Stanford University professor Dan Edelstein spoke to members of Boston University’s history department Wednesday about how he and his colleagues are modernizing the study of history by using data analysis to better understand the European Enlightenment.
BU professors and librarians who attended said they found Edelstein’s methodology useful to their own studies and teaching.
“Before this data was available and before texts had been digitized at this large scale, we had to extrapolate a lot on the basis of fairly small evidence,” said Edelstein, a professor of French and history. “Our approach is more to try to collect everything that’s possible to know and that has been turned into some kind of machine-readable form, and then see what emerges.”
Edelstein described the method of analyzing available data, such as correspondence between members of the Enlightenment, to better understand the time period.
“What we’re working on right now is a social network graph that would allow you to try and identify key individuals who acted as hubs in this network, but maybe we haven’t really thought about,” Edelstein said. “It would be a way of exploring a network of people based on their links rather than where they were or what they wrote.”
As an example, Edelstein shared a map illustrating the destinations of letters sent by the French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire. Most of his correspondences were with other individuals living in France.
“It’s just a very national network, which came as a bit of a surprise given the image of the Enlightenment as a much more cosmopolitan period,” Edelstein said. “We always focus on the famous foreign correspondence that they have, but when you look at the aggregate on the quantitative level, it tends to fall into a national dimension.”
Edelstein said metadata could offer new perspectives of history and prompt further research.
“It gives us really incredibly useful, blurry snapshots of what the general picture might look like,” he said. “These visualizations are really designed as tools of discovery and not at all as the final product that is going to tell your story for you.”
Edelstein also spoke about his work analyzing the American and French Research on the Treasury of the French Language Encyclopédie, a database containing more than 70,000 articles written during the French Enlightenment.
By entering the frequency of references made to other writers as well as the use of certain terms within the ARTFL Encyclopédie, Edelstein said it was possible to analyze overall trends in the ideas expressed by Enlightenment thinkers.
“You can quickly get a sense of how fairly large shifts start taking place across large periods of time,” he said.
Edelstein said data mining of this sort can be applied to other time periods of history.
“We’re already working with modern historians, and there are other projects that look at social history,” he said. “They’re certainly methodologies that could be used in a whole array of different fields.”
Vika Zafrin, an institutional repository librarian at Mugar Memorial Library, said Edelstein’s methodologies interested her because of her training in the digital humanities.
“Digital tools are fantastic at engaging people — whether they be researchers at the faculty level, or graduate level or undergraduate students — within the scope of history, in engaging people with primary sources,” Zafrin said.
Zafrin said this engagement was an integral facet of digital humanities studies.
“One of the most exciting thing about digital humanities work is that it allows you, as a person teaching a subject, to engage people more closely and more hands-on with the subject and also to teach the historian’s craft of engaging with primary materials by engaging with it online,” she said.
James Schmidt, a College of Arts and Sciences professor of history, philosophy and political science, said he found data analysis useful.
“It’s a really good way of just getting some sense, if you’re teaching a course on the Enlightenment of the global movement,” Schmidt said. “Historians are trying to use certain things that maybe 30 years ago seemed strange to us, but we now look at it and can see its use.”