HIST 2984, Spring 2017, Virginia Tech
Instructor: Tom Ewing (
MW 10:10-11:00 Class sessions; MAC 253A
W 6-8 pm, Project sessions, MW 434

Introduction to Data in Social Context examines the use of data to identify, reveal, explain, and interpret patterns of human behavior, identity, and interactions. An exploration of the historical trajectories of data asks how societies have increasingly identified numerical measures as meaningful categories of knowledge, as well as the persistent challenges to assumptions about the universality of social categories reducible to numerical measures. The course examines the range of information that can be classified as data in the form of quantified measures of social categories, textual collections, sound and visual media, and geographical information. Students will learn how social context shapes the collection, interpretation, and uses of data by examining the changing nature of categories defined by class, ethnicity, race, gender, and other elements of collective and individual identity. The course challenges students to ask how data is being collected, how the data has been used to shape policies, and how the process of analyzing data is shaped by social conditions. An exploration of the limits of data will focus on absences and erasures in social categories, the manipulation of data for particular purposes, and the use of data to replicate and reinforce structures on inequality.

George Orwell, 1984 (1948)
David Weinberger, Too Big to Know. Rethinking Knowledge (2012)
James Gleick, The Information. A History, A Theory, A Flood (2012)
Jordan Ellenberg, How Not to be Wrong. The Power of Mathematical Thinking (2014)

Problem sets (3 @ 5% each)                                        25%
Group projects (4 @ 10% each)                                   60%
Final essay                                                                    15%

Research postings on the history of tuberculosis from Medical Heritage Library (link)

Research posters on Appalachian trail counties and cities in Virginia (link)