Graphs, Maps, and Trees, Oh My!

9 Feb
A Map of Mary Mitford's stories, as mapped by Franco Moretti, page 37

Mary Mitford’s stories, as mapped by Franco Moretti, page 37

When looking at a book for the first time, I always make sure to read the “product description” to help me understand what sort of literary endeavor I’m about plunge myself into. These descriptions are frequently provided by the publishing company–not the author–so I take them with a certain grain of salt. Yet the product description for Franco Moretti’s short publication, Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History, was ironically provocative and tantalizing. “In this groundbreaking book,” says the publisher, Verso Books, “Franco Moretti argues that literature scholars should stop reading books and start counting, graphing, and mapping them instead.” Read this book, but when you’re finished, stop reading and get to quantifying stuff. Verso Books got me: hook, line, and sinker.

After reading Moretti, I am unconvinced of the need to stop reading books, and as Matt Greenfield points out, this book isn’t necessarily “groundbreaking,” as past scholars have already analyzed literary history as a form of quantitative analysis.[1] Yet Moretti’s book is important, and there are lessons that all historians can take away from his interpretive framework.

In Graphs, Maps, Trees, Moretti attempts to examine the boundaries of literary genre theory–how collections of books that share similar structural elements and literary traits come to be defined as their own unique genres over time–to devise a method of analysis that redefines these boundaries using spatial, rather than linear, forms of diagramming. In using graphs, Moretti argues that quantitative analysis can help spread the flow of data and information through a wide scale of geography and space, allowing us to better understand cultural trends, patterns, and changes over time: “a theory–of diversity,” according to Moretti.[2] With maps, one can abstract information from a text source and potentially connect it with the larger social forces of power that help shape the constructs of a culture’s social imagination and understanding of reality.[3] The final component of this trio, trees, is used by Moretti to create “morphological diagrams, where history is systematically correlated with form,” by which one could study the structural features and characteristics of a specific element of history.[4] For instance, one could diagram the spread of slavery from 1500-1900 by charting the “genetic tree” by which these slaves originated from (Africa, for example), the countries they were sent to (United States, Cuba, etc.), and the various languages they learned in these new spaces (English, French, Spanish). Such a diagram could help us get closer to understanding slavery’s geographical dominance and its structural variations throughout different regions of the world.[5]

The Moretti model provides several important insights for historians. For one, it represents a possible method for better defining the scale of a historical research project. This question of scale–one that has perplexed historians for many, many years–looms large in determining the geographical and chronological scope of a given topic. For instance, if I were to research the history of slavery, the question of scale could quickly derail my endeavor. Should I focus on slavery in one or more countries, or would it be more appropriate to go smaller and look at one or more states, cities, or communities? Similarly, should I focus on slavery’s impact over 10, 50, 100, 200, or 400 years? What type of sources could I use to aid my research? Regardless of whether I’m looking to create a “big” or “small” scale project, using a tree diagram similar to the previous example allows me a better view of the connections between the various mutations of slavery over time and space, regardless of size. Such a diagram lets me create a base for my project and helps me discern specific patterns within the history of slavery that would merit further exploration.

Spatial visualizations help historians see trends, patterns, and changes over time that may not be readily observed through a textual, linear format. Moretti creates a nifty map outlining the various stories in Mary Mitford’s 1824 publication Our Village (Volume I). By mapping the locations where these stories took place in the village of Three Mile Cross, we see patterns of relationships between “personal stories” and “natural spectacles” via two concentric rings.[6] These rings could then be placed on top of a geographical map of Three Mile Cross to help us visualize and contextualize Mitford’s stories as they occurred in the early 19th century.

I am still trying to understand how this “spatial turn” in the humanities will impact the way we look at history, but I know that for historians it will help to challenge the ways in which we view the relationship between people and geography throughout history. When describing Geographic Information Systems (GIS), a relatively new mapping technology used for analysis and interpretation of trends and patterns, the editors of the book The Spatial Humanities: GIS and the Future of Humanities Scholarship had this to say about mapping in the humanities:

The power of GIS for the humanities lies in its ability to integrate information from a common location, regardless of format, and to visualize the results in combinations of transparent layers on a map of the geography shared by the data.  Internet mapping has made this concept widely recognized and accessible, but this use of GIS only hints at its potential for the humanities.[7]

Finally, I think Moretti proves that we as historians must diversify our skills and look to other disciplines in creating collaborative projects, whether in print, public exhibition, or digital format. We have talked in class about how digital history is re-integrating public history with academic history. Looking beyond history, the digital humanities is integrating fields of study that were once considered distinct and separate entities. In constructing various models for literary history, Moretti utilizes ideas from literary studies, history, math and science. The fact that we are reading a book by a professor of literature as a guidebook for historical research demonstrates the point that we need to look beyond our field. We must know our literature, our geography, our anthropology, our quantitative methods, and our scientific diagrams. We must understand computers, GIS, code, counting, diagramming, and graphing. We need to better understand our historical sources and follow the call of Timothy Burke, who has argued that historians ought to go to their archives and “count all the documents, all of them, and graph… their types and forms. Historians live in their archives, but we don’t really know them half as well as we ought to.”[8] True, we have a home in our archives (and other academic institutions), but any competent homeowner would realize that a home needs remodeling after a while. Moretti’s book alerts me to the fact that we need to continue remodeling ours.

[1] Matt Greenfield. “Moretti and Other Genre Theorists.” Accessed February 1, 2013.

[2] Franco Moretti, Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History (Brooklyn: Verso Books, 2005), 18, 30.

[3] Ibid., 35-64.

[4] Ibid., 69, 91-92.

[5] My proposed tree diagram of slavery was influenced by a similar diagram in Moretti, Graphs, Maps, Trees, 71.

[6] Ibid., 36-37.

[7] David J. Bodenhamer, John Corrigan, and Trevor M. Harris, The Spatial Humanities: GIS and the Future of Humanities Scholarship (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010), ix; see also ESRI. “What is GIS?,” accessed February 6, 2013.

[8] Timothy Burke. “Book Notes: Franco Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, Trees.” Accessed February 2, 2013.


3 Responses to “Graphs, Maps, and Trees, Oh My!”

  1. Nick Sacco February 9, 2013 at 3:39 am #

    Reblogged this on Exploring the Past and commented:

    Read the full essay at IUPUI Digital History Blog!

  2. Tim Rainesalo February 11, 2013 at 7:15 pm #

    I think you’ve captured Moretti’s work very well. It’s not necessarily groundbreaking, but worthwhile all the same for its thought-provoking framework. He’s not doing anything new, but sometimes it’s helpful for us to be reminded that history does not always need to be communicated through text.

    Great job summarizing something all of us are still a little confused by! Your example of using a tree to represent the importance of changing lexical and geographical factors when framing daunting topics like a study of slavery (even if we were to limit it to a single state) nicely represents how we can apply Moretti’s methods to keep from drowning in interpretive possibilities. It reminds us that trees do not always have to sprout from the end result of our studies; they can form useful skeletons that guide our analysis and help keep us from “branching out” too far.

    Finally, I especially like the way you apply the need for scale to the need to broaden our understanding of the historical profession. As we’ve discussed before, digital history has enormous potential, and while our project focus is necessarily limited, we can make the most of the space within those boundaries if our collaborative team is diverse. If historians can understand how to use the tools prized by other fields instead of just knowing what professionals to call on, we will be better equipped to work with others.


  1. News and Notes: April 2, 2013 | Exploring the Past - April 3, 2013

    […] books. This process has been referred to as “distance reading” and is something that we have discussed in my digital history class. A good piece on the work of Matthew Jockers and “distance reading” can be found […]

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