By Livia Miller
One summer is not nearly enough time to analyze more than a century of historical media, but it is enough time to begin doing that work. Professor Mark Bradley, the Bernadotte E. Schmitt Professor of History, has been working on doing just that.
This summer, some undergraduates participating in the Summer Institute in Social Research Methods (SISRM) have the opportunity to work on Prof. Bradley’s work, which brings together qualitative analysis and quantitative methods to make visible narratives of race in American historical publications. These undergraduate students have been paired with Bradley due to interest in the content and methodology of the project, to supplement instruction from SISRM. Beyond the research assistantship opportunities, the Institute consists of workshops and coursework designed to help introduce undergraduates in the social sciences to research methods in their disciplines.
Bradley’s project is grounded in his role as Editor of the American Historical Review, the journal run by the American Historical Society, whose publications date back to the 19th century. In the past year, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police and the subsequent national recknonings over race and power in America, the American Historical Society has undertaken an initiative to better understand the ways in which the study of history engages questions of race and power. Bradley and his team, as well as a team of graduate students at the University of Michigan and researchers in Washington D.C., are working to understand the ways that historians have helped to solidify, and participated in the formation of, racialized narratives.
Bradley sees the research as “visualizing the language of racism”, by moving through the entire archive of American Historical Review issues and carefully documenting the language used for race, both nouns and adjectives. The adjectives, he explains, are in some ways more interesting than the nouns alone, because while the nouns might be the most obvious, narratives are constructed in the descriptors applied to the nouns. He points out that visualizing how adjectives around racial categories rose and fell in popularity in the 20th century, for example, can help us understand the formation of racial categories.
The historical trajectory of these findings is important for two reasons, Bradley explains. At the moment, the research is looking broadly at the entire corpus of archival material, but down the line, these findings will be divided up into historical eras. This is important, Bradley explains, because a key part of this project revolves around making cultural norms stand out as not just naturalized reality but as something constructed and upheld by those with culturally instilled narrative power.
Bradley’s work on understanding language and power has been underway for some time already; his 2016 book The World Reimagined: Americans and Human Rights in the Twentieth Century explored the ways that contemporary Human Rights frameworks have evolved in language and culture. He also serves as Faculty Director of the Pozen Family Center for Human Rights, exploring the complexity and nuances of a human rights framework for understanding the world.
While the relationship between racism and human rights is certainly strong, Prof. Bradley sees these two focuses as “in tension” with each other. While human rights frameworks focus on individual needs and individual solutions, racism is a structural issue, and only understanding race on an individual level leaves out an analysis of how race is built up and set in stone.
This summer, the SISRM students and graduate researcher team will be producing a word cloud, a visualization of the vocabulary of race that shows which words are used most frequently, and allows for an easily digestible overview of 150 years of racial language in historical publications. Grace Carlebach, a rising sophomore in the College and one of the SISRM research assistants, says, “Our hope is that viewers can use these word clouds to get a sense of what kind of content they would have encountered in a particular era, and how the subjects that dominate the journal have changed over time.”
This is, of course, only the beginning, and researchers at the University of Michigan and in Washington, D.C are at work on parallel work on the archives of the American Historical Association itself. In the future, Prof. Bradley notes, this project will include analytic breakdowns by era, moving through the archives and analyzing language in decade or several-decade chunks. The resulting visualizations and further directions of the project, Bradley hopes, “would be another way for readers to come to understand that this… is deeply embedded in, and inculcated in, larger structures of racism”.