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Elites, networks, and power in modern urban China (1830-1949). Historical “big data” in modern Chinese history

The study of elites is inherently interdisciplinary. This project is primarily rooted in historical research, but it borrows substantially from the concepts and methods, especially quantitative methods and network analysis, from sociology and political science. For the analysis of textual corpora, it draws on the procedures and applications developed in linguistics and literary studies to explore large corpora of unstructured texts. Finally, it implements the most advanced tools and methods designed in computing, especially data mining and machine learning.

To tackle the challenging issues at the heart of the project — in substantive, methodological, and even epistemological terms — Christian Henriot (P.I.) has assembled a strong interdisciplinary research team of scholars affiliated with first-rate research centers in history and social sciences (Institut de recherches asiatiques – IrAsia), linguistics/language processing (Laboratoire Parole et Langage – LPL), and computing (Laboratoire d’informatique & systèmes – LIS) at Aix-Marseille University. The research team includes a wider circle of scholars in the field of  databases and data management (Data Futures, Fichoz) and Chinese history based in French (EHESS, Ecole Française d’Extrême-Orient) and Taiwanese (Institute of Modern History, Academia Sinica) institutions. Finally, the project will rely on young scholars recruited as postdoctoral fellows in history, computing, data science, and natural language processing (NLP) and as Ph.D. candidates in history.

The project intends to challenge the China-centered and group-based approach dominant in the historical literature of the past two decades. The project envisions elites in urban China as actors whose status, position, and practices were shaped by the power configurations that developed over time and whose actions through institutions and informal/formal networks in turn were a determining factor in redrawing social and political boundaries. The project will place the emphasis on the networks through which information, capital, and individuals circulated. It will investigate the transnationalization of elites as a process that overstepped the limits of institutions and nation states.Methodologically, the key issue that the project will address is breaking through existing limits of access to historical information that is embedded in complex sources and its transformation into refined, re-usable and sustainable data for contemporary and future study of modern China.

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