Astor Place Riots and Google N-Grams

 

At this point, I am not using any fancy tools, but a quick look at Google’s N-Gram viewer reveals some unexpected patterns which suggest a closer look is needed.  Started in 2010 as a more or less experimental tool, the N-Gram viewer experienced a major overhaul in 2012 and has been improved since.  For a good overview of N-Grams, see this Programming Historian 2 lesson.  Basically, this tool will search tons of google books and count how often your search term appears compared to others.  Google’s viewer is great because it allows poor coders (like myself!) to get a quick look at general patterns in a topic over time.  It can be a powerful tool, but with its easy access comes some caveats: chiefly, google claims it searches 5 million books, but it does not say what those works are, or if they change over time.   To me, it’s like an average wikipedia entry in that I can get an overall sense of things, namely, where to look next, but I would not formally cite it without further verification.

That said, it’s fun!  When I was curious about how the term “Astor Place Riot” appeared in the second half of the nineteenth century, the viewer returned an unexpected pattern:

Although the actual numbers of texts counter are marginal, the Astor Place Riots remain a visible presence in Google Books’ corpus.  In fact, the frequency of their mention seems to increase at times, spiking in the 1880s and 1890s, which I was entirely not expecting.  I think here is the value of such an analysis: while it does not tell me much about the context of the occurrences of the term “Astor Place Riots,” a long-view analysis can point to places that deserve closer looks.  In this case, I have briefly done an overview of sources from the time period, and they show an engagement with the riots that is concerned mostly with how they could have been prevented (rather than causes), which has the potential to tell us something about how those writers used it as part of arguments about civil unrest and revolution.

Interestingly, here is an N-Gram comparing the same search for the Riots with “Astor Place,” showing that there was at least small increases in frequency to the occurrences of the Riots when people began mentioning the placename.

 

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