Tracking the Popularity of WWI in Books and Dissertations

Coming into this centenary year for World War I, there’s been a predictable resurgence of books written about that conflict. Which got me wondering how the war has ebbed and flowed over time as a subject for historians and other writers. I came up with two highly imperfect ways to satisfy this curiosity:

I was challenged earlier this summer to try using visuals rather than text to convey ideas. Now, given that even my blog posts struggle to stay below a thousand words, I doubt that that advice is going to make much headway. But I thought I’d take a shot at a blog post that uses pictures — or, at least, charts — to say those thousand words. I’ll just present some graphs and try not to overexplain them, leaving the analysis to readers…

Experiment #1: Google Ngrams

What’s an n-gram and why does Google’s Ngram Viewer tantalize historians and other scholars? Here’s an introduction from the Middle East studies website Hazine:

An n-gram is simply an instance of a word or phrase within a corpus, where n is a variable representing the number of words. Google’s service allows researchers to track the relative frequency of n-grams over time and generates plots (called T-transformations) to illustrate and contrast the usage of words and phrases over years. While the causal link between language use and the statistical patterns found in published materials is not necessarily linear, Ngram can offer a window into shifts in human language and society by substantiating putative trends formerly described only qualitatively and offering new questions and potential areas of inquiry, particularly when interpreted within an informed historical context.

Knowing that there are limitations to its usefulness (see the Hazine post for more on that as well), let’s try a few WWI-related n-grams, shall we?

Google Ngram of a search for "World War I" and similar phrases in English, from 1920 to 2008
Alas, Ngram is one Google toy that doesn’t yet embed in WordPress, so this post just has screen shots — but click to follow the links and play around with my original searches

That’s a search of everything in English in Google Books’ corpus from 1920 to 2008 (the most recent year available) for “World War I,” “First World War,” and “The Great War.” (Of course, for the 1920s and 1930s you’d also have had books using phrases like “The World War” and — in this country — “The European War,” but they’re generic enough that I worried that including them would mess up later decades’ results.) Now, here’s what happens if you break out those the phrases separately:

Google Ngram search showing separate results for World War I, First World War, and The Great War

(It’s certainly intriguing how “Great War” language has made a comeback, particularly since the mid-Nineties. I wonder if reflects attempts to set 1914-1918 apart from 1939/1941-1945…)

Now, let’s try similar searches in two other languages: first German, then French.

Google Ngram search in German corpus for "Der Erste Weltkrieg" and "Der Große Krieg"

Google Ngram showing search in French corpus for la Première Guerre mondiale and la Guerre mondiale

While “la Grande Guerre” was used in France (especially in the 1940s), it barely registered on the graph next to “la Première Guerre mondiale” so I tried adding “la Guerre mondiale” to gather some data from the interwar period. What happens if you do the same thing for the German corpus?

Google Ngram search in German corpus for der Erste Weltkrieg, der Große Krieg, and der Weltkrieg

However you do it, it’s striking how much more common these terms are in French and German than in English. I suppose that might just reflect that Google has probably digitized far more in English than any other language, so the corpus might be so much more diverse than French and German collections that might have disproportionately more works on history, international relations, and related fields.

But back to communicating with visuals and refraining from offering analysis as we continue on to…

Experiment #2: History Dissertations in North America

The website of the American Historical Association includes a directory of some 53,000 dissertations in history (and related fields like history of science) that have been completed or are in progress at North American universities. How popular a topic has World War I been over the years?

By my somewhat rough count there are 387 WWI-related dissertations in that database. (Among other things, I had to make judgment calls on whether or not to include dissertations that spanned a much longer time period that began or ended with WWI, or those focused on origins or immediate aftermath of the war.) Here’s a simple graph showing number of dissertations on WWI since the end of WWII: (I removed the ten completed before 1946, since most of those years didn’t produce a single dissertation on the Great War and only two — 1931 and 1941 — had as many as two)

History dissertations on WWI completed at North American universities between 1946 and 2013Here it’s striking just how many such dissertations have been completed recently: 47 just in the years 2010 to 2013, which is almost as many as were finished in all of the 1960s.

Now let’s express all this in proportional terms: for each year, what percent of all dissertations in the AHA database focused on World War I?

WWI dissertations as a percentage of all dissertations in the AHA database, 1946-2013Altogether, 1.29% of the history dissertations completed in North America from 2010 to 2013 were on some aspect of the First World War. If that trend continues, the 2010s will end up #1 on a ranking of decades, with the 1990s coming in second at 1.06% and the 1960s third at 0.88%.

And while we’re at it… Which history departments have produced the most dissertations on the war? (Here I’ll include the thirty-one dissertations on WWI currently in progress…)

  1. Columbia (18)
  2. California-Berkeley and Yale (16 each)
  3. Wisconsin-Madison (15)
  4. Indiana (14)
  5. Stanford (10)

Several have nine dissertations each, including Harvard, Ohio State, and three Canadian universities: McMaster, Western Ontario, and the University of Toronto.

What jumps out at you? How would you explain peaks and valleys in the popularity of the war as a subject for historical and other writing?



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