Camel caravan

Camel caravan
Mosaic from Deir al-Adas, Syria, 8th century (photo: J.C.Meyer)
The research project Mechanisms of cross-cultural interaction: Networks in the Roman Near East (2013-2017) investigates the resilient everyday ties, such as trade, religion and power, connecting people within and across fluctuating imperial borders in the Near East in the Roman Period. The project is funded under the Research Council of Norway's SAMKUL initiative, and hosted by the Department of archaeology, history, cultural studies and religion, University of Bergen, Norway.

This blog is no longer updated, for any queries, please contact project leader Eivind Heldaas Seland

Friday, 24 January 2014

School visit: research methods in the humanities and social sciences

Yesterday I paid a visit to Bergen Katedralskole, in order to lecture and advise students in their final year of high school on research methods in the humanities and social sciences. My university each year awards the Holberg International Memorial Prize for outstanding research within these disciplines. In connection with that they also organize a research competition for senior high-school students. Bergen Katedralskole has entered two classes this year, and I am their appointed university liaison. Going there was a great chance to meet and talk with the people who will be starting college or university studies this August, and hopefully also convey why research in the humanities and social sciences is fun as well as important. For me, it was also an opportunity to think about some aspects of what we are doing and why we are doing it. 

The humanities and social sciences engage in the study of human life and culture. Their importance should be obvious, nevertheless it still has to be repeatedly emphasized and also justified. Doing research is about creating narratives. Narratives about the human experience, past and present, tell us who we are and where we come from, and in thus shaping identity, they also serve to create groups and draw boundaries between them. History, identity, and culture are continuously invoked in political and public discourse, for better and for worse. An important role of researchers is to create, uphold, question and dismantle these narratives. We do that by doing research, by teaching and by taking part in these discourses. Engaging with the distant past and far off corners of world is equally important as engaging with the present and the close by, not because we learn directly from history, but because it widens our horizon of what it means to be human, and thus allows us to better understand others as well as ourselves. That is certainly fun and useful on a personal level, but also, I think, relevant to society at large. As far as I'm concerned, there is no crisis in the humanities.

That said, those of us who are so fortunate as to make a living from research certainly have an obligation to make what we do available and relevant to the public This is also the idea underlying SAMKUL program of the Research Council of Norway, which has funded the NeRoNE project. "The glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome" of Edgar Allan Poe is hardly a useful narrative of the past for the 21st century. Researching social networks in antiquity gives insights into how traditional societies work, and by better understanding historical dynamics, we also, hopefully, better appreciate how we ended up were we are, and how traditional patterns of interaction continue to influence interaction in many parts of the world, albeit to different degrees. 
As for recommending the students I met yesterday to pursue degrees in the social sciences or in the humanities, I am unapologetic. The competition they are entering now, will give them a chance to see how research is produced, and this will give them a platform for understanding and also evaluating the products of research, so often relied upon by policy-makers and bureaucrats. If they decide to go on to university studies in Old Norse, French literature, ancient history, social anthropology, or any other among the multitude of exciting subjects we can offer, the education they'll receive will enable them better to understand the world and their place in it. Few of them will continue doing research in their professional lives, but their education will train them in amassing, processing and presenting information, and it will make them highly qualified, flexible and independent candidates, able to adjust to a changing labour market for the approximately 45 years they will spend working after studying human culture and society for three to five years. 

Friday, 17 January 2014

Call for papers, session at the 2014 ASOR annual meeting

Together with Dr. Kerstin Droß-Krüpe, University of Kassel, we are hosting a session on "Sinews of Empire": Networks in the Near East" at the 2014 annual meeting of the American Schools of Oriental Research, which will be held in San Diego, November 19-22.

Here is the abstract for our session:

Sinews of empire: Networks in the Near East

This session addresses the role of networks and social relationships, as facilitators of interaction and integration between imperial, regional and local levels in the history and archeology of the Near East. Contributors are encouraged to situate their papers within theoretical frameworks that facilitate comparison between periods and empirical settings.

From the Neo-Assyrian Empire to the end of the colonial period, the Near East was dominated by a series of large, multiethnic empires, most of them centered outside the region itself. Recent studies have moved emphasis from metropolitan to regional and local points of view, but arguably most have continued to cast representatives of imperial rule as protagonists or antagonists in narratives of domination, resistance, integration and fragmentation. In recent years, a resurgence in interest in network approaches has offered new tools to conceptualize, visualize and arguably even measure interaction in past societies. In this session we aim to utilize network perspectives in an attempt to shift attention to everyday ties of business, religion, power and social interaction. How did networks develop? What where the institutions underpinning interaction and fostering integration? What impact did formal and informal rules have on interaction within these networks? How did networks react to stress on imperial level, such as invasions, economic crisis or civil war? We especially welcome papers situating data within theoretical frameworks such as Network Analysis, Social Network Analysis, Actor Network Theory and Agency Theory, in order to facilitate comparison between groups, over time and between different parts of the Near East.

If you are interested in participating, paper proposals can be submitted via ASOR's online submission system