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Big data driving revolution of historiography

By Jiang Yihua | 2015-05-28 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Historical documents are digitalized to create databases.


Big data is key to historiographical innovation. 


As we all know, big data, characterized by velocity, capacity, diversity and value density, dramatically expands the variety and availability of historical materials. Particularly, in addition to historical documents, relics and sites, many verbal, visual and audio resources, tangible and intangible alike, can be employed to reconstruct history. Unmistakably superior to local data, big data allows scholars to explore areas that were once beyond reach.

More importantly, big data gives form to the shapeless past and presents it as a measurable entity. Human experiences that once were difficult to quantify, store, analyze and share are converted into tangible data sets that can be transmitted instantly. Since a massive amount of data can be collected, stored, analyzed and managed with ease, it has become possible to apply a quantitative approach to studying long historical periods, and historians can therefore deepen their understanding of the world. The integration of historical research and large-scale genetic testing have injected vitality into studies on the history of clans, kinships, immigration and ethnic groups.

Big data also enables scholars to develop a systematic and comprehensive understanding of the merits and drawbacks of existing literature on a given topic so that they can avoid redundant research and start conducting truly innovative studies from a more advantageous position.

Furthermore, big data has revolutionized the utilization of historical materials. Digital simulation, one of its technologies, can reconstruct and visualize various scenes and factors of the past in an integrated and dynamic manner. With these techniques, big data might help to forge a series of new appraisal criteria for research output in the field.

Rediscovering the non-elite
Limited by the narrow scope of historical documents and existing literature, historians, intentionally or not, have focused too much on social elites. Consequently, there is a mistaken impression that they were the principal actors in the vast majority of events in human history. However, in the school of historical materialism, ordinary people are seen as the decisive force in social evolution.

Because of the scarcity of relevant data, common people have often been reduced to caricatures or to an abstract and conceptual existence. Big data has the ability to paint a concrete picture of them by making sense of the massive amount of records concerning their daily life. 

Big data can also facilitate the convergence of humanities and social sciences, natural sciences and technologies. Through borrowing from the up-to-date methodologies and outcomes of the latter two fields, different disciplines in humanities and social sciences can interact and integrate with each other to realize a more faithful understanding of the historical realities of the common people.

To a certain extent, without the vast amount of materials assembled by big data, historians may not be able to conduct positivistic research and make breakthroughs in the study of society, culture, life circles as well as grassroots mentalities, beliefs and sentiments in the past.

Accentuating the central importance of the common people does not necessarily negate the vital role played by the elite class in the course of history. Yet big data will yield persuasive evidence indicating that it is the common people  that decided the course of history.

Moreover, it can enable syncretic research on political, economic, social and cultural activities in the past from microlevel to the macroscale, and thus reveal how a society as a whole, the elites and common people alike, manages to shape its own destiny, consciously or unconsciously.

Galvanizing public history
In tandem with modernization, people are becoming more concerned with identity, and hence more attentive to their personal experiences as well as familial, ethical, regional and national history.
Collective memory is recognized as an integral part of daily life and a cultural-psychological necessity. The rise and escalating popularity of public history is an unmistakable sign of such recognition.

In the era of information technology, formal academic training is no longer needed to participate in writing history. Laypersons can record their own experiences as well as write and participate in discussions of regional, national and specialized areas of history.

In this vein, historical studies and writing are no longer exclusively the province of experts, and general readers are not passive recipients of expert opinions anymore. As a matter of fact, big data has already inspired many laypersons to step into the field.

Although they may lack basic training in historical research, they have their own intellectual strengths and specialized knowledge. That is why their role may prove to be complementary to professional historians. On one hand, this will make historical narratives and interpretation more diversified. On the other hand, faulty research might proliferate. In either case, it has already engendered enormous shocks to serious history and historians.

To digress, it is worth noting that correlativity, rather than causal relations, is the primary concern in the context of big data application. In other words, people only need to know “what.” The question of “why” is no longer important. Undoubtedly, big data will innovate traditional ways of thinking and pose great challenges to our cognitive and communicative capacities even as it galvanizes public history.

In any rate, the rise of public history should be considered as a companion rather than an alternative to expert history. True, big data can lend considerable help to document collection, textual studies and collation. However, profound thinking and in-depth research can neither be replaced by technological advancement nor accomplished overnight. Real progress in historical research requires down-to-earth dedication, perseverance and concentration.

Historians’ responsibility
Indeed, big data has revolutionized the representation and transmission of history. At the same time, it leads to the proliferation and amplifies the negative impacts of unexamined historical narratives and interpretations that are nothing more than unworthy gibberish. With countless ideas clamoring for recognition, the discursive war becomes more intensive in the field of history.


In this circumstance, historians should bear their share of responsibility by insisting on the stances, ideas and methodologies of historical materialism. It is necessary to identify the superficial and the essential, the contingent and the inevitable, the partial and the global, in the dialectical process of history and dig out historical facts from numerous contradictory, distorted and fictitious statements, just as Karl Marx, the founder of historical materialism, did before.

Only then can historians stay true to a clear and correct direction in the jungle of inconsistent historical data and achieve an accurate reconstruction and objective interpretation of the past so that the public can have a rational understanding of the truth, paths and patterns of history.
With the advent of big data, the quantitative approach has become more common in historical research. However, we cannot overlook its methodological drawbacks.

Most databases are limited in capacity, biased in terms of criteria for data selection, and random in sample size and type. Therefore, it is unwise to exaggerate the significance of quantitative research. Historical studies can only become more precise and meaningful when quantitative and qualitative approaches are combined. 

In the big data era, historians are expected to have broad knowledge and a global outlook, to reach beyond their academic background, and to participate in multidisciplinary research projects. Moreover, historians are also responsible for expanding the horizons of historiography and elevating the public understanding of history. They are also charged with the task of battling against ignorance as well as betrayals of and contempt for our collective past.

Jiang Yihua is a professor of history at Fudan University.