Project Summary

This project undertakes the cross-cultural study of literary networks in a global context, ranging from post-classical Islamic philosophy to the European Enlightenment. Integrating new image-processing techniques with social network analysis, we examine how different cultural epochs are characterized by unique networks of intellectual exchange based on the visual data of texts. Research on “world literature” has become a central area of inquiry today within the humanities, and yet it poses two major challenges for large-scale computational analysis. Our combined approach of visual language processing and network modeling allows us to address these challenges in two distinct ways: 1) to study the non-western and pre- and early-print textual heritages so far resistant to data analysis; and 2) develop a new model of global comparative literature that places diverse literary cultures in conversation with one another while preserving a sense of the world’s cultural differences.

Team Summary

In order to do so, we have assembled four teams from the U.S., Canada, and the Netherlands to undertake the cross-cultural study of literary networks from 1050, the beginnings of Islamic post-classical philosophy and the Anglo-Saxon high middle ages, to 1900, the onset of various global modernisms across China, the Middle East and Europe. Drawing on the diverse disciplinary backgrounds of 11 team members from the humanities and computer science, we will use four separate database collections for our study, which comprise 1,194,000 page images and represent four major cultural domains: post-classical Islamic philosophy, Chinese Women’s Writing from the Ming-Qing Dynasties, the Anglo-Saxon Middle-Ages, and the European Enlightenment. Uniting each of these domains is the shared sense of being a culture in transition. Our aim is thus as capacious as it is straightforward: how are these different transitional periods and places characterized by networks of shared ideas? To answer this question, we will integrate new techniques of visual language processing with social network analysis to understand the diverse cultures of literary communication that existed during these periods.


  • Contribute to a new form of text analysis based on the visual features of texts. This not only allows us to study textual heritages of much broader geographical width and historical depth than has so far been the case. It also allows us to account for new kinds of textual information currently overlooked in the field such as the visual features of texts.
  • Contribute to the growing field of social network analysis, especially as it pertains to cultural phenomena. There are as yet no cross-cultural studies of large-scale literary networks. This project will allow us to contribute to the establishment of methods for interpreting quantitative network measures for the study of cultural history.
  • Finally, contribute to the growing new field of world literature through a model of comparative globalism. Our goal is to place major, often transnational regional cultures from diverse parts of the world in conversation with one another while at the same time preserving the uniqueness of those cultural differences. How are different cultural epochs characterized by unique networks of shared ideas? How does the circulation of information within a time and place impact the types of intellectual communities that emerge and the nature of the ideas that flow from them? This project will allow us to make a decisive contribution to these new kinds of questions.