Project Proposal (SSHRC)

[believe it or not, this is one of the most popular things on my site. So while I've moved on from this position, I've left this up for your perusal. Good luck with your own applications!]

[Updated: I put a short post for those people coming who are curious about SSHRC applications.]

Title: “Postwar English-Canadian Youth Cultures: A Digital History, 1945-1990.”

This is the text of my successful SSHRC postdoctoral application, which I’ve posted here so you can get a sense of what I’m working on. I’m always looking for collaborators, people to share information with, or just anybody who loves to chat about history. Drop a line at @ianmilligan1 or ianmilligan1@gmail.com.


Youth have played a critical social role in postwar Canadian history. The demographic phenomenon known as the baby boom brought with it sweeping social change. In the decade following the Second World War, 3.9 million babies were born in Canada; a dramatic increase considering that Canada’s 1945 population was approximately 12 million. The baby boom coincided with an economic boom and was heavily influenced by marketers and popular culture; they had high expectations and developed a marked sense of difference from their elders. By the 1960s, this shared culture gave rise to an anti-authoritarian youth culture, exemplified by the counterculture, the New Left, as well as oppositional movements within unionized workplaces. While the Sixties as a particular historical moment of political ferment and opposition may have been transitory, the sense of youth apart was not. Those born between the 1960s and the early 1980s, the Generation Xers, lived in the shadow of the baby boom. These youth carved out their own culture in a context of economic depression and political scandal, along with the increasing growth of computerization, cable TV, and video games. More recently, from the 1980s to the end of the 20th century, within a context of neoliberal politics and culture, Generation Y (also known as the Baby Bust or Baby Boom Echo) continued to shape the world through their growing comfort with new digital technologies and ever-prolonged adolescence (Strauss and Howe, 1991; Foot, 1996). Youth have been a frequent subject and source of cultural and political criticism and discussion, over issues as varied as the future of the labour market and the country itself, as well as their potential for political instability. For critical methodological reasons, however, scholars have an incomplete understanding of youth cultures throughout the postwar period. Recent advances in digital history will enable me to extend our knowledge and cast more light on this critical demographic group.

My postdoctoral project, “Postwar English-Canadian Youth Cultures: A Digital History, 1945-1990,” will increase our understanding of postwar social and cultural history by expanding our knowledge of youth cultures. Previous approaches, while fruitful, have focused on a small number of influential youth at the expense of overall understanding. Youth who went to university, or who assumed leadership positions in unions or cultural industries, have received the lion’s share of attention. They left an extensive record that enables historians to contact them to arrange interviews, they produced documents that were preserved in archives, and in some cases they continue to hold prominent positions that allow them to shape the ongoing narrative of postwar Canadian history. In focusing on the elite, these approaches provide only a limited understanding. Although youth are a perennial theme throughout much historical source material, either as creators or as subject matter, much of this material is elusive to traditional archival inquiry.

How can we pull our focus from the lives and activities of a small number of privileged and unrepresentative youth to gain a synoptic view of youth culture more generally? The digital humanities, the broader exploration of how technology can be integrated into traditional scholarly activities and the creation of new forms of scholarship and media, as well as digital history, the application of digital methodologies and media to historical questions, offer possibilities for a significant revision of the contemporary historiography (overviews include Cohen and Rosenzweig, 2006; Cohen et al, 2008). Specifically, culturomics, “the application of high-throughput data collection and analysis to the study of human culture,” offers an exciting new method of historical inquiry (Michel et al, 2010). Through this methodology, popularized by the Google n-gram project and laid out in detail in a groundbreaking Science article, we can see the rise and fall of cultural ideas over a discrete period of time. Social sciences and humanities researchers are on the cusp of a profound transformation in how they conduct and disseminate their work, due to an astounding growth in digital sources and an increasing technical ability to process them on a mass scale. Indeed, historical digital sources have reached a scale where they defy conventional analysis and now require computational analysis. The Internet Archive alone has 2.9 million texts (Internet Archive), there are 2.6 million pages of historical newspapers archived at the Chronicling America site of the US Library of Congress (Chronicling America), the McCord Museum at McGill University has over 80,000 historical photographs (McCord Museum), and Google Books has now digitized fifteen million books out of their total goal of 130 million (Google Books; Taycher 2010). Archives are increasingly committed to preserving cultural heritage materials in digital, rather than more traditional analog, forms. This is perhaps best exemplified by digitization priorities at Library and Archives Canada (LAC). The amount of accessible digital information continues to grow daily, making digital humanities projects increasingly feasible, and for that matter, necessary. With this data, we can draw correlations between digital archival collections and other statistics. Record linkages can now be created and explored in new and exciting ways: we can research and pinpoint correlations across research databases, historical statistics, autobiographies, the Canadian Google Books corpus and holdings at LAC, for example. This proposed postdoctoral project also fits into recent federal policy initiatives, including SSHRC’s digital economy priority area.

By amassing and drawing on such a large amount of data, historians can use new and developing computational tools to make sense of and process this wealth of information. Through textual analysis, historians can learn important information. More generally, text mining, the extraction of new and useful information through the automatic “identification and exploration of interesting patterns” in unstructured data, will be very fruitful (Feldman and Sanger, 2007). We can isolate recurring words or phrases and note their frequency in a certain year and within specific contexts (this builds on an earlier tradition of textual analysis, notably by Black-Rogers, 1985). Do hopeful (or anxious) words appear more frequently during some times than others, for example, allowing the conduct of a historical sentiment analysis? Is concern about youth limited to certain sources or did it appear widely? When and where did youth employment concerns rise to the forefront? Was youth a regionally dispersed phenomenon or was consternation and writing disproportionately urban? How did politicians engage with the idea of youth?

I will approach these questions by writing software in the Mathematica programming language, an integrated platform for technical computing that will allow me to process, visualize, and interact with this exceptional array of information. This methodology builds on a recently submitted co-authored chapter I wrote with William Turkel. We traced the contours of various computational methods involved in large-scale historical inquiry, and other techniques developed by Turkel and his colleagues for the Criminal Intent project (funded by the Digging into Data project). I thus have a demonstrated interest and skill set in digital methodologies, building on my work as a founding co-editor of ActiveHistory.ca, a successful public history website, wherein web development, social media networking, and online research are key. My internet presence will allow the realization of this project’s web dissemination aims. Mathematica enables researchers to freely and openly disseminate their programs to the public through their new Computational Document Format, which enables the distribution of interactive documents, allowing others to see, manipulate and use my data. I will encourage the public to follow my work as I undertake it through both a traditional blog as well as a server being set up by Turkel under a computational history grant that will allow us to share dynamic Mathematica demonstrations.

Several collections of digital sources will be of particular interest. Song lyrics will be key, as music assumes an important role in cultural definition. We often focus only on a handful of influential artists: Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, and Gordon Lightfoot, to name a few. Yet the CHUM charts, Canada’s pre-eminent music ranking list in the postwar period, are replete with popular songs that have since largely slipped away from historical consideration. For example, the number of songs that charted between May 1957 and December 1983 fills 204 chart pages (Hall, 1984). Another critical resource is RPM magazine, which has been fully digitized by LAC: 9,000 music charts dating from 1964 to 2000, organized by sales figures, radio and television play, combining consumption and production figures. We are now able to digitize these song titles, use computer programs to go out to the web and obtain full-text lyrics for each song, which can include their metadata: time on the chart, popularity, and date range. Using a spidering program, I have identified 11,115 Top 40 lyrics from 1964 to 1989 and downloaded them in full-text to my own computer. I will apply text mining techniques to this body of information. By analyzing these lyrics together, one can see the relative rise and fall of ideas and key words over time. I will use this to determine whether overall characteristics of specific time periods and audiences emerge and to what degree the economy had an impact on youth popular culture. Visualization techniques, ranging from lyric word frequency clouds to an exploration of keyword-in-context analysis, will facilitate the analysis of this large amount of information.

I will also trace the rise and evolution of anxieties surrounding youth, amongst youth themselves, working-class and middle-class observers, and governmental agencies. I will undertake a detailed study of journalistic outputs, periodicals, the comprehensive corpus of Canadian information available in the Internet Archive, the Haithi Trust, and elsewhere, as well as governmental reports, parliamentary proceedings, and smaller collections held by LAC and other archives. These sources will allow me to fruitfully answer the questions above. I will cross-reference discussions of youth with accessible historical statistics and economic data; how do generational identities co-exist with the business cycle, for example? Do we see correlations and linkages with changes in overall employment levels, or educational achievements, or labour force mobility, or any of the tens of other postwar digitized metrics made available by Statistics Canada? Throughout, I will pay particular attention to various youth sub-cultures: rural versus urban, as well as structures of gender, class, and ethnicity.

The date range of 1945 to 1990 was chosen for particular reasons. By beginning in the immediate postwar period, I will not only begin with the demographic phenomenon of the baby boom generation, but also focus on the changes and continuities that emerged after the Second World War. I chose to end in 1990, at the end of the Cold War, as it presents another critical fulcrum in Canadian history. The forty-five years between 1945 and 1990 are sufficient to see how youth of divergent generations interacted with extremely varied political, economic, and cultural contexts. This date range also addresses a period that has seen notable historiographical shortcomings.

This project will make significant contributions to the existing literature on youth and postwar Canada, as well as to the practice of digital history. Postwar youth have been largely unstudied, apart from treatments of the New Left, counterculture, and students. For decades, the historical literature on the baby boom generation and youth was limited (including Kostash, 1980; Levitt, 1984; Owram, 1996). Owram’s book is the closest we have to a comprehensive history of the baby boom generation, yet it is admittedly focused on the more privileged middle-class strata (Owram, 1996). Recent work has begun to expand this limited perspective, notably Palmer’s (2009) work that addressed traditions of postwar working-class youth unrest, as well as unruly young workers who launched illegal strikes in the mid-1960s. Apart from this, most studies focus on post-secondary students. Yet this was a minority of youth outcomes: eleven percent of youth aged 18-24 attended post-secondary institutions in 1965-66.

Sociologists and demographers have undertaken most of the work on postwar youth, albeit at a more general level (Bibby, 2011; Foot, 1996). The United States has a more robust historiography, with studies focusing on generational change and theory (Strauss and Howe, 1991), overall trends of representative characters (Gollub, 1991), the emergence of teenagers (Savage, 2007), and conflict (Feuer, 1968). Canadian studies of prewar youth offer fruitful ways forward, notably that of Cynthia Commacchio who demonstrates that a modern form of adolescence emerged as a socio-historical construction between the end of the First World War and the 1950s. She argues that youth as a demographic group began to experience a common set of circumstances (Commacchio, 2006).

Other fields will also be enhanced by this project. I will contribute to the methodological discussions of digital history and of the digital humanities more generally, especially around the applicability of approaches related to culturomics. I will also demonstrate the harmony of digital and traditional techniques. This project will contribute to the general social history of postwar Canada and in particular, the more inaccessible world of working-class and marginalized youth. While workers in unions are the subject of a small but highly regarded labour historiography (Heron, 1996; Palmer, 1992; Isitt, 2011; Sangster, 2010, among others), it has been harder to achieve a representative history of those not included. By focusing on young Canadians, including those who did not find themselves in labour unions or universities, this project strives to expand our cultural understanding of the period.

This study builds on my earlier work in the field of youth culture. My dissertation “Rebel Youth: Young Workers, New Leftists, and Labour in English Canada, 1964-1973” was supervised by Dr. Craig Heron with Dr. Marlene Shore and Dr. Paul Axelrod as committee members. The dissertation focused on the evolution of youth culture amongst New Leftists and radical workers. My research demonstrated that young people in growing numbers embraced a new culture of defiant anti-authoritarianism and self-expression. Young activists combined this new youth culture with a new brand of radicalism, which became known as the New Left, and aimed to build alliances with marginalized groups. At the same time, young workers defied their aging union leaders in a wave of renewed militancy, including wildcat strikes. The literature had not considered working-class youth, New Leftists, and youth culture together; my dissertation conceptualized them as aspects of a single youth phenomenon. Young workers and students were shaped by a similarly anti-authoritarian and democratic culture, and their ensuing behaviour took shape in divergent yet fundamentally related ways. I argued that middle-class and working-class youth must be reconceptualized as part of a broader youth culture: their shared experiences included high school and broader cultural experiences, especially around anti-authoritarianism and democracy. Yet youth of different classes had material differences as well, especially concerning post-secondary accessibility and experiences. I also examined the various factors that led a minority of both working and middle-class youth to challenge societal and political norms by forming oppositional movements such as the New Left and intra-union groups. Ultimately, I argued that these various forms of resistance had to be conceptualized as distinct, yet culturally interconnected, elements of a youth revolt. This project drew on a wide array of sources, including seventy-three interviews and nineteen archival repositories across thirteen Canadian cities. After defending on 7 November 2011, I will pursue a book contract with the University of British Columbia Press.

The University of Western Ontario is an ideal location for me to do my postdoctoral fellowship, under the supervision of Professor William Turkel. Turkel is currently the project director of digital infrastructure for the Network in Canadian History & Environment (NiCHE), a SSHRC Strategic Knowledge Cluster project. He is the co-author of The Programming Historian, an online text that teaches the basics of programming for historians and other humanists. He has also been the applicant or co-applicant on half a dozen SSHRC-funded digital history projects, including one of the 2009 international Digging into Data teams, and has written extensively on the promise of digital history. We have co-written a chapter on computational methods for a proposed anthology on ‘Big History,’ which fruitfully demonstrates our ability to collaborate. With his assistance, I will be able to further develop my programming skills. In addition to Turkel, this project will be able to draw on Western’s strong faculty complement in Canadian history, including Jonathan Vance, Robert Wardhaugh, and Alan MacEachern, among others. Robert MacDougall, a historian of American technology, is another digital historian in the department. Elsewhere at Western, the Culture Complexity and Digital Humanities research lab (the CulturePlex) offers a multidisciplinary approach to the field. The department, faculty and university have provided strong support for digital scholarship and I look forward to joining them.

For the first year of the fellowship, I will conduct data collection, analysis and visualization to build a sizeable database of postwar youth history. Using this data, in addition to the traditional social and cultural history skills learned from my doctoral work, I will focus on dissemination during the second year. Reflecting the unique nature of this project, I hope to both publish in accessible open-access journals with a multimedia angle, as well as more traditional Canadian history outlets. The final outcome of this product will be a peer-reviewed monograph, complemented by an online site that allows visitors to dynamically manipulate models of research processes and visualizations of results.

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