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Editors’ Choice: Where are the individuals in data-driven narratives?

In the central post in my whaling series, I argued data presentation offers historians an appealing avenue for historical argumentation, analogous in importance to the practice of shaping personal stories into narratives in more traditional histories. Both narratives and data presentations can appeal to a broader public than more technical parts of history like historiography; and both can be crucial in making arguments persuasive, although they rarely constitute an argument in themselves. But while narratives about people ensure that histories are fundamentally about individuals, working with data generally means we’ll be dealing with aggregates of some sort. (In my case, ‘voyages’ by ‘whaling ships’.*)

*I put those in quotation marks because, as described at greater length in the technical methodology post, what I give are only the best approximations I could get of the real categories of oceangoing voyages and of whaling ships.

This is, depending on how you look at it, either a problem or an opportunity. So I want to wrap into this longer series a slightly abtruse–technical from the social theory side rather than the algorithmic side–justification for why we might not want to linger over individual experiences.

One major reason to embrace digital history is precisely that it lets us tell stories that are fundamentally about collective actions–the ‘swarm’ of the whaling industry as a whole–rather than traditional subjective accounts. While it’s discomforting to tell histories without individuals, that discomfort is productive for the field; we need a way to tell those histories, and we need reminders they exist. In fact, those are just the stories that historians are becoming worse and worse at telling, even as our position in society makes us need them more and more.

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This content was selected for Digital Humanities Now by Editor-in-Chief based on nominations by Editors-at-Large: