Historical Altmetrics: Measuring Significance with Digital History

Elevator Pitch

Historical altmetrics, an approach to studying significance in the past, relies on analysis of digital archives to quantify what mattered most in the past. Using nine custom corpora and four digital tools, this book answers four common types of historical questions generated from the historiography of the US women’s movement.

OVERVIEW (without the buzzwords):

This book introduces readers to an approach for studying what mattered in the past. It adapts altmetrics, a born-digital concept that seeks to measure influence beyond traditional indicators, to historical research. Within academia, altmetrics have been used to move beyond citation counts to propose alternative means of identifying the impact of an academic’s work.   Historical altmetrics relies on computational analysis of digitized archival sources to help us better understand and contextualize historical importance.

Historical Altmetrics takes up the US women’s movement of the 1970s and 1980s as a case study, but the questions addressed are common to all historical research. In The Historian’s Toolbox, Robert C Williams identifies broad categories of historical inquiry including issues of causation of specific historical events, investigation of the origins of intellectual concepts, identification of the role of specific individuals in historical events, and analysis of broad historical trends. Four of these queries lie at the heart of this book: What caused the emergence of second-wave feminism? Did different ideologies divide feminists? Who were the influential individuals in the US women’s movement? Were the Sex Wars a definitive event for the women’s movement? This book revisits how people have answered these questions in the past and assesses what evidence digital analysis offers for supporting or overturning prior interpretations. As a result, it offers a thoroughgoing reassessment of the stock narrative of the women’s movement from its origins and ideologies through the conferences and publications where these ideas were developed and debated.

This book utilizes multiple tools to analyze many types of historical texts. The narrative of Historical Altmetrics follows people and concepts identified by computational analysis of archival documents into mass-market anthologies and bestsellers that circulated feminism to a wider audience.   They are then traced through trade press overviews of the women’s movement and into the scholarly discussion that occurred at conferences, in journals, monographs, anthologies, and textbooks.   At each level of historicizing, from primary sources to secondary, the results of computational analysis indicate that the standard account of the movement narrowed down as it solidified, giving too much credit to certain texts, over-emphasizing ideological differences, inflating some individual’s importance, and drawing on limited evidence.



Historical Altmetrics has three goals: to craft a narrative that is intelligible to historians who are not engaged in digital humanities, to illustrate how historians without significant technical skills or outside assistance can conduct computational analyses of historical sources, and to offer a historical argument based on computationally derived evidence. In order to persuade digital skeptics, this book conforms to the genre of a traditional monograph. The idea is to write a history that reads like any other to offer a persuasive argument for the thesis – the results of digital analysis of historical sources force us to reassess the standard account of US women’s movements.   In the process, the utility of digital history for making historical arguments is demonstrated, which will make it of interest to historians who are not in the field of women’s history. By focusing on a case study from women’s history, Historical Altmetrics is also part of a broader effort to push the digital humanities beyond the canonical.

Historical altmetrics requires historians to consider more carefully the creation of a balanced corpus of machine-readable historical sources. Just as historians consult very specific materials in physical archives, they need to create customized bodies of digitized text for computational analysis based on the historical queries they wish to answer. While there has been excellent work done based on one body of texts, such as a single newspaper title or historical source, such as a diary, this approach will not be sufficient for answering all historical inquiries. The nine corpora used in the study are varied. At the grassroots level, there are activist produced periodicals and mass-market anthologies that disseminated the ideas of the movement. Trade presses published both bestselling feminist tracts and historical overviews aimed at a general audience. However, the stock narrative of the women’s movement is largely reliant on academic conferences, scholarly periodicals, monographs, textbooks, and academic anthologies, which make up the balance of the corpora.

Just as historical altmetrics relies on many different kinds of texts, it also draws on multiple digital tools. The reader is introduced to the use of natural language processing software for entity recognition, which automates identification of names, geographical locations, dates, and organizations in texts. Borrowed from linguistics, corpus analysis offers both a workflow to follow and software packages that calculate relationships among words in texts and across bodies of texts. This software also facilitates qualitative text analysis through various displays of the quantitative results in the text itself. Network analysis calculates ties between people, groups or institutions to explore different kinds of relationships, from central influencers, who have many important connections, to bridge people who link disparate groups. Finally, visualizations of quantified results are used to gain greater understanding of changes over time, place, and space.

The last step in historical altmetrics involves an iterative process of close readings of texts based on the results of computational analysis. Without this step, digital history cannot hope to persuade skeptics of its utility. The results of computational analysis are used to point the way to close readings of particular texts, which then generate more questions for computational analysis. The process is repeated many times, with different corpora and leading to the use of different digital tools.   Only when repeated and combined does the process yield evidence that can be used to craft a historical interpretation.


Chapter Outline

Introduction: This overview introduces the idea of historical altmetrics as a method for studying significance in the past. It argues for the need to create custom “digital archives” specific to the task of a historian, using the nine custom corpora that are the foundation of this book as an example. The necessity of digital history approaches is laid out in a non-technical explanation of the four digital tools used in this book to answer the four common types of historical questions. The case study of women’s history is justified in the exploration of the four queries at the center of this book, which are generated from the historiography of the US women’s movement. An outline of the subsequent chapters gives the reader adequate signposts to either follow the book in a linear fashion or to jump to the historical question or digital tool that interests them most.

Chapter one asks how do we understand issues of causation in relation to historical events? The case study revolves around Sara Evans’ argument about the origins of the women’s liberation movement in the United States. Since its publication in 1979, Personal Politics: The Origins of Women’s Liberation in Civil Rights and The New Left has become the standard account of this history. Evans’ nuanced argument about the connections between civil rights, the new left and women’s liberation, is often reduced to a very small number of influential individuals, best exemplified by the place “A Kind of Memo” by Casey Hayden and Mary King has come to occupy in the historiography of the women’s movement.   Despite immediate criticism of Evans’ work by civil rights activists, including Hayden herself, and decades of subsequent scholarship on the same subject, the thesis of Personal Politics remains “one of those rare scholarly arguments that has persisted virtually unchallenged for more than two decades.” This chapter seeks to shift this historiography by digitally analyzing key texts produced by women’s liberation activists in the earliest years of the movement to determine whom they referenced most, which texts were discussed frequently, and what locations were prominent. Because activist periodicals seldom hewed to scholarly practices of footnotes or bibliographies, documenting influence through citations simply does not work. However, entity recognition, a form of natural language processing that locates people’s names, offers a way to compile a list of frequently mentioned individuals. These historical subjects, identified in periodicals produced by women’s liberation activists circa 1968 and 1969, are traced through mass-market anthologies published around 1970 to 1971 which exposed a wider audience to the women’s movement. The fate of these figures is followed into historical monographs published between 1975 and 2005 to illustrate that scholars themselves are largely responsible for the idea of a single influential individual launching the women’s movement. The revised narrative that ends the chapter argues for an expanded cast of historical figures, refocused attention on white women in the south, and an emphasis on the role of black feminists.

The query at the heart of chapter two is what role did ideas play in the past?   The case study examines the historical model that holds that clearly identifiable ideologies existed within the women’s movement, which has led to the historiographical thesis that ideologies divided the women’s movement.   Alice Echols’ Daring to Be Bad, described as ”the definitive history of radical feminism,” argued that splintering between factions of feminists was to blame for the demise of the women’s movement. Her exploration of the concept of “cultural feminism,” a label adopted by virtually no individual in the past, has been permanently incorporated into taxonomies of feminism. The chapter uses corpus analysis software to investigate how feminists wrote about ideas. This software detects relationships between words in texts, which can then be used to make an argument about whether ideologies existed that align with scholarly taxonomies of feminist thought.   Three measurements are used to compare texts: keyword analysis indicates which words appeared more in one text than in a comparison text, collocation shows words that frequently appear together, and semantic tagging categorizes the relative frequency of words that are grouped together by their similar meanings. The process is applied to three bodies of texts. Two sub-corpora of feminist periodicals have been created. The first contains periodicals by groups that did self-identify with a particularly ideology (for example the socialist feminist Chicago Women’s Liberation Union sponsored several periodicals, New York Radical Feminists had a newsletter) and the second contains periodicals that authors have pointed to as part of a particular strand of feminism (i.e. aligned with cultural feminism such as Chrysalis, Quest, with anarcho-feminist such as The Second Wave, or as politico such as Woman: A Journal of Liberation ). The same process is applied to feminist bestsellers that have been self-identified or identified by scholars as aligned with a particular strand of feminist thought. These results are then compared to how scholars have written about feminist ideology in academic journals, monographs, and textbooks. Results of this analysis suggest that descriptions of “wings” or “branches” of the women’s movement have been overly emphasized. The chapter ends with a discussion of three periodicals: an activist magazine, a scholarly journal, and a tittle that straddled that divide, to illustrate how porous the boundaries between feminist ideologies were during the 1970s.

Chapter 3 attempts to answer the question which individuals were important in specific historical events? The case study examines participants in feminist conferences during the mid to late 1970s. While the other chapters in this book target a historiographical conclusion, this chapter aims at an omission. As Evelynn Hammond has noted, feminist conferences were “one of the most important sites of the articulation and enactment of feminism in the United States … In the stormy history of feminist theory, we need entire conference narratives: a potential academic subgenre.”   When conferences do appear in the literature, they are usually described as sites of destructive dissent. This chapter employs social network analysis to analyze conferences as a crucial locale for both generating feminist theory and as a liminal location that transcended the increasing divide between activist and academic thinkers. Archival copies of conference programs for The Scholar and the Feminist, The Berkshire Conference of Women Historians, and the National Women’s Studies Association meetings from the 1970s and 1980s form a dataset for this analysis. Results suggest that feminist conferences were precursors to today’s knowledge communities. The concluding narrative picks up where the last chapter’s left off, arguing that the interplay among feminists inside and outside of academia as they developed feminist thought has been ignored. The account offered highlights a host of previously ignored knowledge facilitators, publishers, editors, and librarians who were crucial to the development of feminist thought.

The final chapter pulls the prior three together to address the issue of periodization in history. The question is addressed through the case study of a single feminist conference, the 1982 Scholar and The Feminist Towards a Politics of Sexuality, which has been blamed for ending second wave feminism by launching the sex wars. As one scholar has noted, “While familiar periodizing categories have been declared inappropriate for the history of women, they have not usually been replaced by alternative schemas.” This chapter questions the very notion that the sex wars is a pivotal date in the US women’s movement. It builds on Audre Lorde’s perspicacious observation that the sex wars were “perhaps being used to draw attention and energies away from other more pressing and immediate life-threatening issues facing us as women” to compare activists’ writing before and after 1982. This chapter relies on all the digital tools of the preceding chapters, entity recognition, corpus analysis, and network analysis, to draw evidence from activist periodicals and academic feminist journals circa 1975 to 1985 to explore how content changed before and after 1982. The texts are divided into historical sub-corpora for diachronic comparison. A corpus analysis workflow that plots the frequencies of people, organizations, and terms in each sub-corpus measures how their presence changed over time. The iterative process of moving from these results to reading through the concordance facilitates analysis of the context of the identified shifts. The changes found do not align with people, groups, or concepts associate with the Sex Wars. However, both entity recognition and network analysis illustrate the process by which, after 1982, the scholarly analyses of the women’s movement began to systemically exclude women who were considered to be on the “anti-sex” or “anti-pornography” side of the Sex Wars.