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What Happened to Quantitative History? A Scholar Runs the Numbers

Scholars are increasingly taking a quantitative approach to history. You see that in the writing of the Stanford archaeologist-historian Ian Morris, whom I profiled in this week’s Chronicle Review, and in the work of even more radical quantifiers like Peter Turchin, a biologist at the University of Connecticut whose burgeoning discipline of “cliodynamics” is featured in a sidebar to the Morris article.

Yet scholars have experienced earlier infatuations with number-heavy history, notably the 70s-era boom-and-bust of “cliometrics.” And now we can quantify it.

In response to the Chronicle Review articles, Mr. Turchin graphed the evolution of quantitative history by tracing how frequently some relevant terms appear in Google’s enormous corpus of digitized books. What he found might be of interest to historians and social scientists, who sometimes tell different stories about what exactly happened to quantitative history—and how big it was in the first place.

The first graph plots the use of the name “cliometrics.” The data, writes Mr. Turchin, tell a clear story: “an explosive rise” that peaked in 1978, followed by “a gentle decline.”

cliometrics

 

But the story goes back even further. When Mr. Turchin plotted the phrase “quantitative history,” he found that it began bubbling up around 1910.

quantitative history

 

“The development of science is both cyclic and cumulative,” Mr. Turchin writes. “Fashions come and go, but they leave behind them more substantial foundations for the next cycle. So we are now (as I believe) in the third cycle. Cliodynamics is building on the previous success of cliometrics, but we now have better mathematical tools, more data, and we are addressing a much broader spectrum of questions. This time, we will not fade away!”

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