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Posts with tag Historical memory

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Here’s some inside baseball: the trends in periodization in history dissertations since the beginning of the American historical profession. A few months ago, Rob Townsend, who until recently kept everyone extremely well informed about professional trends at American Historical Association* sent me the list of all dissertation titles in history the American Historical Association knows about from the last 120 years. (It’s incomplete in some interesting ways, but that’s a topic for another day). It’s textual data. But sometimes the most interesting textual data to analyze quantitatively are the numbers that show up. Using a Bookworm database, I just pulled out from the titles the any years mentioned: that lets us what periods of the past historians have been the most interested in, and what sort of periods they’ve described..

More access to the connections between words makes it possible to separate word-use from language. This is one of the reasons that we need access to analyzed texts to do any real digital history. I’m thinking through ways to use patterns of correlations across books as a way to start thinking about how connections between words and concepts change over time, just as word count data can tell us something (fuzzy, but something) about the general prominence of a term. This post is about how the search algorithm I’ve been working with can help improve this sort of search. I’ll get back to evolution (which I talked about in my post introducing these correlation charts) in a day or two, but let me start with an even more basic question that illustrates some of the possibilities and limitations of this analysis: What was the Civil War fought about?

So I just looked at patterns of commemoration for a few famous anniversaries. This is, for some people, kind of interesting–how does the publishing industry focus in on certain figures to create news or resurgences of interest in them?  I love the way we get excited about the civil war sesquicentennial now, or the Darwin/Lincoln year last year.

I was starting to write about the implicit model of historical change behind loess curves, which I’ll probably post soon, when I started to think some more about a great counterexample to the gradual change I’m looking for: the patterns of commemoration for anniversaries. At anniversaries, as well as news events, I often see big spikes in wordcounts for an event or person.

An anonymous correspondent says:

You mention in the post about evolution & efficiency that “Offhand, the evolution curve looks more the ones I see for technologies, while the efficiency curve resembles news events.”

That’s a very interesting observation, and possibly a very important one if it’s original to you, and can be substantiated. Do you have an example of a tech vs news event graph? Something like lightbulbs or batteris vs the Spanish American war might provide a good test case.

Also, do you think there might be changes in how these graphs play out over a century? That is, do news events remain separate from tech stuff? Tech changes these days are often news events themselves, and distributed similarly across media.

I think another way to put the tech vs news event could be in terms of the kind of event it is: structural change vs superficial, mid-range event vs short-term.

Anyhow, a very interesting idea, of using the visual pattern to recognize and characterize a change. While I think your emphasis on the teaching angle (rather than research) is spot on, this could be one application of these techniques where it’d be more useful in research.