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collective memory & presidents – a guest post by raj ghoshal

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This guest post is by Raj Ghoshal, an assistant professor of sociology at Goucher College. Previously we discussed presidents and collective memory in these two posts: Warren G. Harding is awesome & popular presidents kill people.

Presidents’ Day had me thinking about presidential rankings and collective memory. We commonly learn that a certain set of our presidents were great, while others were not – and for presidencies we (or our parents) didn’t personally live through, history textbooks and teachers are often the messengers. But how do presidential historians determine greatness? Are there sociological patterns worth noticing?

I looked at Wikipedia’s aggregation of U.S. presidential rankings by historians. A few patterns jumped out:

  1. Era matters greatly. Presidents who held office during broad periods of prosperity or national success are more likely to be considered great. Of course, presidents influence a country’s well-being, but the size of the era effects suggests historians are like the rest of us: they give individual presidents more credit or blame than they deserve. The first seven presidents, associated with the country’s birth and rise, are all ranked positively—this should be only 0.8% probable, if ratings are independent of era effects. The twelfth through twenty-first are all rated negatively, with the striking exception of Lincoln. (Perhaps Lincoln was genuinely greater, perhaps others could have been equally successful in leading through the Civil War, and/or perhaps his star dims the lights for those who came around him.) Presidents leading up to the Great Depression are rated poorly (#s 29-31), those in the era coming out of the Depression are rated positively (#s 32 to 36), and the mixed economic and social trends of the last five decades have yielded mainly average presidential ratings. Across these periods, the clustering is clear enough that individual differences between presidents are unlikely to be the sole cause.
  2. Presidential historians’ collective memory is stable, as the surveys show great consensus over time (this doesn’t mean that individual historians agree, since each data point is a survey). The only two cases out of all 43 where there’s even moderate evidence of changes in historians’ opinions after a president leaving office are Reagan and perhaps Nixon, and those changes are small, even though their supposed rehabilitations were widely discussed in the press (G.W. Bush’s standing among historians fell, but the drop came while he was still in office). While memory projects or changing norms can alter historical figures’ standing, this doesn’t seem to be very common with American presidents. More broadly, studying change is often interesting and revealing, but we should remember that change is usually the exception rather than the rule.
  3. For the five presidents where there’s data, future ratings closely follow the ratings a president had while in office. These five cases also suggest that historians tend to evaluate currently-in-office presidents fairly positively, at least at first. It’s impossible to disentangle this from era effects without more data, though.
  4. I didn’t look at how closely historians’ opinion follows public opinion, economic news, wars, or success in getting one’s agenda enacted, but those all probably matter too.

Feel free to use the comments.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($2!!!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street!!

Written by fabiorojas

February 24, 2015 at 5:41 pm

lost mexican codex now online

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CodexMendoza01

Hyperallergic reports that a very valuable Mexican manuscript, the Codex Mendoza, is now available free online. In addition to using the Codex Mendoza’s website, you can download the iPhone app for viewing. Recommended for pre-Columbian culture junkies.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($2!!!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street!! 

 

Written by fabiorojas

February 17, 2015 at 12:17 am

Posted in culture, fabio

toumani diabate and the beauty of the west african kora

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50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($2!!!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street!!

Written by fabiorojas

February 15, 2015 at 12:03 am

Posted in culture, fabio

helena hauff’s accidie

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($1!!!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street!! 

Written by fabiorojas

February 1, 2015 at 12:01 am

Posted in culture, fabio

that time nabokov trash talked boris pasternak

From Open Culture. Nabokov:

I’ve been perplexed and amused by fabricated notions about so-called “great books.” That, for instance, Mann’s asinine Death in Venice, or Pasternak’s melodramatic, vilely written Doctor Zhivago, or Faulkner’s corncobby chronicles can be considered masterpieces, or at least what journalists term “great books,” is to me the same sort of absurd delusion as when a hypnotized person makes love to a chair.

Sick burn, Vlad.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($1!!!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street!! 

Written by fabiorojas

January 28, 2015 at 12:06 am

Posted in culture, fabio, the man

computational ethnography

An important frontier in sociology is computational ethnography – the application of textual analysis, topic modelling, and related techniques to the data generated through ethnographic observation (e.g., field notes and interview transcripts). I got this idea when I saw a really great post-doc present a paper at ASA where historical materials were analyzed using topic modelling techniques, such as LDA.

Let me motivate this with a simple example. Let’s say I am a school ethnographer and I make a claim about how pupils perceive teachers. Typically, the ethnographer would offer an example from his or her field notes that illustrates the perceptions of the teacher. Then, someone would ask, “is this a typical observation?” and then the ethnographer would say, “yes, trust me.”

We no longer have to do that. Since ethnographers produce text, one can use topic models to map out themes or words that tend to appear in field notes and interview transcripts. Then, all block quotes from fields notes and transcripts can be compared to the entire corpus produced during field work. Not only would it attest to the commonality of a topic, but also how it is embedded in a larger network of discourse and meaning.

Cultural sociology, the future is here.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($1!!!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street!! 

Written by fabiorojas

January 20, 2015 at 12:01 am

dragonfly

Gerry, we miss you. + A Grover cameo.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($1!!!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street!!

Written by fabiorojas

January 4, 2015 at 12:11 am

Posted in culture, fabio

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