Blog Post #1: Social Identification and Its Bearing

When examining societies, noting how their people identify can lend insight on values.  A particularly significant form of identification is that of group vs. individual.  A main difference between these two categories lies in their spreads of ideals.  If everyone identifies themselves as individuals, a greater variety of values is implied, but also a greater potential for conflict when the society is ruled by weaker majorities.  However, while group identification leads to higher levels of agreement, it can also magnify conflicts when different groups interact.

Since research on the OED yielded noun and verb variants of “group” and noun and adjective variants of “individual”, the Ngram study was conducted using part-of-speech tags to ensure that only the usages related to personal identification were included.  The period of 1800 – 2000 was examined.

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Before the 20th century, the two terms were used roughly equally, the usage of “individual” surpassing that of “group” at the beginning of the period.  However, the 1900s saw the mass increase in the relative use of “group”.  This could perhaps be linked to the acceleration of industry and the formation of businesses, groups in which various individual talents condensed under common ideals to reap profits.  A wildcard search of “group” yields “group of” as the context in which the word is, by far, most frequently used.

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The word that generally comes after this phrase would probably be an occupation or some other class with which all members of the group associate, such as “group of bankers” or “group of scientists”. The rise in this phrase’s usage during the 1900s supports the idea that it is connected to the industrial era.

But has this heightened identification with groups led, on the broad scale, to greater compatibility, or greater dissent?  To try and find out, I plotted “cooperation” against “competition”.

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Both words saw a marked increase in usage during the industrial 1900s, with a slight divergence after 1980, when “cooperation” began to dip but “competition” continued to rise.  This indicates that while the predominating group identification converges values, making goals perhaps more obtainable, it also creates a greater divide between values of entities than did individual identification.

Being able to separate usages of words with the part-of-speech and wildcard tools increases the value of Ngram as a device with which we can measure social changes.  However, Ngram measures just that: changes.  Conclusions are not made as to why these changes have occurred, leaving human speculation to accomplish what is perhaps too massive a part of the task.  Also, while Google Books is useful in seeing particular instances in which words/phrases were used, it is not adequately filtered, minimizing any aid in making claims based on Ngram.

One thought on “Blog Post #1: Social Identification and Its Bearing”

  1. I like the point here about Ngram only being able to measure change. In historical terms (and literary-historical terms), change is often precisely what we’re interested in. But as humanists, it’s hard to know how much we should count as substantive change. The ones we’re noticing the most throughout this exercise are the ones with the highest degrees of difference/change, and Rob is right to point out that we miss a lot if we treat this simple visualizations as uncomplicated windows into the “truth” of the popularity of words over time.

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