences, or whether your text is part of a much larger culturally shared narrative etc. – affect the very fabric of how the narrative, the verse is constructed, sung, and transmitted in these poems. Then to go on and naively compare these epics to contemporary prose novels without so much as a caveat or a footnote to indicate that the authors are even remotely familiar with the complex social and cultural evolution of the novel as a bourgeois or post-enlightenment form is simply staggering.

    There is much promise in the application of statistical tools and quantitative approaches to cultural analysis, but the heavy handed way in which articles like this apply it to a wide range of texts is the reason why many humanists are skeptical of such approaches. It seems to imply that the algorithm is king and the rest (past scholarship, interpretations and cultural associations) are just fluff that can be ignored and replaced by some over-simplistic articulation of a “problem” (in this case “let’s find out which text is likely to have been based on ‘reality'”).

    Of course, the authors are not literary scholars and they aren’t claiming any real expertise on these texts and their cultural conditions, and this is just an inquisitive experiment! But I would be much more sympathetic to them if they clearly highlighted the naive arbitrariness of their project and showed a passing sign that they are at least aware that they are ignoring a LOT of very complex and nuanced cultural factors.

    Sorry if this sounds like a rant. But I’d really love to see a more complex dialog between cultural discourses and digital/quantitative approaches. Overly reductive caricatures might seek to show the potential of such methods but in my opinion they do more harm than good by implying that all digital approaches can do is be hopelessly reductive.

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