Atrocity as Cultural Object over Time: A Computational Model of 70 Years of Holocaust Reporting

Ron Levi, University of Toronto
Ioana Sendroiu, Harvard University
Shyon Baumann, University of Toronto

The Holocaust has come to be known as the universalized symbol of evil. Research on the Holocaust comes at this through two related trends. The first, emphasized by cultural sociologists, focuses on the shift from silence and personal victimization in the early post-Shoah years, to mass cultural attention, cosmopolitanism, and comparison to other victims of atrocity beginning in the late 1970s. The second, as seen in the debates between Holocaust historians, has emphasized the degree to which the Holocaust reflects a unique event or one that can be compared (and invoked) in the context of other atrocities. The conclusion, within cultural sociology, is that "The Holocaust is unique and not unique at the same time" (Alexander 2002). In this paper, we excavate these two trends by focusing on how the Holocaust was conceived of over seventy years of New York Times reporting. Relying on computational analyses of over 19,000 newspaper stories, we demonstrate that the Holocaust has been conceived of through different social fields -- including US and world politics, law, culture, and religion. We then demonstrate that the degree to which the Holocaust is conceived of as unique or universal turns on this particular social field. Our conclusion is that the Holocaust has been seen as unique or universal precisely due to the frame within which it has been articulated over time. We theorize our findings through attention to historical zeitgeists, and consider how attending to zeitgeists can help explain not only major historical events, but the manner in which these are recalled and shaped over time.

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 Presented in Session 191. How to Count Criminals: Methods of Evaluation and Categorization