Linguistics has embraced the functional and contextual turn but, when building tools for systematic contextual description, we have not made as much use as we could of our own functional traditions. Rather, we have largely relied on the metaphors of law and rule, which do not adequately capture tensions between consistency and variability in how language and context relate to each other. Our aim in this paper is to show the economy and practicality of representing context as a pathway through a network, drawing on the network technique for mapping systems of grammatical choice introduced by Michael Halliday, and on its application to other linguistic strata first offered by Ruqaiya Hasan. The paper begins by outlining why alternative frameworks are needed for describing context-language relations. We then present a contextual network for one specific domain of the Systemic Functional Linguistic notion of Tenor, namely social distance, and use this to explore how different configurations of features of social distance influence the way that traditions of practice are passed on as a specialised legacy in two different professional collaborations. While the kind of context modelling discussed here is in a very early phase of development compared to phonetic, morphological and grammatical description, it has many advantages: contextual networks are paradigmatic in orientation; they help display and theorise metastability in language; they are “ad hoc” in Firth’s positive sense; and they constitute a proposal to be tested against observed behaviour within specific cultural and situational settings.