Massachusetts Institute of Technology
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The Virtues and Limits of Data-Intensive Methods in Korean History

Speaker: Javier Cha. Moderator: Madeleine Clare Elish, MIT. Abstract: The Cold War ended more than twenty years ago, and the average bandwidth of broadband internet in present-day South Korea is reportedly twenty years ahead of that in the United States. Our identification of East Asian nations as advanced digital societies is a familiar one, but what does this extraordinary societal transformation imply about the legitimacy and relevance of East Asian Studies as a discipline in the twenty-first century? Drawing inspiration from the works of Hans Rosling and Franco Moretti, I aim to destabilize the prevalence of cultural relativism and postcolonial theory in foreign language and a studies. In an era of growing global convergence, I contend, we need to disengage as much as actively learn to appreciate unfamiliar cultures in their own terms. To exhibit the powerful capacity of "distant reading” in historical studies of unfamiliar regions, I will present some data-intensive visualizations of Korean history which postulate plausible generalizations crisscrossing spatial, temporal, and cultural boundaries. Information visualization allows the historian to render massive amounts of historical data into accessible forms of knowledge representation. It also effectively circumvents the problems of excessive essentialism and racism to which the cultural relativists and postcolonial theorists have strongly objected. The challenge for data-intensive methodologies in historical studies, then, is the undeniable pluralism of historical knowledge and the subjectivities inherent in our research design. By which objective standards do we define the spatiotemporal scope of our projects and by which epistemological models do we construct our historical knowledge?

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July 13, 2010 11:05
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