Qualifications in Cliometrics/Quantitative History

This weeks readings, while occasionally controversial, have shown how cliometrics, quantitative history and the digital world as a whole have opened up new opportunities for historians to gather and assess vast amounts of data in making conclusions about the past. Websites like IPUMS have made this data even more available for scholars, and as discussed in the Ruggles article, have made it easier to code in demographic conditions as well as census data, making these conclusions even more accurate. However, there is trouble when trying to use the mathematic world to interpret the past.

This trouble is seen in Time on the Cross. When reading this I will say that I felt some of the wording and phrasing seemed a bit sketchy. I had assumed that most of the backlash would come from people who were like me, versed in traditional history and felt that the authors hadn’t considered enough of the stories behind slavery, focusing on numbers instead of human beings. However, like Haskell, I was surprised to find that a lot of the backlash came from the way in which the authors calculated their numbers. In his critique of the work, Haskell not only employs economic theory but also traditional historical methodology. One such example is, “Fogel and Engerman note the total absence of large free labor farms in the South and attribute it to the superior efficiency of slave labor. But it might just as well be attributed to the shortage of free laborers and the ideological opposition that slaveowners no doubt would have mounted against an alternative mode of production…” Clearly, cliometrics has its merits in the ability to disseminate large amounts of information in a clear and less time-consuming manner, but when taken out of context, it can bear very little meaning in the study of history.

In an example of using quantitative history in the context of the time period, the IPUMS website linked to a New York Times Article from April 2, 2012 that showed how newly digitized census data has proven that the Civil War death toll was about 20% higher than the numbers historians had been reporting for over a century. By factoring in information such as the type of health care available in the Union and in the Confederacy, high immigrant presence in the armies, and female death rates. However, Dr. Hacker, who came up with the new figures, admits that much of these numbers are based on estimates and assumptions that keep his data from being completely accurate.

My questions from our readings this week stem from the qualifications that each author has made regarding their cliometric and quantitative conclusions. In Time on the Cross, the authors acknowledge that the information they are presenting is controversial, however their contempt for past research into the economics of slavery keeps them from clarifying exactly how much of their data relies on qualifiers and assumptions about the Confederacy. The other authors and researchers make clear that in using data and numbers to make conclusions about the past there tends to be a lot of guesswork, and coming up with an exact, perfect number appears to be nearly impossible. I feel that this connects cliometrics and quantitative history with the traditional study of history in that, when studying primary sources, a historian can never be completely sure that they are getting the entire story. There is always bias or a hidden motive in records of the past, and in that way it appears that no matter if we are using numbers or words, there is always room for error in a historians work.

Is the Internet Reliable for Source Material?

Daniel Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig only briefly mention the idea that the internet has potential as a source of historical data. I think this is a topic which begs for more consideration. So many people have access to the internet nowadays, and so many websites give them the ability to “talk” (or should I say, type) about themselves, their lives, and the world around them. The internet could, in theory, be a reservoir of data on everything from popular opinions and reactions to monumental political events, such as the enacting of a new law, to race, or to a high-grossing film.

I recently came across this blog entry which discussed an online newspaper that came up with the idea to add “annotations” to individual paragraphs in its articles. This way ordinary people can discuss their own thoughts or experiences in accordance with specifics discussed in the article. Imagine then, that we are reading an article that discusses the career of a politician running for election. Each segment of the article, discussing a different event in the person’s career, could be commented on by the readers, who might respond with contempt, anger, approval, intrigue, etc. This could be used to pinpoint various attitudes that affect the outcome of the election. It adds a qualitative aspect to measuring values and opinions of the public.

Searching the internet for source material is also beset by difficulties, however. Not everybody chooses to post a response online. Furthermore, the internet is highly anonymous. We don’t know if it’s a certain kind of person that’s posting. And generalizing about the general public is more difficult. It’s easier to generalize, for example, about the values of Republicans, who represent a specific portion of the voting population, when we have a central figure speaking at a national convention to quote. When we’re dealing with commentary on the internet, however, we don’t know if the people who are commenting are outliers and we don’t always have access to other social variables such as income or party affiliation; in short, it’s difficult to quantify the data and state what it means for the larger population or determine what group of people it represents.

It is difficult to tell how reliable the use of common internet discussions and comments are for historical analysis. Perhaps for this reason the internet has not been thoroughly discussed as a potential for source material. Although comments and “posts” on the internet have questionable merit as data, they do illuminate to some degree the lives of ordinary people. A suitable next step might be to ask how the production of such material could be channeled to make its interpretation less problematic for the historian.

Blogs I will Follow

I will be following


Benefits of Virtual Exhibits

I think that Abigail brought up some important issues involving exhibits and virtual exhibits. I would just like to take a moment to briefly respond to her post and to take a look some of the benefits of a virtual exhibit versus a physical exhibit. I am not saying that virtual exhibits are better or more useful than physical exhibits, but rather that they have certain advantages over physical exhibits in displaying certain types of content. Physical exhibits have their own advantages over virtual exhibits, but this post is going to focus on virtual exhibits.

First, to respond to Abigail’s post, I think she is right that virtual exhibits can aid in the exploration and experience of physical exhibits. I think it is important to begin an exploration of virtual and physical exhibits by showing how they are similar and connected. Seeing virtual exhibits as a tool or an extension of a physical exhibit is an excellent middle ground that simultaneously shows the usefulness of virtual exhibits and paints the virtual exhibit as non-threatening to the physical exhibit medium. This seems careful and calculated in initial debates, perhaps as a means to ameliorate the concerns of traditional exhibit builders, museum workers, archivists, and other related professions. However, I believe that there are certain advantages to creating virtual exhibits, not as a supplement to physical exhibits, but as an independent project. Michael Frisch, in “Interchange,” states that new approaches to public history and exhibit building need to be “brought in to ventilate the indeed stuffy confines of traditional museum exhibits” (469). While this statement might be a bit harsh on physical exhibits, it does bring up an excellent point: virtual exhibits have certain advantages over physical exhibits. There are some things that virtual exhibits can do that physical exhibits cannot (the reverse is true too).

First, virtual exhibits provide a better and more effective means of displaying born-digital content. How do you display a series of tweets, podcasts, and blog posts? These are sources whose initial format is digital. How would you display a tweet in a physical exhibit? Would you just display a transcription? Would you display it as a linear conversation? To me it seems like the physical medium limits our ability to display born-digital content. There is an interactivity and connectivity between tweets that must be displayed. There are responses to and comments on podcasts that are just as useful/interesting as the original podcast. In addition to blog posts, we might want to analyze the comments and reposts. Virtual exhibits also run into some problems with displaying born-digital content, but it seems to me that digital content is best observed in a digital format rather than a physical setting. In this case, the physical exhibit is one level of abstraction too removed from the original format of the born-digital material.

Second, virtual exhibits allow us (and the user) more freedom to manipulate objects in the collection. We can zoom in or adapt an image of an ancient Greek amphora from a virtual exhibit. We can use digital tools to analyze the pigments or cracks in the gloss. In a physical exhibit, you would be lucky if they even allow you to take a picture of the vase—let alone touch it. Virtual exhibits, therefore, not only allow the user a greater freedom to manipulate exhibit objects, but also create a greater degree of user/viewer interactivity that physical exhibits do not allow.

Moreover, the digital medium allows us to design our exhibits to be more multimodal or hypertextual. An excellent example of this is the Knotted Line, an interactive, multimodal, and very hypertextual Scalar project. It provides an extreme example of how different a virtual exhibit can be from a physical exhibit. Physical exhibits can be multimodal as well, but virtual exhibits allow us a greater degree of layering. Think of how physical exhibits are usually designed. They are usually arranged very linearly. You start at one object and you work your way through the exhibit in a fairly ordered fashion. Sometimes, you even follow numbers or arrows from one item to another. You might read a letter, then watch a video, then see a painting, then hear a song, but the pathway is still pretty set. This is where digital exhibits have an advantage. Even if there is a primary path you expect users to follow for your exhibit, the digital medium allows us to easily to establish alternative pathways between items through hyperlinks, tags, and keyword searches. Moreover, users can create their own pathways and experiences through exploring a virtual exhibit in their own way. A user might want to see every video in your exhibit from a specific day on a specific topic. Another user might want to see every object that mentions a particular person. In a physical exhibit, a person might need to walk all over the exhibit, scrutinizing each item to see if it mentions that one person they are interested in. In a virtual exhibit, a person might be able to do this with just a few clicks of the mouse or a simple keyword search.

Finally, a virtual exhibit is not as limited as a physical exhibit in the amount of objects it can display. Physical exhibits are limited by a finite amount of space, whereas virtual exhibits are not (except server capabilities, but regardless, virtual exhibits can display a lot more items than physical ones). Imagine an Ancient Egypt exhibit at a large museum. The items displayed only represent a sampling of the total number of objects the museum has from or concerning Ancient Egypt. In a virtual exhibit you can display everything, not just a sample.

These are just some of the advantages of the virtual exhibit compared to the physical exhibit, but I am not saying that virtual exhibits are superior to physical exhibits. Physical exhibits definitely have certain advantages over virtual exhibits as well. However, one should not dismiss virtual exhibits as secondary to physical exhibits. Virtual exhibits can be a superior medium of display depending on the purpose and scope of your project. The choice between a physical exhibit and a virtual exhibit (or both) is very dependent on the goal or purpose of your exhibit. Choosing between a physical and virtual exhibit depends on what you are displaying, how you want to display it, and how much material you want to display. If you are attempting to create a hypertextual, multimodal, and interactive exhibit of a massive collection of born-digital content, you might want to consider a displaying it in a digital format.


Virtual Museum Exhibits

I was struck by several of the points made by the authors of the readings this week, specifically in the area of public history and public history institutions creating virtual exhibits. In my “Issues and Problems” class last year we talked about this often, and whether traditional historic institutions should feel threatened by the rise in popularity their own “virtual exhibits.” Could these virtual exhibits detract actual visitors, in favor of the “well I can just see that online” argument? If some one in this day and age sees something on a website that interests them, would this make them more or less likely to make the trek to see it in person?

In at least two of our readings, the authors argue that in some cases, these web exhibits have the advantage over the more traditional museum exhibit. In “Interchange” Stephen Mintz sees this advantage in that, “virtual exhibitions can allow users to magnify objects for closer scrutiny…in addition, there is no issue of “flow”; one can spend as much time as one wishes with an object.” Oftentimes these virtual exhibits can accomplish what traditional museums struggle with in their static states, creating “nonlinear” and easily accessible exhibits that engage their audience. Cohen and Rosenzweig write that, “online museum exhibits… transcend the barriers of time…, distance…, and space… that have often frustrated museum curators.”

Through my experiences, these virtual exhibits appear to aid in promoting exhibits found at a museum. As Taylor writes in “Interchanges,” “… digital technology can never emulate the experience of being physically present with an object from the past.” Virtual and physical exhibits do not need to be mutually exclusive of one another. In a recent interview found through the AHA blog, the Secretary of the Smithsonian’s G. Wayne Clough, he discusses his e-book’s take on this new way to connect to the public. Clough believes that the Smithsonian must give up its role as the “Voice of God” in favor of having public input about the collections to digitize, and allow them to have a hand in interpretation as well. The digital world gives public history institutions better ways to connect with their audience, and create valuable learning experiences. It is an irrefutable fact that an institution cannot survive in this day and age without the proper web presence, public historians should plan exhibits on the basis of what material will translate well both in person and also on the web in order to maximize their audience’s understanding and accessibility.

An example of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History’s “Souvenir Nation” online exhibit, that serves as a companion to the one located in DC.


You don’t have to use twitter, but it can be a good way to find out what’s going on in the field. We’ll expand this list, but just to start:

Think about setting up at Twitter account to follow some of your historical colleagues at other institutions.

Here at Northeastern, you might want to follow:


Some historians and humanists outside of the university:

@dancohen (Digital Public Library of America)
@DavidRArmitage (Harvard)