In my historical research I keep wishing there was a way that I could easily and dynamically visualize the various layers of relationship that exist within (or across) the groups of people I’m studying. In the past week I’ve made some terrific discoveries by dipping into genealogical resources, for example: three of the dozen men involved in a Revolutionary-era business venture were closely related through marriage before any of it started because A had married the widowed mother of B while C had been married to B’s wife’s sister before she died quite young, perhaps in childbirth (still tracking that down). And my interest in the business venture comes from noticing a correlation between involvement in it and in a seemingly unrelated dispute in a religious group.
I’ve looked at some genealogical software and it’s got room for lots of details, but is mostly geared toward showing trees: all someone’s ancestors or all someone’s descendants, and in that way is limited and flat. What I want to see is more like a rhizome or a social molecule or a Facebook for historians with facets, metadata, footnotes and visualization tools (and sure, GIS) built in. And it’s not just about family connections, but all manner of connections between people that may or may not end up being significant.
Though the critical impulses may be similar, this poses a different methodological problem than working with specific texts via data mining or “culturomics” or network analysis, because the bits of evidence that add up to layers of relationship are gathered from many different idiosyncratic and specific sources in a process that isn’t close to being mechanizable yet (if ever). And my interest at this point is less in displaying some final product on the open Web (though that’s surely a worthy goal as well) then in visualizing the networks so that *I*can make better sense of them, for the purposes of interpretation of historical-cultural questions.
So, if any aspect of this ethnographically-inspired historian’s digital fantasy appeals to you–how to specify it, build it, use it, improve it–I’d love to chat about it more.