Categorizing the World: Developmental Classification of Societies in English Books, 1700-2000

Jeffrey Swindle, University of Michigan

The practice of classifying societies around the world into categories such as ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’ or ‘developing’ and ‘developed’ motivates and justifies social inequalities and is an important factor in processes of economic, political, and social organization. Contemporary scholars note the use of such terminology by specific historical thinkers, but the prevalence of this practice more generally is unknown. Using the Google Books corpus and several text analysis strategies, I estimate the historical prevalence of cultural keywords that classify societies by their level of development across millions of books published in English between 1700 and 2000. The use of such terminology in books was common since at least 1700, but varied greatly across different historical epochs and individual keywords. Keywords such as ‘savages,’ ‘barbarians,’ and ‘civilized societies’ increased in use during the second half of the eighteenth century, remained high throughout the nineteenth century, and decreased mildly during the twentieth century. Other keywords like ‘less developed countries,’ ‘Third World,’ and ‘developed nations’ came into use in the second half of the twentieth century, sharply increased during the 1970s and 1980s, but decreased after the 1980s. These results suggest that the practice of developmental classification was deeply embedded among book writers in English-speaking societies, especially the United Kingdom and the United States, throughout the past three centuries.

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 Presented in Session 62. Classification and Consecration