While I’ve long considered myself a social historian I’ve struggled over the past few months to conceive of how I would analyze and discuss the Virginia Tech community between 1914 and 1924. After some helpful advice from my professor, Dr. Jones, I realized that borrowing social network theory from sociology may help me visualize Virginia Tech more clearly.
Social network theory in a historical context can be used to study the relationships between people, groups, organizations, and societies. Central to studying these relationships is understanding the flow (or connections, which could be as simple as an exchange of gifts) between individuals or entities (also known as nodes) within a community. In the case of Virginia Tech I define the community as students, faculty members, staff members, Blacksburg residents, and possibly alumni of the institution (I draw off of J. A. Barnes’ ideas of community which he centered around a particular geographic space). To analyze networks there must be information about the connections within the network available. These connections, and the nature of them, can be bore out through the extensive primary source base found in Virginia Tech’s Special Collections. Mapping these connections and understanding how individuals or groups within Virginia Tech were connected to each other can help me better understand dynamic relationships that existed on college campuses in the early 1900s. Furthermore, it is not only important for me to remember how these relationships were influenced by authority (both official and unofficial), but also to remember individual agency within the context of social network theory.
Instead of seeing different individuals and groups at Virginia Tech between 1914 and 1924 within separate spheres, social network theory allows me to map the connections between groups and events. Seeing how the community acted, interacted, and negotiated throughout this dynamic decade. Though social network theory will be buried in my footnotes, it may be the core theory of my project.