Data analysis of history

Read an article the other day in The Guardian (History as a giant data set: how analyzing the past could save the future), which talks about this new discipline called cliodynamics (see wikipedia cliodynamics article). There was a Nature article (in 2012), Human Cycles: History as Science, which described cliodynamics in a bit more detail.

Cliodynamics uses mathematical systems theory on historical data to predict what will happen in the future for society. According to The Guardian and Nature articles, the originator of cliodynamics, Peter Turchin, predicted in 2010 that the world would change dramatically for the worse over the coming decade, with violence peaking in 2020.

What is cliodynamics

Cliodynamics depends on vast databases of historical data that has been amassed over the last decade or so. For instance, the Seshat Global History Databank (started in 2011, has 3 datasets: moralizing gods, axial age history [8th to 3rd cent. BCE], & social complexity), International Institute of Social History (est. 1935, in 2013 re-organized their collection to focus on data, has 33 dataverses ranging from data on apprenticeships, prices and wage history, strike history of various countries and time periods, etc. ), and Google NGRAM viewer (started in 2010, provides keyword statistics on Google BOOKs).

Cliodynamics uses the information from databases like the above to devise a mathematical model of the history of the world. From their mathematical model, cliodynamics researchers have discerned patterns or cycles in human endeavors that have persisted over centuries.

Cliodynamic cycles

Two of cycles of interest come to mind:

  • Secular cycle – this plays out over 2-3 centuries and starts out with a new egalitarian society that has low levels of inequality where the supply and demand for labor are roughly equal. Over time as population grows, the supply of labor outstrips demand and inequality increases. Elites then start to battle one another, war and political instability results in a new more equal society, re-starting the cycle .
  • Fathers and sons cycle – this plays out over 50 years and starts when the (fathers) generation responds violently to social injustice and the next (sons) generation resigns itself to injustice (or hopefully resolves it) until the next (fathers) generation sees injustice again and erupts violently re-starting the cycle over again. .

It’s this last cycle that Turchin predicted to peak again in 2020, the last one peaking in 1970 and the ones before that peaking in 1920 and 1870.

We’ve seen such theories before. In the 19th and 20th centuries there were plenty of historical theorist. Probably the most prominent was Marx but there were others as well.

The problem with cliodynamics, good data

Sparsity and accuracy of data has always been a problem with historical study. Much information is lost through natural or manmade disasters and much of what’s left is biased. Nonetheless, more and more data is being amassed of a historical nature every day, most of it quantitative and suitable to analysis.

Historical data, where available, can be assessed scientifically, and analyzed by using current tools such as data analytics, machine learning, & deep learning to ascertain trends and make predictions. And the more data available, the more accurate these analyses and predictions can become. Cliodynamics pre-dates much of these tools. but that’s no excuse for not to taking advantage of them.


As for 2020, AI, automation and globalization has led and will lead to more job disruption. Inequality is also on the rise, at least throughout much of the west. And then there’s Brexit, USA elections and general mid-east turmoil that seems to all be on the horizon.

Stay tuned, 2020 seems only months away.

Photo Credits:

From Key Historic Figures of WW1 article, Mansell/Ghetty Images, (c) ThoughtCo

Anti War March (1968 Chicago) By David Wilson , CC BY 2.0, Link

Eleven times Americans have marched on Washington, (1920, Washington DC) (c) Smithsonian Magazine