Using nothing but birth and death records, sociologists at Northeastern University developed a working framework that details the migration patterns of some of humanity’s most notable intellectuals in North America and Europe in the past 2,000 years. The data allowed the researchers to identify the major cultural centers on the two continents over two millennia. Rome, Paris, London and New York are some of the world’s prolific cultural centers in history.
A history of culture
The researchers extensively relied on big datasets, like the General Artist Lexicon that consists exclusively of artists and includes more than 150,000 names and Freebase with roughly 120,000 individuals, 2,200 of whom are artists. Using network tools and complexity theory, the researchers drew migration patterns that helped paint a broad picture of how culture converged and migrated from hub to hub, retracing the cultural narratives of Europe and North America.
“By tracking the migration of notable individuals for over two millennia, we could for the first time explore the boom and bust of the cultural centers of the world,” said Albert-László Barabási, Robert Gray Dodge Professor of Network Science and director of Northeastern’s Center for Complex Network Research. “The observed rapid changes offer a fascinating view of the transience of intellectual supremacy.”
For example, Rome was a major cultural hub until the late 18th century, at which point Paris took over the reins. Around the 16th century, in Europe at least, two distinct approaches could be identified: countries with intellectual ‘monster hubs’ that attract a substantial and constant flow of intellectuals (i.e.: Paris, France) and a more dispersed regime with cities within a federal region (i.e.: Germany) competing with each other for their share of intellectuals, clearly outnumbered by the monster hubs but well above average, compensating in numbers.
Where culture goes to die
The dawn of the XXth century saw New York not only a bustling cultural center where many intellectuals would flock, but also a fantastic breeding ground where many notable figures of the time were born. Additionally, locations like Hollywood, the Alps, and the French Riviera, which have not produced a large number of notable figures, have become, at different points in history, major destinations for intellectuals, perhaps initially emerging for reasons such as the location’s beauty or climate.
“We’re starting out to do something which is called cultural science where we’re in a very similar trajectory as systems biology for example,” said Schich, now an associate professor in arts and technology at the University of Texas at Dallas. “As data sets about birth and death locations grow, the approach will be able to reveal an even more complete picture of history. In the next five to 10 years, we’ll have considerably larger amounts of data and then we can do more and better, address more questions.”
Possibly the most interesting tidbit from the study is the fact that over the past eight centuries, the migration distance people have undertaken has not increased considerably, despite considerable transportation advancements (motor cars, trains) or extensive colonization. The findings seem to support Ernst Georg Ravenstein’s empirical findings based on the migration patterns he studied in the XIX century: most migrants do not go very far, those who do aim for big cities, urban centres grow from immigration far more than procreation, and so on.
The findings were reported in the journal Science. Below you can watch a beautiful time lapse video of how culture migrated in history.