Disentangling a Trinity: A Digital Approach to Modernity, Civilization and Europe in Dutch Newspapers (1840-1990)

paper, specified "short paper"
  1. 1. Ruben Ros

    Utrecht University

  2. 2. Joris van Eijnatten

    Utrecht University

Work text
This plain text was ingested for the purpose of full-text search, not to preserve original formatting or readability. For the most complete copy, refer to the original conference program.


This paper fleshes out the relations between the conceptual trinity of modernity, civilization and Europe (MCE) using digital history techniques. The idea of Europe as it emerged during the early modern period and developed over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is often said to coincide with both ‘civilization’ and ‘modernity’ (Murray-Miller, 2018; Eisenstadt 2001). In the latest contribution to this topic, Murray-Miller argues that ‘the intertwining of these concepts is so extensive that, historically, one has typically served as a metonym for the other’ (Murray-Miller, 2018: 418-422). In this research we elaborate on this conceptual entanglement and evaluate the semantic boundaries that are said to define the MCE trinity. Based on a computational analysis of four Dutch newspapers spanning the period 1840-1990 we conclude that, in contrast to what the literature claims, semantic relations among the MCE elements are hardly visible and when they do, they are far from a ‘trinity’.

Histories of concepts such as civilization and modernity are often based empirically on a selection of semantically dense works written by a limited number of intellectuals. While we do not claim that newspapers fully represent the historical ‘Zeitgeist’ we do argue that they reflect a broader swath of periodically iterated public opinion, and thus help us understand the development of concepts in a broader segment of society. This research shows how the ‘streetlight effect’ in intellectual history can lead to what in effect is a eurocentric fallacy in the study of modernity and civilization.

By investigating conceptual interrelations we add to the emergent field of digital conceptual history. Earlier historians of concepts already recognized the value of tracing patterns in word use to understand conceptual change (Reichardt, 1985). Digital datasets and computational methods now enable more advanced enquiries into frequencies and distributions that reveal important aspects of conceptual change (Kenter et al., 2015; Recchia et al., 2016).


We restrict ourselves to four Dutch-language newspapers issued between 1800 and 1990: Algemeen Handelsblad (AH, 1828-1970), Leeuwarder Courant (LC, 1800-1990), Nieuwe Rotterdamsche Courant (NRC, 1844-1869, 1909-1929, 1970-1990; AH and NRC merged in 1970 as NRC Handelsblad), and De Telegraaf (TEL, 1893-1990). These newspapers are fairly representative of the Dutch newspaper landscape and cover a large part of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (Wijfjes, 2004). In this period, the form and content of the newspapers in questions changed significantly: the size and regularity increased, political affiliations became more explicit and commercialization contributed to a focus on local, regional and national matters (De Graaf, 2010). Although we find these changes not to ‘affect’ our concepts, we are aware that our selection consists of newspapers distributed nationally. Comparisons with regional newspapers, or newspapers more strongly attached to political ideologies would be fruitful for further research.


Considering the variable and imprecise meaning and usage of ‘Europe’, we approach the ‘trinity’ from the perspective of modernity and civilization. We first aggregate bigrams that contain modern
, beschaafd
(‘civilized’) and beschaving
(‘civilization’) and subsequently analyze bigram-frequency, -productivity (number of different bigrams used) and -creativity (number of ‘new’ bigrams introduced) to identify change and stability in the word usage. We complement these methods with PMI-collocations. Subsequently, we look into our concept’s meanings and interrelationships by employing word embeddings (Mikolov et al., 2013). Since the introduction of this method, much work has been undertaken to employ word embeddings in the study of diachronic word evolution (Kutuzov et al., 2018; Tang, 2018)). We analyze the concepts in five periods (1840-1869, 1870-1899, 1900-1939, 1950-1969, 1970-1990), a periodization based on the trends observed in the bigram frequencies and the availability of newspaper data (Hamilton, Leskovec and Jurafsky, 2016). Because the corpus size increases considerably over time we use random sampling to obtain equally sized input data for our vector space models. After aligning the models, we extract the most similar terms that appear in all the models in a given period and rank them based on the average cosine distance. Entanglement is investigated using bigrams that can be seen as combinations of two concepts (i.e. ‘modern europa’ or ‘moderne beschaving’), collocations and a network-based approach to word embeddings. We extract the thirty words most similar those thirty words most similar words to the adjectives ‘modern’, ‘civilized’ and ‘european’ across five periods. Using the open-source visualization software Gephi we visualized the results, using the resulting 13,500 words as nodes in a network, and the relations between them as edges. The entanglement thus becomes visible through the degree of connectedness of the nodes, as well as the overall network density.

We show how during the nineteenth century the concept of modernity experienced an interpretative shift from modernity as ‘the present’ to modernity as a stage in history. Bigrams show that the adjective ‘modern’ was also increasingly combined with abstract phenomena such as state, time and freedom. Similarly, the concept of civilization shifted from being associated with enlightenment and prosperity to a geographically locatable counterpart of barbarism. Elements of purity and superiority followed this localization of civilization in the decades surrounding 1900, only to be combined with notions of global values, science and the history of humankind in the second half of the twentieth century.

While these conceptual developments hint at a tightly woven idea of a modern European civilization, this idea is hardly corroborated by our data. If we assume that to be modern meant to be European, and to be European meant to be civilized, we would to find overlap in semantically similar words. Semantically similar words to ‘modern’, ‘civilized’ and ‘european’, however, seldom overlap. Signs of an MCE trinity are only spotted in the period 1870-1899, when colonialism and a rapidly changing industrial society produced new ideas about a superior and civilized European modernity. Outside this period, conceptual connections are present, but seldom between all three components of the trinity. Even if the trinity is assumed to be present, it was far from an equally sized triangle: Europe only marginally features in network representations of semantically similar words (Figure 1). Instead, it appears as a relatively insignificant word. Civilization and modernity hardly figure as spatial categories in newspapers, and in so far as they do, the most important concept is not ‘Europe’ but ‘the West’ (Geulen, 2011; Mishkova and Trencsényi, 2017; Bavaj and Steber, 2011, Bonnet, 2004).


Instead of an extensive and constant entanglement of modernity, civilization and Europe our research shows intermittent and alternating connections. Given that these results differ from research based on elite discourse, this paper demonstrates the need for digital research into conceptual interrelationships. In the case of the MCE trinity, this leads to a misreading of ‘eurocentrism’. Digital methods counter this fallacy and show how conceptual configurations assume different forms in different sources and social groups.


Bavaj, R. and Steber, M. (eds). (2015).
Germany and ‘The West’, the History of a Modern Concept. New York/Frankfurt: Bergbahn.

Bonnet, A. (2004).
The Idea of the West, Culture, Politics and History. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan.

De Graaf, R. (2010).
Journalistiek in Beweging. Veranderende berichtgeving in kranten en pamfletten (Groningen en 's-Hertogenbosch 1813-1899). Amsterdam: Bert Bakker.

Geulen, S. (2011). Plädoyer für eine Geschichte der Grundbegriffe des 20. Jahrhunderts
Zeithistorische Forschungen/Studies in Contemporary History, 7(1): 79-97.

Hamilton, W. L., Leskovec, J., and Jurafsky, D. (2016).  Diachronic word embeddings reveal statistical laws of semantic change.  
arXiv:1605.09096v6 [cs.CL] http://arxiv.org/

abs/1605.09096v6 (accessed 19 April 2019).

Ifversen, J. (2011). About key concepts and how to study them.
Contributions to the History of Concepts, 6(1): 65-88.

Kenter, T., Wevers, M., Huijnen, P., and Rijke, M. de. (2015). Ad Hoc Monitoring of Vocabulary Shifts over Time.
Proceedings of the 24th ACM International on Conference on Information and Knowledge Management. 1191-2000.

Kutuzov, A., Øvrelid, L., Szymanski, T. and Velldal, E. (2018). Diachronic word embeddings and semantic shifts: a survey.
arXiv:1301.3781v3 [cs.CL].

Mikolov, T., Chen, K., Corrado, G. and Dean, J. (2013). Efficient estimation of word representations in vector space.
arXiv:1301.3781v3 [cs.CL] http://arxiv.org/

abs/1301.3781v3 (accessed 19 April 2019).

Mishkova, D. and Trencsényi, B. (eds). (2017).
European Regions and Boundaries, A Conceptual History. New York/Frankfurt: Bergbahn.

Murray-Miller, G. (2018) Civilization, Modernity and Europe: The Making and Unmaking of a Conceptual Unity.
History, 103:418-433.

Recchia, G., Jones, E., Nulty, P., Regan, J. and de Bolla, P. (2016). Tracing Shifting Conceptual Vocabularies Through Time.
European Knowledge Acquisition Workshop. 19-28.

Reichardt, R. (1985). Introduktion. In Reichardt, R. (ed).
Handbuch politisch-sozialer Grundbegriffe in Frankreich 1680-1820. Frankfurt: Verlag.

Tang, X. (2018). A state-of-the-art of semantic change computation.
Natural Language Engineering, 24(5)  1-28.

Wijfjes, H. (2004).  
Journalistiek in Nederland 1850-2000. Beroep, cultuur en organisatie. Amsterdam: Boom.

If this content appears in violation of your intellectual property rights, or you see errors or omissions, please reach out to Scott B. Weingart to discuss removing or amending the materials.

Conference Info

In review

ADHO - 2019

Hosted at Utrecht University

Utrecht, Netherlands

July 9, 2019 - July 12, 2019

436 works by 1162 authors indexed

Series: ADHO (14)

Organizers: ADHO