Quantitative heterodoxology

Last week Science published an article introducing the term “culturomics” – the quantitative study of cultural trends. By constructing a database out of the by now 15 million books that Google have digitized over the past years, a Harvard based research team led by Jean-Baptiste Michel have created a powerful searchable tool which makes it possible to create quantitative date for analysing cultural trends. As they state in the abstract:

We constructed a corpus of digitized texts containing about 4% of all books ever printed. Analysis of this corpus enables us to investigate cultural trends quantitatively. We survey the vast terrain of ‘culturomics,’ focusing on linguistic and cultural phenomena that were reflected in the English language between 1800 and 2000. We show how this approach can provide insights about fields as diverse as lexicography, the evolution of grammar, collective memory, the adoption of technology, the pursuit of fame, censorship, and historical epidemiology. Culturomics extends the boundaries of rigorous quantitative inquiry to a wide array of new phenomena spanning the social sciences and the humanities.

In short, this is a tool which has the potential to revolutionise research methods in a vast number of fields. The best part: Google Labs have made the tool (the Ngram viewer) publicly available. Before even starting reading the article I found myself  thinking about a number of applications for my own research and field. Below follow some  rough examples, and preliminary results which already seem to challenge established knowledge in the history of esotericism.

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