A network framework of cultural history

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Science  01 Aug 2014:
Vol. 345, Issue 6196, pp. 558-562
DOI: 10.1126/science.1240064

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A macroscopic view of cultural history

Sociologists and anthropologists study the growth and evolution of human culture, but it is hard to measure cultural interactions on a historical time scale. Schich et al. developed a tool for extracting information about cultural history from simple but large sets of birth and death records. A network of cultural centers connected via the birth and death of more than 150,000 notable individuals revealed human mobility patterns and cultural attraction dynamics. Patterns of city growth over a period of 2000 years differed between countries, but the distribution of birth-to-death distances remained unchanged over more than eight centuries.

Science, this issue p. 558


The emergent processes driving cultural history are a product of complex interactions among large numbers of individuals, determined by difficult-to-quantify historical conditions. To characterize these processes, we have reconstructed aggregate intellectual mobility over two millennia through the birth and death locations of more than 150,000 notable individuals. The tools of network and complexity theory were then used to identify characteristic statistical patterns and determine the cultural and historical relevance of deviations. The resulting network of locations provides a macroscopic perspective of cultural history, which helps us to retrace cultural narratives of Europe and North America using large-scale visualization and quantitative dynamical tools and to derive historical trends of cultural centers beyond the scope of specific events or narrow time intervals.

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