Skip to content

Tag: history

Natural experiments of history? Not really, but still a fine book

Natural experiments are a fine (and fun) way to study questions where the researcher doesn’t have control over the assignment of cases. But the label ‘natural experiment’ can get abused – not all comparisons are ‘natural experiments’. Nature needs to intervene into the assignment of cases in a way that can be credibly regarded as random in order to approximate the experimental method (e.g. here). Jared Diamond and Paul Robinson have collected seven essays in a book entitled “Natural Experiments of History”. But from the seven studies, only one or two might be regarded as a true ‘natural experiment’ – the rest are just more or less systematic comparisons. It is still a fine book – I found all seven essays interesting and stimulating. But they are not natural experiments; in fact, Diamond and Robinson themselves seem to retract from the label in the concluding chapter of the book. For example, in his chapter Patrick Kirch studies Polynesian cultural evolution. The three islands of Mangaia, Marquesas, and Hawai”i end up with quite different social and political institutions despite being populated by the same people. To his credit, Kirch uses ‘controlled comparisons’ instead of ‘natural experiments’ to describe his approach. But does the fact that the three islands were settled by people coming from the same homeland in Western Polynesia allow us to ‘control’ for the pre-settlement characteristics of the people who inhabited Mangaia, Marquesas, and Hawai’i? The explorers leaving in search of new homes are seldom a representative sample from…

Emigrants vs. Settlers

In his contribution to ‘Natural Experiments in History‘ James Belich  argues that shifting attitudes towards emigration in Britain and the US were essential for the settler explosions in the American West, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa. Belich puts the shift in attitudes between 1810 and 1820 and illustrates the transformation with the contest between the use of ’emigrant’ and ‘settler’ on the pages of the Times of London. Always on the lookout for potential application of the awesome power of Google N-gram, I checked whether the shift of attitudes and vocabulary is visible in the larger body of English-language literature indexed  by Google N-gram as well. Here is the graph: ‘Settler’ gets more popular than ’emigrant’ indeed! But the shift occurs a bit later with an initial catch-up around 1930 and the ultimate win of ‘settler’ around 1970. Interestingly, in the corpus of British books, ‘settler’ never surpasses ’emigrant’ in popularity, while in American books the two terms are practically even between 1830 and 1865 when ‘settler’ overtakes ’emigrant’ for good. Actually, it is ‘pioneer’ that rises in popularity beyond ’emigrant’ around 1810 and then surpasses both ’emigrant’ and ‘settler’ after 1845: Overall, Belich’s transformation in attitudes and vocabulary towards emigration seems reflected in literature, although the shift occurs later, and is much stronger for American English.