The transnational exchange of ideas is a central aspect of globalization, but historians have struggled to find approaches that deal adequately with the international character of modern intellectual life. In this project, we propose a fresh approach to this problem: using large-scale digital methods to analyze the formation, evolution, and transmission of the international ideas produced in and through international organizations. Specifically, we conduct a multi-method historical study of concepts in thousands of documents generated within UNESCO from 1945 to 2015.

Our approach is informed by the insight that international organizations should be understood not only as actors that wield power in international affairs, but as what Sandrine Kott has called “open social spaces through which we can observe exchanges and circulation.” The social space created by UNESCO offers rich material for the transnational historical study of the exchange and circulation of what we call “international ideas” — core concepts that define the terms of debate in historically specific configurations of inter-state relations. The nearly universal extent of UNESCO’s membership means that its debates include voices from countries across the planet. Published in similar formats across a seventy-year period, UNESCO texts allow for comparison and analysis of change over time. Finally, these texts are freely available and a vast quantity has been digitized. New methods of digital text analysis, sophisticated enough to chart conceptual relations and development, offer exciting ways to explore the global discourse captured in these sources.

We will use this approach to shed light on a key event in twentieth-century international history: the expansion of international society through the emergence of new, post-colonial states. Scholars have observed that decolonization had dramatic effects on many core concepts of the international order. In the nineteenth century, European empires legitimated the dominance of their “international society” through concepts like sovereignty, the state, progress, civilization, and race, using these ideas to exclude vast human communities from exercising sovereignty. The end of the European empires and the emergence of a world-system of national states called for different guiding concepts, however. Since World War II, international discourse has seen greater emphasis on concepts related to cultural exchange and transnational communication, like heritage, identity, diversity, and “culture” itself, as “thinking about civilization in terms of universal norms and values …[was] replaced by the notion that [non-European] societies and their members were irreducibly different” (Jansen and Osterhammel, Decolonization: A Short History. Princeton 2017, 159).

This major transition in the legitimating ideas of world order — a transition, in a word, from civilization to culture — has been suggestively outlined. But it has not been subjected to sustained, transnational historical analysis, in part no doubt because of the methodological difficulties such an analysis implies. The idea behind our project is that historical study of the global discourse that took place in UNESCO offers a promising and practicable means of subjecting this historical hypothesis to empirical test. Our overall research question is thus as follows: How did the expansion of international society since 1945 reshape the intellectual architecture of the twentieth-century international order?

Funded by the Swedish Research Council (Vetenskapsrådet), the project is run by Benjamin Martin (Department of History of Science and Ideas, Uppsala University) in collaboration Fredrik Norén (Umeå University) and systems developers at Humlab Umeå. Together we will apply cutting-edge methods of digital text analysis, including topic modeling and word embedding models, to a large sample of texts (ca 20 million words) including minutes from UNESCO’s General Conference, standard-setting instruments, and UNESCO’s magazine Courier.

The goals of our project are two: to contribute to our understanding of the international intellectual history of decolonization and to explore the power of digital methods for the emerging field of global conceptual history. Today, when global cooperation is more important than ever, understanding the role of culture and communication in international relations seems vital. Investigating the international history of these concepts is a good place to start.