Lynn's Blog

Learning About Digital History

Graphs, Maps and Trees… oh my! November 14, 2009

Filed under: Class readings — lprice3 @ 3:00 pm

I recently finished reading the book “Graphs Maps Trees” by Franco Moretti and have to say I very much enjoyed it. The ideas were fascinating on a theoretical level, and I am now trying to convert those theories to concrete uses for the study of history.

Graphs – This is probably the most straightforward method that Moretti uses to expand and transform the study of literary history. He seems to be focusing on the idea of the wisdom of crowds, arguing that studying a select few literary classics will allow for much less knowledge of literary history than will the quantitative study of all literature—popular and unpopular. He states, “it isn’t the sum of individual cases: it’s a collective system, that should be grasped as such, as a whole.” (4) The importance to the study of history here is Moretti’s argument that the flow of historical genres—i.e. their birth, height of popularity, and death—is a reflection of culture and the historical context. One novel may reflect life in a certain era, but by looking at the ebb and flow of all novels, a greater picture of historical time can be seen. This is also an important aspect of Moretti’s method. He writes, “it’s also true that if one reframes individual instances as moments of a cycle, then the nature of the questions changes.” By having the quantitative data of the literature, the qualitative—that classic novel—can offer more insight. This can easily be translated into other aspects of history. I study slavery; by understanding the bigger picture—the number of slaves and free African Americans at any given time; laws regarding them; the rise of abolitionism—an individual case of a runaway slave, for instance, can take on greater meaning. [Or as Burke wrote, to determine what is actually archived about slaves and how it is categorized.]

Maps – This section focuses on mapping books in a geographical context to tie them into the ebb and flow mentioned above. The (geographic) map of the parish of Helpston prior to and after implementation of enclosure shows a stark difference of land use. Moretti then compares this with his literary mapping, showing how novels such as Mary Mitford’s “Our Village” demonstrate the evolution of the idea of locality and nationalism that came along with enclosure. Moretti’s maps show that Mitford’s early stories stay close to the center of the village—villagers leave their home briefly only to return. Her stories then gradually involve villagers straying farther and farther from home as the greater world overtakes the village. Moretti then ties this change to the greater historical landscape, showing that the 1830 peasant uprisings were a ‘force from without’ that also played into the books’ literary maps.

Trees – This seemed to me to be the most abstract section. However, the comparison of the tree of life to the tree of culture was an excellent visual example. The tree of life—related to Darwin’s theory of evolution—contains branches always diverging and reaching outward, perhaps coming close to intersecting but never doing so. I tried to think of this in terms of an animal evolving over time to adapt to their environment—they gain physical or instinctual qualities necessary to survive, and doing so, will not evolve to then lose those qualities. [I’m not a scientist—this is just my understanding!] Moretti argues that the tree of knowledge/culture not only has diverging branches, but converging branches. Those converging branches then diverge again to continue the process. Here’s what I understood from the detective fiction example: The tree begins as a basic detective story. The branches are the parts of the story—the obvious clues, the hint of clues, the hidden clues, etc. Then the readers step in and determine what they want in a detective story; the tree starts to grow to conform to their interests. The obvious clues may intersect with the hint of clues, making the hints more obvious. This may not work, and the two may diverge again and create a branch of disguised clues. How does this relate to history? I’m not sure. Perhaps he is saying that culture, like the detective story, is controlled by the people at large and by the flow of history rather than by any individual story. Which would mean that to study an event in history, you would need to include the broad quantitative data in order to understand it completely (which goes back to the argument in graphs).

All of this then, I suppose, ties into digital history because it gives historians much greater access to the information needed to create Moretti’s graphs, maps and trees. Which means he would choose the “abundance” aspect of the Internet as a positive quality. 

I apologize that this is so long, but it was an interesting book that had many concepts I am trying to deal with. Please feel free to share your thoughts—even if you think something I got from the book is completely incorrect. It wouldn’t be the first time, and that’s how we learn!

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3 Responses to “Graphs, Maps and Trees… oh my!”

  1. theoldscholar Says:

    I like your discussion of the book, and I also liked your comment on Carl’s site. I commented on that one over there.

    One thing that I took out of the discussion of graphs and trees in relation to the development of novel genres is I believe the same type of visualizations can be made for historical inquiry. There is always the popular historical inquiry of the day, which lasts for about 20 years. Just as the initial novel form of Courtship Novel lasted longer than later genres(figure 9, p19) so did the historical “Grand Narrative.” Then we had cultural history, social history, etc. Each one becoming the vogue and then moving into the background. This way of looking at things gives us different viewpoints, but like my post on Car’s site says “So What?”

    Your observation that we have more data to look at being a positive because we can view these different view points only makes sense if we answer the “So What” question. Your post helps me get a handle on that question and our need to understand broad pictures before diving down to understand the detail. Thank you.

    • lprice3 Says:

      You make a really good point about historical methodologies being compared to novel genres which I hadn’t thought about. For some reason, I can’t stop picturing that culture tree. U.S. history used to be the “great men.” Then it focused on those who had been previously ignored – women, African Americans – and downplayed the great men narrative. Now we’ve seemed to converge again to try to incorporate both (or at least I do in my research). Now to think about where it will again diverge and how…fascinating!

  2. […] week I am going to sort of take this to heart. There are two great posts, one at Lynn’s site, and one at Carl’s site, that discuss data visualization very well. Instead of highlighting […]


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