Review of Malkin, “A Small Greek World: Networks in the Ancient Mediterranean”

A Small Greek World

Networks in the Ancient Mediterranean

Irad Malkin

304 pages | 21 illustrations | 235x156mm
978-0-19-973481-8 | Hardback | 24 November 2011
Price: £40.00

I was excited to obtain this book.

Unfortunately, this is a book about social network analysis in antiquity that does not, in point of fact, contain any social network analysis. Rather, Malkin uses concepts drawn from networks and theories of evolving networks as metaphors to reframe centre-periphery arguments about the emergence of the Greek world around the Mediterranean as a ‘small world’.

There is much that is good with this book, in terms of its description of colonization and the emergence of the Greek world. He offers up a theory of ‘backwards-propagation’ to explain how the colonies could often be more Greek than Greece. As a Canadian educated in the UK, I know that this is a very real – and timeless- phenomenon; it is indeed a useful concept to bring into the discussion. However, Malkin need never have invoked any network theories in order to use that concept. Peregrine Horden and Nicholas Purcell’s The Corrupting Sea achieved much by focusing on the idea of connectivity of micro-regions without invoking social network analysis; this work is essentially a deeper exploration of that idea.

The broad strokes of Greek colonization are well known; there is ample material there for network studies of many different kinds (including work that seeks to generate likely networks, for example as in Rihll & Wilson 1991, the work of Tim Evans, Ray Rivers, and Carl Knappett, my own Travellersim). Malkin lays out the groundwork of the relevant concepts in chapter 1. But on p18 and 19 one reads,

Graphic illustrations of wide-ranging Mediterranean networks in the form of connective graphs usually prove to be unhelpful. Two-dimensional representations of connectivity mostly turn out to be messy “spaghetti monsters” with very long verbal explanations that are needed to accompany them… I have opted for the larger canvass of what seems to me highly probable at the risk of not presenting statistics and formulae that I am incapable of offering due to the state of our sources of knowledge”

Malkin takes pains on p16 to distinguish between ordinary (whatever that may mean) ‘networks’ and the ‘networks’ of network analysis, as if the two were distinguishable. They are not. The only difference is that in one we are using a metaphor, and in the other, we have taken pains to try to outline as fully as possible the connections relevant to the question we are asking, to understand the implications of the topology (yes, the statistics) for what they might mean for history. To invoke a small-world (a precise concept in network terms) without actually measuring to see if small world conditions are fulfilled does damage to the concept and to the analysis.

Elijah Meeks has recently written about developing conventions for the representation of network data, drawing on the long history of cartographic literacy. As far as Malkin’s critique of the visualization of networks go, it’s well founded: but the visualization has never been the endpoint, the raison d’etre, for the exercise. It’s the statistics. If you don’t know the shape of the thing, the important nodes (cities, individuals, extra-urban sanctuaries, what have you), how can you claim to be doing any sort of network analysis?

Scott Weingart has written about ‘halting conditions’, about knowing where to draw the linewhen your data are necessarily complex and in practice, infinite:

The humanities, well… we’re used to a tradition that involves very deep and particular reading. The tiniest stones of our studied objects do not go unturned. The idea that a first pass, an incomplete pass, can lead to anything at all, let alone analysis and release, is almost anathema to the traditional humanistic mindset.

Herein lies the problem of humanities big data. We’re trying to measure the length of a coastline by sitting on the beach with a ruler, rather flying over with a helicopter and a camera. And humanists know that, like the sandy coastline shifting with the tides, our data are constantly changing with each new context or interpretation. Cartographers are aware of this problem, too, but they’re still able to make fairly accurate maps.

It is not acceptable for ancient historians to bemoan the incompleteness of our sources – to use that as a crutch for not doing something – and then to go on and write another 224 pages. We’ve been studying the ancient world for several centuries now. Surely we’ve got enough material to be able to draw a line, to map something out, yes?

Should you buy this book? By all means, yes. Its roundup of the major themes and ideas in network studies in chapter 1 is valuable, and will no doubt be useful for those wishing to do formal network analysis, insofar as it establishes network theory in the broader classicist conversation. I’ve focused primarily on the first chapter in this review, since much of my teaching and research at the moment explicitly concerns network analysis in antiquity. The materials presented in subsequent chapters (Island Networking and Hellenic Convergence; Sicily and the Greeks; Herakles and Melqart; Networks and Middle Grounds in the Western Mediterranean; Cult and Identity in the Far West) do indeed move the conversation on from stale center-periphery models, and should be lauded. It would perhaps have been better though if it had not been framed in terms of a theoretical/methodological framework that is not, in fact, used.

[disclosure: I asked Oxford UP for a review copy when I saw it in the catalogue, in the hopes that I could use it as a text in an upcoming course on digital antiquity. I do not think I will be doing so, given my issues indicated here.]