From cultural studies to culturomics

9780195181456The New York Times opinion pages has published an amusingly titled op-ed from Armand Leroi, One Republic of Learning: Digitizing the Humanities. The “one republic” is presumably meant to reflect the dissolution of the “two cultures” segregation, and the rise of a unified scholarly world utilizing the same methodologies and analytical frameworks. E. O. Wilson argued for something similar in Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge over 15 years ago. So why is Leroi publishing this in The New York Times now? I think because “big data” has now come to the humanities. The term “culturomics” was coined in 2010, so the age is young yet. But there’s another aspect to Leroi’s argument, and that is the analytic framework to interpret this data. In the length and technical level of an op-ed in The New York Times there wasn’t much detail, but he states:

But most scholars, I believe, will simply accept quantitative tools for the power that they offer….

Whether the new humanists will accept, or even understand, the rise of a mathematical theory of culture is another matter. It’s being built by biologists, economists and physicists and being published in the unforgiving terms and journals that such scientists read. I hope they do. After all, it seeks to explain the world of human-made things that they know and love.

31PPZ1DeWGL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_In the domain of social affairs I presume he’s alluding to the intellectual tradition pioneered by E.O. Wilson & Charles Lumsden, Marcus Feldman & L. L. Cavalli-Sforza, and Peter Richersen & Robert Boyd. These thinkers took as their data cultural variation, and leveraged the formal analytical framework used by evolutionary theorists, to create a discipline which attempts to explain the patterns of variation around us beginning with a few assumptions. Because of the focus on culture this work often can be thought of as a form of theoretical anthropology. But, it has not been that influential. Here is what Cavalli-Sforza said in 2006 when I interviewed him:

4) Moving to, in the interests of frankness, less influential books, in “A Genetic and Cultural Odyssey” Linda Stone & Paul F. Lurquin note the relative lack of response to “Cultural Transmission and Evolution” within the social sciences. You seem to chalk this up in part to the lack of comfort with mathematical methodologies within cultural anthropology. Over the past few years a small group of anthropologists, Peter Richerson, Robert Boyd and Joe Henrich seem to be continuing the attempt to model culture using the techniques that have been fortuitous in the biological sciences. Do you think that we are past the high tide of ‘interpretative’ anthropology and that a more explicitly hypothetical-deductive methodology may come to the fore? [my question]

I entirely agree that the average quality of anthropological research, especially of the cultural type, is kept extremely low by lack of statistical knowledge and of hypothetical deductive methodology. At the moment there is no indication that the majority of cultural anthropologists accept science – the most vocal of them still choose to deny that anthropology is science. They are certainly correct for what regards most of their work. [Cavalli-Sforza response]

I suspect that some of the same attitude is going to apply to the humanities more broadly. “Big data” can at least dampen the tendency to support a thesis with three examples, cherry-picked from literature. But I’m not sure that humanists are going to be happy about the sort of logical analysis which true formalism implies, as people spend more time muddling through algebra than working on a perfect turn of the phrase.

But Armand does note that “the truth of art criticism is not the same kind as scientific truth.” An old fashioned view is that great literature is there to tell us something on a deep normative level, rather than an empirical description of the world around us. In Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class the author argues that one reason many young people refuse to pay for music and see little value in high culture is that the relativistic strain in contemporary academe which is often bracketed under the category “post modern” has totally undermined the idea that art has any intrinsic value. Rather, once it is “deconstructed” as semantic expressions of power relations, or some broader historical force, its sole value is purely semiotic. At which point art, and the critics who rely upon it as the raw material of their enterprise, become totally devalued. Ultimately I think the equivalence of Andy Warhol’s soup can with Michaelangelo’s David made by those who have imbibed a debased Post Modernism is far more dangerous to the long term enterprise of humanistic scholarship than quantitization and formalization.

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