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December 20, 2014

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ATEC Professor Leads Study Revealing Big Story of Cultural Migration

Dr. Maximilian Schich’s video shows the birthplaces (blue) and death sites (red) of cultural figures over time. For the study, the researchers collected the birth and death locations of more than 150,000 notable individuals — from John Washington (father of President George Washington) to John F. Kennedy. The rise of transportation — namely railways connecting the coasts and affordable cars — led to increased migration, particularly westward. If you are having trouble watching the video, view it on YouTube.


Quantifying and transforming the history of culture into visual representation isn’t easy. There are thousands of individual stories across millennia to consider, and some historical conditions are nearly impossible to measure.

Addressing this challenge, Dr. Maximilian Schich, associate professor of arts and technology (ATEC) at The University of Texas at Dallas, has brought together a team of network and complexity scientists to create and quantify a big picture of European and North American cultural history.

Schich, an art historian who works under the umbrella of the University’s ATEC program, has reconstructed the migration and mobility patterns of more than 150,000 notable individuals over a time span of 2,000 years. By connecting the birth and death locations of each individual, Schich and his team have made progress in our understanding of large-scale cultural dynamics.

Maximillan Schich

Dr. Maximilian Schich

Schich’s research is detailed in the article “A Network Framework of Cultural History,” published Aug. 1 in the journal Science.

“The study draws a surprisingly comprehensive picture of European and North American cultural interaction that can’t be otherwise achieved without consulting vast amounts of literature or combing discrete data sets,” Schich said. “This study functions like a macroscope, where quantitative inquiry and qualitative inquiry complement each other.”

Quantitative inquiry involves objective, measureable data, while qualitative inquiry relies on subjective or “apparent” qualities.

Schich and his colleagues collected the birth and death data from three databases to track migration networks in and out of Europe and North America, revealing a pattern of geographical birth sources and death attractors.

A key finding in the study, Schich said, is that nonintuitive fundamental patterns — including the so-called “laws of migration” — emerge from large numbers of specific events. The team also found evidence for massive fluctuations on a level of single specific locations.

“In practice, this means that cultural history is both an event discipline, where qualitative inquiry focuses on the specific, and a law discipline, where quantification helps to understand general patterns,” Schich said.

Other findings show that despite the dependence of the arts on money, cultural centers and economic centers do not always coincide, and that the population size of a location does not necessarily point to its cultural attractiveness.

“In fact, outliers with outstanding cultural attraction, such as Hollywood, California, where we find 10 times more notable deaths as births, are found at all sizes, from villages to metroplexes,” Schich said.

Using databases, the team studied the migration of people who lived from 1069 B.C. to 2012 in Europe. This video shows that after the 12th century, Rome’s role as the dominant cultural center of the region decreased, and Paris became one of the most popular destinations for culturally significant migrants. If you are having trouble watching the video, view it on YouTube.

In addition, the median physical distance between birth and death locations changed very little between the 14th and 21st centuries, from about 133 miles to about 237 miles, respectively.

“There is really no average or typical cultural center,” Schich said. “As a consequence, cultural historians really need quantification to complement their intuition based on qualitative inquiry. On the other hand, our results also send a message to complexity scientists. The massive fluctuations we find mean that qualitative inquiry has to complement quantification in order to fully understand the dynamics of cultural migration.”

Schich said the topic of art and cultural history is an uncommon topic for papers in journals such as Science.

A large amount of multidisciplinary expertise was necessary to arrive at the results we found,” Schich said. “The paper relies on the fields of art history, complex networks, complexity science, computational sociology, human mobility, information design, physics and some inspiration from systems biology.”

While the research that made the paper possible began in Boston and was continued in Zurich, Schich finished his project in Texas.

“The ATEC program at UT Dallas provides an environment where it is possible and encouraged to transcend disciplinary boundaries to understand culture as a complex system. This paper illustrates perfectly the type of work that is taking place in my cultural science lab,” Schich said.

An art historian by training, Schich is also a founding member of the new Edith O’Donnell Institute of Art History at UT Dallas, where he plans to continue to merge data science, complex networks and art history to bring quantitative and qualitative inquiry together.

Researchers involved in the study came from the groups of Dirk Helbing at ETH Zurich, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and Albert-László Barabási at Northeastern University. Current affiliations of the team include Central European University in Budapest, Harvard Medical School, IBM Research, Indiana University, Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich and the University of Miami. Data was collected from Freebase.com, the Allgemeines Künstlerlexikon, the Getty Union List of Artist Names and the Winckelmann Corpus.

The research was funded by the German Research Foundation, the European Research Council and UT Dallas.

Media Contact: Chaz Lilly, UT Dallas, (972) 883-4461, charles.lilly@utdallas.edu
or the Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, newscenter@utdallas.edu.


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