A discussion I was having recently led me to start exploring using Google Ngram
, a feature in Google Books
.I thought it could be interesting to look at a few terms I would associate with ideas around cultural ideas such as The Enlightenment, Modernity, Post-modernism and Crisis Modernity, the Great Confinement, and ideas about progress and science. They are all alas far easier to look at if you do the actual searches yourself in the Ngram viewer because the charts show up much larger, but I have a few saved images of some of the more interesting searches here. Keep in mind it’s all based on books Google have scanned for Google books - so it’s not exhaustive and it’s based on what people were writing about. Results can also be skewed by the number of times it might appear in a text or texts. It’s also worth taking into account that copyright and access to books will also potentially skew the data. It’s still potentially able to give us a rough idea of what issues and ideas were finding their way into print and when, so in theory one could potentially use it to track historical interest in those ideas, or by showing related antonyms possibly also a crisis with them. Google also sometimes has errors with its searches in Google books - some words and dates can end up being misread by it, especially if they are from old documents where the print may be hard for software to read.
Keep in mind the saying 'there are lies, damn lies, and statistics'. They can mislead and misrepresent things as well as reveal real trends and changes. So treat this all with a pinch of salt. If you want to its possible to follow the original links and on the bottom of the page you get links to the actual books as a search by date range. Some of them you can read portions of and sometimes it will show clips of the passages where the word occurred. Older books might also be able to be found in full on the wonderful Archive.org
I realised part way through I could extend the date range a little past the year 2000 and have updated the links but the graphics all have 2000 as the last date in the range.ProgressOriginal Chart
Word etymologies really also need to be considered - words can and do change their meanings or gain alternate ones over time and sometimes we are looking at new words. It can also be interesting to look at trends with the same words in different languages. Who was talking about it where as well as when? That would take a lot more time than I want to spend on this and I only have very limited skill with other languages though.
A seemingly obvious word to start with would be 'progress', but it’s a word that is open to multiple uses/meanings and though it does show an increase in use, its perhaps far to problematic. 'Science' is another problematic word as it significantly changed in usage over time (it used to apply much more generally to knowledge than it does now).
So instead I had a look at two ideas that relate very closely to our sense of things getting better or worse in society, utopia and dystopia.UtopiaOriginal ChartDystopiaOriginal Chart
I also looked at the idea of rationality - where there any changes with the frequency people talked about it?RationalOriginal ChartIrrationalOriginal Chart
Not unrelated to this are ideas of sanity and insanity (which Foucault
argued developed with the Enlightenment as a part of the concept of the 'Age of Reason').SaneOriginal ChartInsaneOriginal LinkMental health
It might be worth taking political correctness into account with this, so I also wondered if we might see an increase in discussing 'mental health' that matches where the late dips in talking about sanity and insanity occur last century. I could not get this one to create a saveable file (generally you change the part where it says 'graph' in the url to 'chart', enter and then 'save as' - the embed chart option doesn’t work here alas). Short answer is - it does show an increase around the same point in time, so it might be evidence of a very pc switch in language!Original LinkModernityOriginal LinkModernOriginal LinkI didn't bother with post-modern or post-modernism as a search term for posting – it’s very much a product of the 1960s. You will see it suddenly appear and shoot up the chart around then.
Check out the link though.
Aside from there being some fairly obvious fashions for concepts, the comparison that struck me as the most interesting was for utopia and dystopia. If we have a sense that we are reaping the fruits of the Enlightenment - why is it that we seem to much more interested in dystopias than utopias now? It could almost be interpreted as a sign that the Enlightenment started with utopian ideals and we now find them a wee bit strained. This is of course what people are talking about when they talk about crisis-modernity and what post-modernism was seeking to address. This is really all just a fairly limited and quick look at this whole idea of doing Google Ngram searches and I wouldn't want to start drawing hard and fast conclusions from it though.
The word that started it all for me was:ScientismOriginal Link
The great thing with Ngram searches is that you can do them for yourself! Keep in mind the various warnings about the data though, and that while it doesnt take any skill to make a search, it will do to check and interpret them!