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Colloquium: The Social Network in Byzantium and Its Neighbors

March 16–17, 2012 Margaret E. Mullett, Byzantine Studies, Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection and Adam M. Schor, Department of History, University of South Carolina
This, the last of three related colloquia picks up from studies of friendship and other personal relations in March 2010 and the self in 2011 to look at communications and social networks in Byzantium as seen in a wider Mediterranean perspective. Recent attempts to apply network theory to interactive texts in the premodern world have had varying results, and we look beyond Byzantium to the ancient world, the medieval west and the Islamic world.

Talk of social networks may seem bound to this era of instant messages and Facebook revolutions. But pre-modern worlds were just as dependent on personal interaction, conducted through various cultural categories and modes of communication. For generations scholars have studied the friendships and patronage ties of classical Greece and Rome, the personal loyalties of medieval western Christendom, the threads of mentorship among early rabbis and early Islamic sages, the role of fama in consolidating (or disintegrating) communities. In each case, they have found amorphous webs of attachment, shaping community life more deeply than formal institutions. Byzantine society featured distinct patterns of relations, between civil and military elites, clergy and laity, landlords and peasants, merchants and bureaucrats. Equally Byzantium owed its distinction to links outside the empire, and the centrality of its members in wider Mediterranean relations.

Since the 1960s sociologists have developed methods to map and measure modern social attachment, and to conceptualize the interplay between social interactions and individual and communal identity. Historians have variously adapted these methods and concepts to study Byzantium and other Mediterranean societies. But how should we understand the workings of pre-modern social networks, given the vast differences in technology and culture? How can we perceive these networks through our limited sources? How might we discern the way pre-modern social interactions employed cultural constructs and in turn shaped selves and communities?

This colloquium explored social connectedness in Byzantium and other related communities. Building on the recent Dumbarton Oaks colloquia about friendship and the self, this gathering focused on the use of network analysis and network concepts with a range of evidence (from collected sayings to documentary papyri) over the whole Byzantine period (from classical to late medieval and beyond). Special emphasis was placed on probing various methodologies for use in pre-modern studies and comparing the social and cultural patterns of Byzantium with those of its predecessors and neighbors.

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