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Posts Tagged ‘measurement’

Word Counts and What Counts

A post back in June on “digital humanities” discussed the promises and perils of turning to “Big Data” to answer questions about American history. I focused there on a study that looked specifically at the history of American literature. A paper in Psychological Science this August uses the same tool – the Ngram function in Google that counts a word in the company’s sample of over 1 million books ever published in U.S. and calculates the percentage of all words it represents – to make broad claims about historical changes in American character.

Patricia Greenfield, an eminent UCLA psychologist who has conducted terrific research on cognitive development, changes in cognitive skills, and cultural differences in thinking, much of it based on her work in rural Mexico (mentioned in this 2012 post), uses Ngram to argue that there was a major shift in America over two centuries from a communal to a self-centered culture. Ngram word counts in American books from 1800 to 2000 show, she claims, that Americans changed from being group-oriented and sharing to being individualistic and self-absorbed. Maybe. But there are a lot of issues to consider before accepting the claim. These concerns show, once again, the pitfalls in using such statistical methods ahistorically.

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