In Sociological Methods & Research
Narrating history is perpetually contested, shaping and reshaping how nations and people understand both their pasts and the current moment. Measuring and evaluating the scope of histories is methodologically challenging. In this paper we provide a general approach and a specific method to measure historical recall. Operationalizing historical information as one or more word phrases, we use the phrase-mining RAKE algorithm on a collection of primary historical documents to extract first-person historical evidence, and then measure recall via phrases present on contemporary Wikipedia, taken to represent a publicly-accessible summary of existing knowledge on virtually any historical topic. We demonstrate this method using women’s movements in the United States as a case study of a debated historical field. We found that issues important to working-class elements of the movement were less likely to be covered on Wikipedia compared to other subsections of the movement. Combining this method with a qualitative analysis of select articles, we identified a typology of mechanisms leading to historical omissions: paucity, restrictive paradigms, and categorical narrowness. Our approach, we conclude, can be used to both evaluate the recall of a body of history and to actively intervene in enlarging the scope of our histories and historical knowledge.