The advent of “big data” analysis is giving social scientists new ways of looking at the ebbs and flows of humanity through time and space. A paper in the journal Science entitled “A network framework of cultural history” gives a good example of the technology’s potential.
A team led by Maximilian Schich of the University of Texas at Dallas has reconstructed the migration and mobility patterns of the western world’s intellectual and social elite over the past 2,000 years, by analysing the birth and death data of 150,000 “notable individuals” contained in three huge databases (Freebase, the General Artist Lexicon and Getty Union List of Artist Names).
The big picture in Europe shows Rome remaining a cultural hub until the early Middle Ages, with a surprising amount of long-distance movements. Then the cities of northern Italy, Flanders and the Netherlands emerge as “attractors”, along with Paris. From the 16th century there is a striking contrast between the “winner-takes-all” regime in France, where the cultural influx is overwhelmingly concentrated on Paris, and a decentralised regime across central and northern Europe, where many cities such as Dresden, Munich and Prague are regional hubs.
Britain is more like France than Germany in this respect, though British regional centres hold their own against London better than their French counterparts against Paris. Even so, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Liverpool and Dublin have lost more notable inhabitants than they have gained – as have Chicago and Philadelphia in the US.
Despite the huge rise in general mobility between the 14th and 21st centuries, the median physical distance between birth and death locations in the study changed surprisingly little – from 214km to 382km – over 700 years. This illustrates the willingness of the cultural and artistic elite to travel in medieval times.
“The study draws a surprisingly comprehensive picture of European and North American cultural interaction that can’t be otherwise achieved without consulting vast amounts of literature or combing discrete data sets,” Schich says.
Although the arts depend on money, cultural and economic centres do not always coincide, and a place’s population size does not always point to cultural attractiveness. “In fact, outliers with outstanding cultural attraction, such as Hollywood, California, where we find 10 times more notable deaths than births, are found at all sizes, from villages to [large cities],” he says. “There is really no average or typical cultural centre.”
Photograph: Maximilian Schich and Mauro Martino