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The quest for quantitative history
A story for the ages
Imagine we’re all participants in a grand, sprawling story – history.
So begins an epic quest, written by ChatGPT, about Quantitative History and Uncharted People, now available for pre-order.
But it’s a tale told unevenly: the narratives of the rich and influential are well-preserved, while the experiences of ordinary folks, especially those marginalised or oppressed, often get left in the dust of forgotten manuscripts or were never recorded in the first place. This isn’t just a matter of historical curiosity, as these gaps distort our understanding of the past, affecting our self-perceptions and informing our future decisions.
The edited book, published by Bloomsbury next week, proposes that quantitative history can tell the stories of those neglected in conventional archival sources.
Fortunately, historians are like intrepid adventurers, innovating to reveal these hidden chapters. One powerful tool in their arsenal is quantitative history - using statistical data to illuminate the past. Think of it as unlocking a treasure chest of administrative documents that might seem mundane on their own, but together, can challenge our current beliefs and open up unexplored pathways in history. Even in places where bias exists, like South Africa, these methods can help us understand the extent of prejudice and shed new light on overlooked narratives.
The thirteen chapters show how historical sources as diverse as death notices, run-away advertisements, marriage records, petitions, company records, and many more can be exploited to tell these overlooked narratives.
This book, much like a guild of scholars from Stellenbosch University’s ‘Biography of an Uncharted People’ project, aims to guide both young historians interested in these techniques and established academics looking for new ways to unearth hidden truths. They’ve created resources like slides and tutorials to aid this quest. But remember, this is not about replacing traditional historical methods – it’s a cooperative strategy to fill in the gaps, to map the uncharted territories of our collective story, ensuring we craft a future that truly acknowledges the richness and complexity of our past.
Not too bad for a brittle and biased black box.
In the final chapter of Quantitative History and Uncharted People, I discuss the challenges of teaching quantitative history. I also asked ChatGPT to turn this chapter into something that would appeal to an audience of intrepid adventurers…
Imagine you are exploring an ancient castle and come across a hidden room full of dusty old books and scrolls. You are excited to discover the stories these items might tell, but you quickly realise they are written in a language you cannot understand. It’s not like you can simply use Google Translate to decipher it, right? This might seem like an adventure straight out of a video game, but it’s not far from the challenges faced by historians who want to study the past using quantitative methods.
First, let’s understand the problems. Historians are like detectives, trying to piece together what happened long ago from the ‘clues’ they can find today. But more and more of these clues are not just letters and diary entries; they’re in the form of data. The issue is that many history departments and historians haven’t yet fully embraced or incorporated data analysis and other quantitative methods into their research.
The reasons for this are manifold. Some historians may feel these techniques are intimidating or out of their depth, given their training in traditional historical research methods. Others may struggle to get the data they need for their research. Many historical archives are not yet digitised, and accessing physical archives can be a slow and painstaking process. In addition, strict privacy laws may limit access to valuable information.
Then there’s the matter of resources. Just as you might need a wizard’s spell to decipher those ancient scrolls in the castle, historians often need funding and technical resources to digitise, transcribe, and analyse data from historical documents. But don’t despair yet, because just like in a video game, there are ways to overcome these obstacles!
And how might such an adventurer tackle these obstacles?
First up, we can transform how history is taught at universities. Rather than only focusing on traditional history courses, universities can offer courses on quantitative history right from the undergraduate level. Imagine a class where instead of just reading about the feminist movement, you get to analyse data about the age of marriage, bridal pregnancy and women’s work. This would not only make history more interactive and exciting but also prepare students for the future demands of historical research.
Next, we should encourage interdisciplinary collaboration. Remember our castle adventure? What if you had a team with a linguist to translate the scrolls, an archaeologist to interpret the symbols, and a librarian to archive your findings? Similarly, in history research, collaborating with experts from fields like political science, economics, and computer science can add valuable new perspectives and skills.
Resources for teaching also need a boost. Imagine having a tutorial or dataset accompanying each chapter of your history textbook, helping you learn to analyse data as you study. Making such resources freely available can revolutionise the way history is taught.
Lastly, strategic partnerships and funding are critical. Just as a king might sponsor the hero’s quest in a game, foundations and other entities can fund the digitisation and transcription of historical archives, making them more accessible for research.
Ultimately, the goal is to equip history students with the tools they need to be successful researchers in the digital age. This includes not only a solid grounding in traditional history but also skills in quantitative methods and data analysis. By embracing these changes, historians won’t just keep pace with the times – they’ll be leading the charge into the future of historical research!
Pre-order Quantitative History and Uncharted People today and join us on this epic adventure.
On Wednesday, I’ll give a keynote at the European Historical Demography Conference in Nijmegen, the Netherlands. My talk is on Historical Demography and Uncharted People. Image created by Midjourney5.2.