Jan 13, 2011


I've been thinking a lot recently about how frequently things are described as "crises" in today's political lexicon. We have a housing crisis, a financial crisis, a foreclosure crisis, a crisis of violence, an urban crisis, a suburban crisis....

A bunch of students and scholars at my fair university have just released a tool using Google Books data that analyzes the frequency with which certain words have been used in print over the past couple of centuries. Using 5.2 million books (the authors claim this is "~ 4% of all books ever published!"), they've set up a tool into which you can put a word or phrase and it shoots out a graph of the frequency of that word's use over time. The data comes out as a percentage of all words published in a given year or decade. You can read their article in Science describing the research here, and check out their website here.

I think the pure utility of this is limited because it takes the words entirely out of context, and to really understand the meaning of words we have to read them surrounded by other words the ways their authors intended, but I do think it can provide some interesting snapshots of cultural trends. As the researchers note: "you'll need to carefully interpret your results. Some effects are due to changes in the language we use to describe things ('The Great War' vs. World War I'). Others are due to actual changes in what interests us (note how 'slavery' peaks during the Civil War and during the Civil Rights movement)."

So, here's the way the graph looks for the word "crisis" in English-language books from 1776 to 2000 (earlier and later data is sketchy).

Click here or on the graph to see a bigger version.

Despite the aforementioned limitations, I think there are some pretty interesting things about this graph. Note how the use of the word rose steadily thoughout the 1840s and 1850s, peaked in the early-mid 1860s, during the Civil War, and then fell sharply after the war. It then peaked again during World War I and the Great Depression, although intriguingly it declined during World War II.

But what I'm really interested in is the steady climb after 1960. I'm struck by the fact that we seem to have been perpetually in "crisis" from 1960 until 2000, and I would think it has continued in the past decade (although we don't have the data). I'm not totally sure what to make of this and would be interested to hear the thoughts of anyone who's reading the blog. It seems to me, though, that there are three basic possibilities:
1. Things have really been terrible for the past fifty years, and the word "crisis" appropriately describes a series of events/situations during that time period.
2. As the media has gotten louder and polarization has increased, it takes dramatic claims like one of "crisis" to get anyone to pay attention to a problem.
3. Or something in between (1) and (2).

Thoughts? I'm definitely inclined to believe it's either (2) or (3), and would like to make a strong push for reducing the drama with which we discuss problems in our society. Not everything is a crisis, and perhaps making everything sound like one just makes the political tension with which we're surrounded even worse. Or maybe I'm making a "crisis" out of nothing.

1 comment:

  1. Awesome. I'd go with a version of 2 that takes out loud media and polarization -- it's just self-reinforcing. "Crisis" becomes like "War on X" or even "-gate" for a scandal - it's a common enough trope that we just say it without thinking through the meaning. I'd also wonder if society as a whole has expanded its complexity and sphere of concern (would a "foreclosure crisis" have even made any sense eighty years ago?) and therefore there are more things that we talk about that could be in crisis.