Historians and Historical Databases

In recent days there was much discussion by historians on Twitter of the proper and improper uses of historical knowledge in testing social science theories. It was initially prompted by the publication of a Science article last week on historical Church exposure and global psychological variation. Most of it was quite negative (I am still reading the article and its voluminous appendices, so I reserve judgment). Some of this negative reaction spilled over to Seshat as a result of Laura Spinney’s publishing yesterday a “long read” on Cliodynamics and the Seshat Databank in the Guardian. But such criticism can only come from those who know nothing about how Seshat works.

The Seshat Project is a collaboration between historians, archaeologists, and social scientists. Historians play key roles in all phases of building the Databank. Two out of five members of the core group have PhDs in History. Historians are involved in the workshops in which we develop conceptual scheme for translating knowledge about past societies into data; they consult Seshat research assistants and check Seshat data, and they fully participate in writing the resulting articles. Seshat articles typically have dozens of authors (in two cases over 50), most of them historians. Seshat would be impossible without such intense collaboration between scientists and humanities scholars. You can read more about how Seshat operates in “An Introduction to Seshat: Global History Databank,” in press in Journal of Cognitive History (SocArXiv Preprint).

Collaboration between scientists and humanists requires a lot more work than other interdisciplinary projects. The “two cultures” are often motivated by different research interests and goals, and use very different methodologies and languages. This is one of the reasons why Seshat spent such a long time in gestation (the project was launched in 2011, but the first article fully utilizing Seshat data was published only in early 2018). Our multi-authored articles go through innumerable iterations before the co-authors, coming from very different research traditions, can arrive on mutually intelligible and agreeable texts. This is a stiff price, but well-worth paying.

Our article in PNAS in which we collaborated with many scholars, including historians.

Seshat goals also reflect the diversity of motivations of the project participants. As a scientist I am primarily motivated by using the rich knowledge, possessed by the scholars of the past, in testing scientific theories about how human societies evolve over time. But over the last three decades I read and enjoyed thousands of books and articles by specialist historians and archaeologists, who delve into the intricate inner working of past human societies. Such knowledge is fascinating to me because of its intrinsic worth, irrespective of whether we capture it in the Databank.

Initially I thought that only a small fraction of historians would be interested in the Seshat data. I am happy to report that I was wrong. In fact, most historians we approach get involved. The degree of involvement varies. Some help us with identifying good general sources and answer a few questions. Others write detailed narratives and code datasheets with hundreds of variables. Most find a comfortable level of involvement somewhere in between.

Furthermore, many historians are interested not only in studying a particular society, or a segment of it, at a particular time (which is a very worthwhile and important), but also care about comparative history. Seshat allows one to start in a particular society at a particular time and focus on a particular aspect of it, and then “travel” back and forth in time, or in space, or in the conceptual space of different variables. It’s like “comparative history on steroids.”

Thus, Seshat is not only a vehicle for testing scientific theories, it is also a great informational resource both for the scholars of the past and (eventually) for general public. We are currently working on implementing features in the Databank that would make travel in time, geographical space, and conceptual space effortless. And Seshat publications are not limited to articles in scientific journals. We also produce “Analytic Narratives”, formalized verbal accounts focusing on multiple in-depth case studies. The first such narrative, Seshat History of the Axial Age, will be published in early December, and two more are in the works.

In closing, I want to reiterate that Seshat is far from being a threat to History. Seshat depends on the work of countless professional historians who are contributing to a remarkable store of knowledge about the human past. It also builds on and expands comparative history, which has been what historians have done ever since Polybius and Ibn Khaldun. Seshat also allows us to test various theories about the functioning and dynamics of past societies proposed by historians, archaeologists, anthropologists, and economists. By doing that, the Databank increases our understanding of how present-day societies work. And perhaps it will even enable us to change our societies so that they could deliver better human well-being. The last is not certain, but we will not know whether it is possible until we try.

This post was originally published on Peter Turchin’s blog Cliodynamica 


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