Writing History by the Numbers: A New Historiographic Approach for the 21st Century?
¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Since the so-called linguistic turn in the 1980s, the mainstream of Western historiography has focused with a preference to textual and more recently to visual sources (pictorial turn). The favorite methodical approaches to history of recent decades were cultural history, discourse analysis, oral history, and history of mentality. Social history and other quantifying historical approaches were mostly overlooked. But with the new possibilities of digital networks hitherto neglected methods could suddenly awaken new interest in the historical community (and beyond). Writing history with numbers in the digital age has the potential to become an exciting new option – with all the well known limitations of quantifying historiography.
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Data instead of information as a new paradigm of the digital age?
But what does that mean: Writing history with numbers? Obviously, the new interest in “numbers” throughout the humanities is an effect of the digital change in the sciences and especially in the humanities. The world “digital” is an apocope of the Latin “digitalis”, derived from “digitus”, the finger, and signifies “concerning fingers and toes”. So “digital data” basically is countable data, data based on numbers or expressed by numbers, even if the Cambridge Dictionary defines “digital” as follows: “[Digital] describes information, music, an image, etc. that is recorded or broadcast using computer technology”.1 The computer is the tool for working with digital data, but digitality is not limited to computers just as computers do not necessarily work in a digital mode.2
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 1 In the sciences (but also in the public sphere), numbers have a gorgeous emanation: they reduce complexity to quantifiable statements, and they can be re-used (e.g. by the mass media) and easily visualized. In social sciences as well as in natural sciences quantitative methods today are the norm, because they suggest evidence and objectivity.
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 2 For several months now, the importance and usefulness of data in general have been discussed intensely. We can identify at least three different discursive fields in these discussions. The first context, with the heading of “Data Driven Journalism”, is the use and visualization of data in the media. The massive data published by Wikileaks 2010 was one of the catalysts for the development of new tools and practices of publishing data on the Internet. Probably the most influential player in this field is the British newspaper The Guardian. Secondly, we can identify a new concern with the accessibility of data generated by the public sector and especially by governments. This Open Government Data movement was strengthened by President Barack Obama’s memorandum “Transparency and Open Government” 2009 and today has a strong position in the UK.3 Although a lot of government data has already been published, the publications do not fulfill the requirements of Open Government Data, namely that all the data should be machine readable, accessible at no charge and have a central entry point. The third area in which data will be intensively discussed below is the field of the Humanities.
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From Humanities Computing to Digital Humanities
But is this a really new discussion? Let’s look back to exactly forty years ago: In 1962, on June 20, in Wartenstein castle in Lower Austria some twenty experts from the United States, France, England, Italy, the Netherlands and Germany met to discuss “The use of computers in anthropology”. Presumably this was the first major event on “Digital Humanities”, taking place long before the term was born. The proceedings were published in 1965, but in the meantime similar conferences had taken place in Strasbourg, in New Brunswick and at Yale.
¶ 6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Thus, in the 1960s the topic of computer usage in the humanities and social sciences was on the agenda–even if it could not create much enthusiasm. The discussions were e.g. about lexicography, text analysis, and statistical examination of case files. Along with the historians linguists and anthropologists were involved in these discussions. They quickly launched a variety of conferences, associations, journals, and book series. Numerous collections of texts, especially from (English) literature and from ancient times, were digitized and prepared for machine processing.
¶ 7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 The second field was the automated analysis of serial historical sources, such as birth registration files or financial documents, files with similar and well structured contents. The collective term for this new methodology in the Humanities was “Humanities Computing”. By the 1970s this new field was consolidated and the Personal Computer, introduced by IBM in 1981, was a step toward more autonomy from the computer centres for researchers interested in using the options of Humanities Computing: they no longer depended on the goodwill of data centers, because they could do a large part of the work on their own personal computers and thanks to e-mail they also could communicate easily within their peer group.
¶ 8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 Most of the activists in Humanities Computing didn’t realize the significance of the rise of the World Wide Web early in the 1990s. From today’s perspective we can see that the early adopters of the computer for the humanities were unaware that a new era of networked information and working was dawning. For most of the people in the humanities, the Internet was a tool to search for information. They were interested in how to search for information in the World Wide Web (keyword: “Google Syndrome”4), in the assessment of the quality of information found online (keyword: “Wikipedia”), and in new opportunities offered by the Internet for the dissemination of texts (keyword: “Open Access”).
¶ 9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 2 The options of the social web have continued to broaden the interest of many humanists in the last few years. They have realized that the net also can be a bidirectional tool for the humanities, easily enabling communication, discussion, and publication. Today we have a (small) historical blogosphere, a lot of historians using Twitter, Facebook, Delicious, and other services of Web 2.0 intensively for their work. They were the obstetricians for the new wave of Digital Humanities that has emerged over the past two or three years. Looking more closely we cannot find one single clearly defined concept of Digital Humanities nor of Digital History today.
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A new method, a buzzword or a grassroots-movement?
In Germany, for example, there are roughly a dozen degree programs containing “Digital Humanities” in their title or description, but they espouse a very broad variety of approaches; coming partly from the philology, partly from computer science they all try to respond to the demands of today and to offer an appropriate mix of methodological, theoretical, and practical knowledge. On the other hand, with THATcamps initiated by the Roy Rosenzweig Center of History and New Media at the George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, a new grassroots-oriented approach to Digital Humanities has emerged.5
¶ 11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 1 The Manifesto adopted by the Paris THATcamp in May 2010 does not predominantly deal with methodical or theoretical questions of the Digital Humanities but rather with social and political issues: “Society’s digital turn changes and calls into question the conditions of knowledge production and distribution.”6 The movement is “a community without borders. We are a multilingual and multidisciplinary community.”7 On the question of discipline, the Manifesto states that the Digital Humanities “designate a ‘transdiscipline’, embodying all the methods, systems and heuristic perspectives linked to the digital within the fields of humanities and the social sciences.”8
¶ 12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 The practical impact of such declarations on the traditional academic work is still uncertain. But it is indisputable that new insights on old questions are possible, whether in history, in the arts or in the humanities in general. The upheaval has just begun. New methods and ways of working in the Digital Humanities are not yet established; they all are in the very first experimental phase.
¶ 13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 2 Regardless of the specific genealogies within the field of Digital Humanities, two major themes seem to be dominant concerning Digital History in the current discussions. The first is the handling of large amounts of data, whether from the net or digitally available from other sources. This is based on the experiences of Humanities Computing back in the 1960s and the 1970s.
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New Perspectives for Data Driven History?
The catalyst for the public interest in this kind of “Data Driven History” was the launch of Google’s Ngram Viewer in December 2010.9 Together with the Cultural Observatory, Harvard, Encyclopaedia Britannica, and the American Heritage Dictionary, Google developed a tool to analyze millions of digitized books within the Google Books project by various criteria. Since then, several other important collections of digitized text–e.g. JSTOR and HathiTrust–have presented similar and even more precise tools for “Culturomics”, as this method is named.10
¶ 15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 1 A second, maybe more popular focus of Data Driven History is the visualization of historical events, whether in a geographical information system, a timeline or in a historical network analysis (eventually inspired by Bruno Latour’s Actor-network theory). This kind of Data Driven History can incorporate theorems from visual history as well from the spatial turn favored by many fashionable historians in the last couple of years.
¶ 16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 2 In the last few years everything that historians did on the net had an auxiliary nature: not a single tool of the last fifteen years challenged the epistemological core area of historiography. They all touched auxiliary activities such as searching, preparing or publishing historical information on- or offline. Data Driven History–or in a broader sense–Digital History has the potential to change that. The sum of all the mentioned possibilities indeed could give rise to some basic questions concerning the epistemology of historical sciences. But even this kind of basal discussion on the epistemological significance of countable data versus hermeneutic approaches to the past isn’t new to the history of historiography in the 20th century.
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Old Questions in a New Context?
Already the first generation of the French Annales School reflected the consequences of quantitative aspects of history: Marc Bloch’s famous Feudal Society (first published 1939/1940 in French as La société féodale) was strongly inspired by the sociologist Maurice Halbwachs. In the third generation of the Annales School (circa 1950 to 1970) quantitative approaches were dominant and they were interested in historical demography based on serial sources. One of the doyens of this period was the Marxist Ernest Labrousse from the Sorbonne.
¶ 18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 At the same time similar questions arose in American historiography, too. In 1964 Robert William Fogel published Railroads and American Economic Growth. Essays in Econometric History (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press). This book was the starting signal for so-called Cliometrics or New Economic History. In 1993 the Nobel Price in Economic Sciences was awarded jointly to Robert W. Fogel and Douglass C. North for “having renewed research in economic history by applying economic theory and quantitative methods in order to explain economic and institutional change.”11
¶ 19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 In the German-speaking countries the Bielefelder Schule, led by Hans-Ulrich Wehler and Jürgen Kocka, concentrated on redefining history as a historical social science (Historische Sozialwissenschaft). Their influence had been considerable but weakened in the last two decades. So the crucial question for Data Driven History is whether the exponents of this new idea will manage to overcome the old discussions and start with new ideas, mashing up e.g. elements of statistical analysis with discourse analysis. Apparently Data Driven History opens up a new path for the historiography of the 21st century.
¶ 20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 About the author: Peter Haber is Adjunct Professor of Modern History at the History Department of the University of Basel (Switzerland). He received his doctorate for research on Hungarian-Jewish history, and qualified for professorial status with a postdoctoral study on the historical sciences in the digital age.
- ¶ 21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0
- <http://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/british/digital?q=digital> ↩
- See: Friedrich L. Bauer, “Trits and Trytes. Ein früher ternärer Computer in der Sowjetunion,”, Informatik Spektrum 30 (2007) 279-284. ↩
- See: <http://data.gov.uk>. ↩
- Peter Haber, “’Google-Syndrom’. Phantasmagorien des historischen Allwissens im World Wide Web,” in Vom Nutzen und Nachteil des Internets für die historische Erkenntnis. Version 1.0, eds. Angelika Epple and Peter Haber (Zurich: Chronos, 2005), 73–89. ↩
- See : < http://thatcamp.org/>. ↩
- <http://tcp.hypotheses.org/files/2010/07/Pages-de-Aff_Dh40x60-EN2BIS.pdf>, paragraph 1. ↩
- Paragraph 6. ↩
- Paragraph 3. ↩
- Jean Baptiste Michel et al. “Quantitative Analysis of Culture Using Millions of Digitized Books” Sciencexpress December 16th, 2010. ↩
- See: Benjamin Zimmer and Charles E. Carson, “Among the New Words,” American Speech 86 (2011) 192-214. ↩
- <http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/economics/laureates/1993> ↩