What is prosopography?

Prosopography is a research approach usually used by historians to study the lives of groups of people. It involves the creation of a collective biography or the gathering of data relating to the common aspects of the lives of individuals who are part of a particular population. It can take the form of a database of all of the people within the chosen population along with information about the biographical phenomena that transcend their individual lives.

How can I apply prosopography to my project?

I am studying the life cycle of analogue tide prediction machines built in the United Kingdom: the methods used to predict tides before the construction of the first machine, the motivation for creating this machine, the manufacturers, users and uses of the machines, maintenance and repair of the machines, the decommissioning of the machines, subsequent methods of predicting tides and finally the state of the machines today in terms of conservation and scientific mediation.

The notion that objects have biographies despite not being living things is not new, but only recently has the idea of conducting prosopographical studies of collections of related objects began to be explored. This is a concept that I would like to develop and utilise in my project about the history of analogue tide prediction machines.

In my case the population of individuals becomes a group of artefacts, more specifically the 23 analogue tide prediction machines built in the UK between 1873 and 1964 (not including prototypes or portable machines). Complete biographical material for any one individual machine no longer exists, and with such a situation the beauty of prosopographical studies becomes visible. Prosopography overcomes the problem of the scarcity of historical data by collecting together all available fragments, which can then be compared, synthesised and analysed, thus compensating for any gaps in the data. Instead of looking at the exceptional and unique, prosopography focusses on the general and average. It is in this way that prosopography makes visible the particular characteristics representative of the chosen population.

The next step is to create a questionnaire to which I will subject every member of my “population” of analogue tide prediction machines. I do not expect to find an answer to each question for each machine but, as we have already discussed, that will not pose a problem in this prosopographical study; the aim is to find the common features in the lives of analogue tide prediction machines. This will give an appreciation of the importance of these machines, the extent of their use and usefulness, and an impression of the shape of their lives.

Bibliography
Bray, Peter. Biography, prosopography and the density of scientific data: Some arguments from the metallurgy of Early Bronze Age Britain and Ireland, in: X. Armada, M. Murillo-Barroso & M. Charlton (ed.), Metals, Minds and Mobility: Integrating Scientific Data with Archeological Theory. Oxford: Oxbow books, 2019, p. 123-133.
Kopytoff, Igor. The Cultural Biography of Things: Commoditization as Process, in: A. Appadurai (ed.), The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986, p. 64-91.
S. Tarte, P. Willcox, H. Glaser & D. De Roure. Archetypal Narratives in Social Machines: Approaching Sociality through Prosopography. Proceedings of the SCM Web Science Conference, article no. 24. Oxford, 2015.
K. Verboven, M. Carlier & J. Dumolyn. A short manual to the art of prosopography, in: K. Keats-Rohan (ed.), Prosopography Approaches and Applications. A Handbook. Oxford: Unit for Prosopographical Research (Linacre College), 2007, p. 35-69.


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A propos Helen Mair Rawsthorne

Physics graduate from the University of Bristol, UK, and student of the Epistemology and History of Science and Technology Master's course at the University of Western Brittany in Brest, France. --- Diplômée en physique de l'Université de Bristol au Royaume-Uni et étudiante du Master Epistémologie et l'Histoire des Sciences et des Techniques à l'Université de Bretagne Occidentale à Brest, France.

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