British historian Niall Ferguson recently published The Square and the Tower: Networks, Hierarchies and the Struggle for Global Power (Penguin), which has been getting a lot of attention. I am writing a full length review of the book, but right now, I want to focus on its implications for Christian history.
The book draws on social network analysis. If you want to understand why somebody is important or significant in a particular era, Ferguson argues, it is very useful to chart their linkages to other individuals, to see how they fit into the larger web of relationships. Who knows whom, and how? How strong are the bonds between two nodes within the network, as compared to their ties to others? Those connections can take many forms – family and kinship, same old school or college, literary and publishing ties, common business interests and investments, clientage, sexual, whatever. Can you identify an inner core of critical actors and activists?
Once you do such a chart of connections and networking – and do it literally as a map or diagram, a “sociogram” – you begin to see the hitherto unsuspected significance of particular individuals and often, of institutions that supply the critical nexus.
Ferguson then builds on that a model of historical analysis that contrasts the Tower – hierarchical and institutional authority – with the Square, or informal grass roots networks. Commonly, new forms of media drive the formation of such networks, with the Reformation as a classic example. Repeatedly through history, political conflict and change can be understood by observing the challenge of the Square to the Tower. Most of his examples derive from the Early Modern period, roughly 1450-1800.
Although he does not talk much about the religious dimension, that network model can be easily applied to many non- and anti-hierarchical movements in Christian history, from the earliest itinerant apostles onward. Network analysis can be a precious tool to investigate (say) revival movements in the eighteenth century, or social reformers and abolitionists in the nineteenth.
Sometimes, you can identify such pivotal activists as the professionals used by a particular network – their attorneys, business representatives, or even their publishers. I offer one example that I happen to know from some recent work I have been doing on the history of religious radicalism in the early modern era. The countless radicals, mystics, prophets, and political extremists of mid-seventeenth century England differed over a thousand points of theology and politics, but their networks can easily be mapped because an amazing number of them used the same London printer, namely Giles Calvert.
If you leave Giles out of the picture – or Elizabeth – you are missing a very substantial portion of the study of radical religion in those tumultuous decades, and for the origin of later Quaker and Baptist movements. The Calverts – the Node of Nodes – are Exhibit A for the virtues of social network analysis in religious history, in this instance, of the Radical Reformation.
Ferguson’s network approach can be a very useful way of approaching religious history. Start drawing those sociograms!