Google Ngram Viewer

Anthropology has an ugly, racist history. The earliest armchair anthropologists had a tendency to judge and write about other cultures based solely on their own morality and philosophy. The term ‘armchair anthropology’ stems from that idea. People were not actively studying other cultures in the field but rather creating prejudices against them from their imaginations. My strong interest in anthropology and curiosity of early anthropologists’ perceptions of other cultures inspired me to search the words “primitive, culture, and evolution”. The term ‘primitive’ was often used in a negative connotation by early anthropologists to describe “inferior” cultures. Evolutionary theory was a controversial idea in the late 1800s when it gained media coverage. The graph below shows the correlation between these concepts from the span of years 1800-1900.


The term ‘primitive’ was a term that appeared often in early Victorian literature. Many people viewed other cultures and societies and being primitive and below their own culture. Evolution is not a widespread concept until the late 1800s when Darwin reveals his own version of natural selection. From that point forward it rapidly increased in publications. Culture is another term that occurs more frequently in texts with the progression of time. It was interesting to see the small drop from 1800 to about 1825 in regards to culture in literature. ‘Culture’ and ‘primitive’ cross paths around 1870 which is near the time when early anthropologist Edward B. Tylor published, “Primitive Culture”. Tylor’s definition of culture is one of the most recognized contributions to anthropology:

“Culture, or civilization, taken in its broad, ethnographic sense, is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.” —Tylor

My second Ngram was more of an experiment just for fun. I was playing around with different terms when I decided to search “love, sex, and desire”. I have always been interested in the way that these terms were discussed in Victorian-era literature. Many classic canonical works are from this time period and focus their plot around love and desire. It was to my understanding that sex was not something necessarily acceptable to talk about casually in public or in literature. The graph below shows the frequency of these three terms in literature from 1800-1900.


Love appears to be a very popular term used in literature of this time period. This was something I anticipated with my own knowledge of Victorian literature. The various dips and curves in the frequency throughout the years struck me as interesting. I wonder what contextual factors led to a decline or rise in the discussion of love. Desire is a term I often associate with love which is why I included it. I was intrigued by how frequent it actually occurred throughout the century. Even though sex was not bluntly talked about in texts, desire and lust may have been more socially appropriate or acceptable terms to describe sexual feelings. The Google Ngram platform is an amazing tool to perform distant reading. It allows one to search using several filters to toggle what they wish to examine. Although it does not give you context, which is a criticism that Underwood talks about in his article, it does provide you with a general understanding of a certain topic, theme, or author that can be analyzed in a multitude of lenses.


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