A significant part of my current PhD research deals with networks (in my case of human communication), and how these can help us understand the world around us. A network in the modern scientific use of the word is basically an abstract representation of relationships between concepts. It often helps to make a graphic representation of a network, such as in the example below:
These images describe the classical problem of the Seven Bridges of Königsberg, solved in 1735 by Leonhard Euler; read more about it here on Wikipedia. What it boils down to is that the connections of different parts of the city by bridges can be abstracted as a network, which allows us to analyse a situation more easily.
What interests me most at the moment is how we can use networks to represent and view real world situations and concepts. Most relevant for me is the specifically social kind of network, in which the dots (vertices) are people, and the lines (edges) relationships between them. They might be friends, for example, or colleagues, or simply have met once. As you can tell from the previous list, the type of connection between people varies in intensity and frequency. Close friends will ‘connect’ often and for longer periods of time, while mere acquaintances will do so less often. Another factor to take into account is the direction of communication. Speaking with someone is usually a two-way street, a literal interface, but hearing someone speak on television is purely one-way.
Since the networks I will be using in my research are models of language user communities, these aspects of connections are very important. Some language utterances pass from one person to just one other, whereas other language acts, such as public speeches, have many more hearers. In addition, there is the factor of social status. When we hear something said by a friend, a family member, or a superior, we usually attach different value to what is being said than when we hear a stranger say something to us. All these factors influence the way information travels between people, and the challenge is to find out in what way.
I will return to the specific role of linguistic networks in my own research during some later post. Let me conclude with some general thoughts on the history and nature of networks as a concept.
The word network itself, in this case quite logically, is made up of the elements net and work. In other words, it is something that is wrought into the form of a net, a system of braided/knotted lines. The word net is of Germanic origin (the Proto-Germanic root is *nat-ja, *nat-jō-) and even at that time - we’re talking 2000+ years ago - the word seems to have meant what it means today: a knotted rope system used to catch animals, among other things. So, when people started to make abstract (graphical) representations of other things that were an interconnected system, perhaps the image of a net is the most logical one to appear. The word itself - network and its equivalents - were first recorded in the 16th century (for English and Dutch), then simply meaning a braidwork of some kind. The abstracted meaning of “any complex, interlocking system” appears to be from the early 19th century English [link] and late 18th century for Dutch. Only recently - the 1980s - has the term been applied to networks of people. Think about that when you log into your social networking sites. By the way, if you want to view your Facebook friends in a nifty visual network search for the TouchGraph application.