Socio-epistemic networks: Modelling Historical Knowledge Processes

The growing interconnectedness of knowledge in the fast communicating nodes of the internet leads to an inherent dynamic production of knowledge. In order to profoundly understand the knowledge system resulting from these dynamics, it is crucial to also understand the development of knowledge systems in their historical unfolding.

To achieve this understanding it is necessary to obtain a description of knowledge systems development that is not only rigorous from the historical perspective, but also formalized from the mathematical standpoint, covering the dynamical interactions of people, materials and ideas.

The project is funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (Grant No. 01 UG2131) from 01.04.2021 to 31.03.2024 and part of Department I of the MPIWG.


The theoretical basis for the project is the approach of socio-epistemic networks for the description of dynamic knowledge systems. Developed and elaborated by scholars of Department I of the MPIWG, this approach will be further extended, such that it can become an instrument that allows a formal description with the following main goals:

• to be used across disciplines in order to make different network studies in historical research comparable,

• to integrate these studies by carrying out quantitative analyses on high-quality databases based on an ontology which is created as the outcome of historical research,

• to better describe and understand the dynamics of historical knowledge systems.

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Analyses of knowledge system dynamics require an integration of two different but strongly related theoretical descriptions: network-theoretical and modelling-theoretical.

In terms of network theory, this primarily means adopting SNA methods and the theory of economic interdependencies in the sense of power, prestige and influence, as well as the diffusion theory in networks. The mathematical formulation is based on graph theory, including the discrete topology, through the linear algebra in the form of the matrix representation of dependency relationships, and, to a limited extent, through the formalisms of discrete differential geometry and analysis.

Modelling-theoretical descriptions include two approaches as well: the modelling of the semantic structure of a network through ontologies and their formal representation, as well as the development of analytical models for historical dynamics.

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Case studies

The research will be carried out on the basis of case studies from the field of the history of science that are ongoing at Department I of the MPIWG.

In parallel, at the beginning of the project, a workshop will be carried out with the aim of identifying further projects that should be included in the proposed methodological and conceptual framework. This early workshop will ensure connectivity from the start. Further workshops, which are an integral part of the project, will enable the continuous exchange between the involved projects.


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The project is part of Department I of the Max Planck Institut for the History of Science and funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research.