- Quantitative Methods in the Humanities: An Introduction by Claire Lemercier and Claire Zalc
History is notoriously a “big tent” discipline. Because everything has a past, every subject has a history. The tools appropriate to ferret out those histories multiply just as easily as the topics, depending on the questions being asked and the nature of the evidence preserved (accidentally or otherwise) that might answer them. In what sense is History a coherent “discipline” at all? Is there more to hold it together than just a ferocious commitment to the past tense? Must historians adhere to a recognized and common methodology of practice, but of what might it consist, in the face of so much variety? These questions bedevil historians everywhere, especially when they are trying to figure out what their students should know and/or know how to do. Whatever the answers might be, these questions frame both the motivation for the book under review and its value for readers.
Written by two historians, but speaking broadly to humanists and even some social scientists, this book seeks, with great success, to offer a practical and encouraging guide to a broad toolkit of quantitative methods for use in answering historical questions. Appropriately, the authors make no claim to offer the definitive word on which kinds of historical questions are most important, or which methods will yield definitive answers. What they offer is more a smorgasboard of techniques than a sequentially structured prix fixe menu. They do not follow the standard format of a methods textbook with instruction in the methods themselves, but instead assemble a collection of thought exercises and inspirational examples drawn from the literature that budding quantitative [End Page 137] historians might emulate in their own work. They describe all of it as “a dialog between concrete problems and general questions (3).”
The authors begin by declaring that anything can be quantified, even words; this banquet of methods is open to all comers as long as they are at least a little adventurous. Their tone is not scolding but hortatory, and they are fully cognizant of the fierce resistance that many historians will mount against their offering. In one especially cogent passage, they note, since “it is not unusual to input [digitally] the full text of a range of sources in the course of a research project,” “why not experiment with computerized textual analysis (144)?” Why not indeed?
One reason why historians might hesitate has to do with the discipline of history’s own fraught twentieth-century experience with quantification. In what was initially a revolt of the French Annales School in the 1920s against its contemporary historical establishment—that is, against the primacy of politics, the “great man” narrative, and a strict reverence for chronology—a new social history that privileged the group, the unprivileged, and the longue duree, and employed quantitative methods to study them, rose to prominence in the decades after World War II. By the 1960s and 1970s, the so-called “new social history,” “new political history,” and “new economic history,” all of which enjoyed high status, demanded increasingly complex computational techniques to practice. But as with other booms that had preceded this one, the bust was not far behind.
According to the authors, the resulting “disillusionment” about quantification’s “excesses and errors” ushered in a period of deep retrenchment, even suspicion (15). Courses in quantitative methods disappeared from the history curriculum, and cliometric research moved almost exclusively into economics departments. Such is, more or less, the landscape as it exists today, except that, as the authors note, the emergence of “digital humanities” might have cracked open a new door to quantification in historical research. Their book seizes the opportunity to throw this door open widely.
A number of core virtues in the book should be flagged for special notice. Foremost, this book is modest in its wisdom. It promotes an expansion of our exploratory capacity through a broad spectrum of quantitative methodologies without making extravagant claims for...