Pets, Chickens, and Gay Rights: Tracking Social Change With Google's "Ngram Viewer"

Google's new research tool makes everyone a social scientist.

Posted Jan 03, 2011

A recent article in the journal Science described a publically available set of data that dwarfs the AKC registration numbers. The data consist of the relative frequencies of words scanned from 5 million volumes digitized by Google Books (total N = two trillion words). The Harvard-based research team that developed this extraordinary resource argue that this new data base (which is named n-gram) will usher in a new academic field they call "culturomics."

The authors are correct in their belief that n-gram offers a window into understanding cultural change. After all, people write about what they are thinking about. In the Science paper, the researchers used n-gram to document the suppression of art in Nazi Germany, historical changes in the actual length of one's proverbial "fifteen minutes of fame," and fluctuations in the popularity of God (they conclude God needs a new publicist). To top it off, n-gram data are free and easy to access. Further, Google Labs has developed a graphing tool, Ngram Viewer,that allows anyone to explore changes in the relative frequency words and phrases -- and hence thoughts -- since the development of the printing press.

Picturing Changes in How Americans Think About Animals: Pets Rule!

The research possibilities of Ngram Viewer are endless. To try it out, I used the program to examine some shifts in our attitudes toward animals. First I looked at our changing relationships with pets. The frequency and forms of pet-keeping vary widely between cultures and over time. I traced changes in attitudes toward companion animals by having Ngram Viewer graph the relative frequency of the word "pet" in books published in the United States between 1800 and 2000. As the figure below indicates, while several waves of interest in pets have occured over the past 200 years, the real jump in our culture's fascination (obsession?) with companion animals began about 30 years ago and it is still going strong.

Relative frequency of the word "pet" (1800 - 2000)

 

 

 

 

 

 The Good News for Cows Is Bad News For Chickens

Then I tracked changes in the animals we eat since 1900 by entering the words "chicken" and "beef." As shown below, the graph accurately illustrates the dietary shift which has resulted in a 20% decrease in the number of cattle slaughtered each year in the United Sates but a 200% increase in the number of chickens killed for our dining pleasure.

 

Changes in the animals we eat (beef in blue, chicken in red)

 

 

Animal Rights and Gay Rights

Finally, I looked at the relative popularity of "gay rights" and "animal rights" between 1965 and 2005. The graph reveals parallels in the visibility of these two liberation movements on our cultural landscape, and it shows that, at least in terms of public discourse, Americans are more concerned with the rights of gays and lesbians than pigs and lab rats.

"Gay rights" (blue) and "animal rights" (red) (1965- 2005)

 

 

Playing With Google Ngram Viewer

Ngram Viewer is easy to use and loads of fun. To play with it yourself, go to the web site (http://ngrams.googlelabs.com/) and start plugging words and phrases into the search bar. If you want to compare the frequency of several items, just separate them with commas.

Note that are three options that can affect the shapes of the curves. The first are dates you specify. Because of the quirks of sampling, the graphs become less reliable before 1800 and after 2000. The second is the language you want to search. I used American English for the graphs in this post, but nine other options are available including British English, Chinese, Spanish, German and Russian. Finally, you can "smooth" graphs to varying degrees by having Ngram average word frequencies over different numbers of adjacent years. Also, note that the search engine is case sensitive. You get completely different graphs by typing in "God" and "god".

Warning! If you like to play with numbers and are interested in cultural change, Ngram Viewer can be as addictive as Grand Theft Auto. For example, I found that the word "vegan" began to enter our collective consciousness in 1992, and that the Beatles have had more impact on America's musical landscape than the Rolling Stones and Elvis Presley combined. (But Ngram also proves that John Lennon was wrong -the Beatles were never more popular than Jesus.) 

More information on using Ngram Viewer is available here. And here is an excellent radio interview with Erez Lieberman Aiden, one of the developers of the program.


Hal Herzog is Professor of Psychology at Western Carolina University. He is the author of Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It Is So Hard To Think Straight About Animals (Harper, September 2010).