Prosopography for Mapping Science and Visibilizing Invisible Colleges (Part 1)

Prosopography for Mapping Science and Visibilizing Invisible Colleges

Shalini Urs

Part 1

1. Introduction

Why do we want to know things? How do we create knowledge? How do we add to the body of knowledge—in science or humanities? Can we map these processes and systems?

Any attempt to map the human quest for knowledge, the complex processes by which knowledge is created and nurtured, the structures and systems that have evolved over centuries to support these endeavors will prove to be Herculean.

Mapping science itself has become a scientific endeavor and enterprise. Like the globe and the map, what you see depends on where you stand and the lens you use.  There have been several approaches to the study of science, the science of science, or the sociology of science as different sets of people refer to it. However, I will restrict myself to only the following lines of approach: Invisible College and Bibliometrics approach; the Science and Technology Studies (STS) School including the Actor-network Theory; the Network Science school; and the Prosopography approach. In this article, an attempt is made to connect the dots across all these four approaches.

Believing that an approach that combines some or all of these might help present a richer and nuanced map of science, I propose a new prosopography-based approach to study invisible colleges for mapping sciences. After introducing prosopography in sections 2 to 6 in Part 1, and the other three approaches in sections 2, 3, and 4 in Part 2, I make a case for deploying prosopography as a tool for visbilizing the invisible colleges that operate behind the spread of ideas, emergence of a new discipline, history of a discipline, intellectual movements, and the intellectual histories.

—Simply put, prosopography investigates common background characteristics of a group of actors in history through a collective study of their lives.—

2. Prosopography

The term prosopography is not only a mouthful but raises some eyebrows as well. Though relatively unfamiliar to most people outside a small academic circle, prosopography has a long history. British historian Lawrence Stone (1971) is credited with reviving interest in and bringing this technique to mainstream historiographical methods. He traced its usage back to 1743.  Keats-Rohan (2000), another prosopography scholar, traces the first use of the term to 1555-56, as it appeared in the title of the book on German heroes by Heinrich Pantlin (or Pantaleon)—Prosopographia heroum atque illustrium virorum totius Germaniæ (Basle, 1555-56). And dives further back to a little-known work by Justin Gobler (or Iustinus Goblerus) in Latin published in 1537 titled Prosopographiarum Libri Quatuor, in quibus personarum illustrium descriptiones aliquot, seu imagines … per Iustinum Goblerum selectæ continentur. Nunc primum æditi.

Simply put, prosopography investigates common background characteristics of a group of actors in history through a collective study of their lives. Today, prosopography has developed into a valuable tool and a new methodological approach for a variety of historical studies. For example, studies of the historiography of a tribe; or an elite group of people behind some historical events (Charles A. Beard’s An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States, 1913); or a professional body as exemplified by the study of “Who controls the American Economic Association?” (Hoover and Svorenécík, 2020); or a way to trace the rise of an institution (“MIT’s Rise to Prominence” by Svorenčík, 2014) or track the intellectual antecedents and the academic lineages of an emergent discipline, are all prosopographical studies.

3. Prosopographical Studies: Some Exemplars

The Prosopographia Imperii Romani, by the members of the Academy of Berlin, covering notable, high-profile people who lived in the Roman Empire from 31 BC until 261 AD, is one of the oldest systematic prosopography projects (Klebs et al. 1897). Another interesting example of prosopography is the study of the subscription list for De Moivre’s book Miscellanea Analytica (1730). Bellhouse et al. (2009) reconstructed how the great mathematician De Moivre developed a knowledge community beginning around 1689. They accomplished it by collecting personal information about the subscribers, building a database, graphing and analyzing the connections between the subscribers.

Julie Anne Greer’s Ph.D. thesis (2014) on “Learning from linked lives: Narrativising the individual and group biographies of the guests at the 25th Jubilee dinner of the British Psychoanalytical Society at The Savoy, London, on 8th March 1939: A prosopographical analysis of the character and influence of the formative and significant figures present at the dinner” represents a different flavor of prosopography. Robert K. Merton’s, pioneering 1938 study and book Science, Technology and  Society in Seventeenth-Century England (reprinted New York, 1970) evidenced the relations between Puritanism and Science & Technology. This study is one of the early studies of the history of science using prosopographical tools. Merton collated some 6,000 biographies of the seventeenth-century elites in all spheres included in the Dictionary of National Biographies, developed a data bank, and posited the theses about the cultural and social background of the institutionalization of modern science (Nelson, 1972).

4. Definitions and Distinctions

To better understand the flavors of the prosopography and the senses and lenses used in little more detail, let us begin with some definitions. There is no universally agreed definition of prosopography. It goes under different names in different disciplines. For example, for historians, it is a combination of political history with social history concerned with evolutionary changes in the past. To the social scientist, prosopography in one of its manifestations is “multiple career-line analysis.” Some consider the term a neologism, and some others think of it as archaic.

Stone (1971) defines it as a historiographical method that identifies and draws relationships between people within a specific, well-defined historical or social context by collecting and analyzing relevant biographical data. Stone noted two uses of prosopography: first, in uncovering deeper interests and connections beneath the superficial rhetoric of politics, to examine the structure of the political machine; and second, in analyzing the changing roles in society of particular status groups—holders of offices, members of associations—and assessing social mobility through family origins and social connections of recruits to those offices or memberships.

Shapin and Thackray (1974) find modern prosopographical analysis, a sophisticated tool for establishing links between action and context, akin to the multiple career analysis of sociologists. According to them, we have grossly underestimated the connections between science and society and believe that prosopography is a highly promising tool for the deeper historical study of the scientific enterprise. Moreover, they highlight that it has flourished and matured as a historical technique in fields as varied as voting behavior and social mobility.

Keats-Rohan (2019) has made some seminal contributions to the field and defines prosopography as a research method wherein structured biographical data relating to the individuals forming a well-defined group are examined to reveal constants and variables that establish the characteristics of the group and identify what is uncommon or anomalous.

Though some people use prosopography and collective biographies as synonymous, there is a fine distinction between the two. Keats-Rohan (2000) distinguishes the nuances of differences between them.  She states prosopography is about what the analysis of the sum of data about many individuals can tell us about the different types of connexion between them and how they operated within and upon the institutions—social, political, legal, economic, intellectual—of their time. It is the study of shared biographical details of individuals in aggregate, not a biography of groups (Keats-Rohan 2007).

Prosopography’s unique value proposition is that it combines the history of an individual with the history of events and structures while viewing the individual as an actor in history but in aggregate. Thus, it is not a case of collective biographies but linked biographies, focusing on the linkages. People connected in diverse ways formed and forged a collective identity and led movements to spread ideas and shape the sciences.

5. Why Prosopography?

The goals of prosopography are twofold:  study a select group of individuals individually and collectively, i.e., as an actor set in a network of relationships with other actors; analyze the aggregate effects through the ties between them in a chosen area of focus. The ultimate goal is to study phenomena by collecting biographical data of individuals belonging to a group by teasing out the common aspects of people’s lives and finding patterns and ties that contribute to and influence the phenomena. The focus is to unravel the different types of ties between them, to visibilize the emergence of the “invisible college” and how it shaped the emergent phenomena and the institutions of their time. Prosopography and social network analysis (SNA), mainly historical SNA, share similarities, and attempts have been made to marry these fields.

There are two “schools” in prosopographical research: one studying elites—consisting of relatively small groups of well-documented individuals—and another studying large groups of mostly anonymous or poorly documented individuals (Verboven et al., 2007). In elite prosopography, individual cases and qualitative sources and methods are important. Whereas in mass prosopography, the group’s various characteristics and typical features hold the key, and therefore statistical methods play an essential part. Mass prosopography is also known as quantitative prosopography.

The nature of prosopographical studies has evolved over the decades. While the older form of prosopography was more elitist, as its focus usually was on the notabilities whose biographies were already available and collected and studied the “power elite,” the newer form of prosopography focused more on identifying a group and then collecting data about them assiduously to reveal how they operated within and upon the social, economic, and other institutions of their time and the influence they yielded. Interest in prosopography declined during the 1980s then revived again since the 1990s due to powerful computing tools, particularly data analytics software. The “new prosopography” has since become established as an important approach in historical research.

New prosopography, recognizing the importance of social networks for understanding social structures, embraced social network analysis methods and tools. One exemplar of the combined approach is Giovanni Ruffini’s (2008) twin study of Oxyrhynchus(in Egypt) using both a prosopographical and then a network approach producing two different but complementary sets of analysis on the same material. The key to a successful combined approach is defining the target population well and then structuring the data about the individuals comprising it; prosopography lends itself easily to be adapted into network analysis.

6. Prosopography and Big Data

A certain mass of data is the bedrock of prosopographical research. Right from a cursory look at The Prosopographia Imperii Romani, the appetite for and dependence on large quantities of data and deployment of statistical analysis is evident. As Keats-Rohan (2000) in a paper aptly titled “Prosopography and Computing: A Marriage Made in Heaven” states, the most important spur for prosopographical research is the invention of relational databases and database software, as it is ideally suited. Prosopography is most valuable when performed at scale. Internet technologies and approaches since 2000 such as XML, the Text Encoding Initiative, Linked Open Data, and the development of the Resource Description Framework ontologies are driving the continuing development of modeling and innovation in prosopography, making the results of the projects available to anyone with a web browser (Keats-Rohan, 2019).

Quantitative prosopography involves analyzing information from a wide variety of sources about ordinary masses, and databases are their mainstay.  “Traces through Time: Prosopography in practice across Big Data,” a UKRI (UK Research and Innovation) funded project of the UK National Archives, is an example of the marriage between prosopography and big data, under the overarching domain of digital humanities. Given that large digital historical datasets, coupled with new methodologies and computer algorithms, can revolutionize research, there are several projects and efforts focused on developing Big Data tools addressing key research questions and offering new insights into digital humanities in general, prosopography in particular.

I delved into the history, evolution, value of prosopography along with some exemplars here in Part 1. Next, I will be outlining the other approaches to the mapping of science: Network Science, Actor-network Theory, and Invisible College and proceed to make a case for prosopography for visibilizing invisible colleges in Part 2.

Author

  • Dr. Shalini Urs is an information scientist with a 360-degree view of information and has researched issues ranging from the theoretical foundations of information sciences to Informatics. She is an institution builder whose brainchild is the MYRA School of Business (www.myra.ac.in), founded in 2012. She also founded the International School of Information Management (www.isim.ac.in), the first Information School in India, as an autonomous constituent unit of the University of Mysore in 2005 with grants from the Ford Foundation. She is currently involved with Gooru India Foundation as a Board member (https://gooru.org/about/team) and is actively involved in implementing Gooru’s Learning Navigator platform across schools. She is professor emerita at the Department of Library and Information Science of the University of Mysore, India. She conceptualized and developed the Vidyanidhi Digital Library and eScholarship portal in 2000 with funding from the Government of India, which became a national initiative with further funding from the Ford Foundation in 2002.

Shalini Urs

Dr. Shalini Urs is an information scientist with a 360-degree view of information and has researched issues ranging from the theoretical foundations of information sciences to Informatics. She is an institution builder whose brainchild is the MYRA School of Business (www.myra.ac.in), founded in 2012. She also founded the International School of Information Management (www.isim.ac.in), the first Information School in India, as an autonomous constituent unit of the University of Mysore in 2005 with grants from the Ford Foundation. She is currently involved with Gooru India Foundation as a Board member (https://gooru.org/about/team) and is actively involved in implementing Gooru’s Learning Navigator platform across schools. She is professor emerita at the Department of Library and Information Science of the University of Mysore, India. She conceptualized and developed the Vidyanidhi Digital Library and eScholarship portal in 2000 with funding from the Government of India, which became a national initiative with further funding from the Ford Foundation in 2002.

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