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 explore 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. It allows us in particular to pose questions about the effect of decolonization on the intellectual architecture of the twentieth-century international order. 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.

The project focuses on three bodies of UNESCO texts:

  1. UNESCO’s standard-setting instruments, 1945-2019
  2. UNESCO’s monthly magazine The UNESCO Courier, 1948-2020
  3. The minutes of the biannual meetings of UNESCO’s General Conference, (published as Proceedings), 1945-2019

For each of these, we have pursued two goals: first, to prepare a digital text corpus that is curated, fully machine readable and as accurate as reasonably possible; second, to apply tools of digital text analysis to these corpora so as to explore our historical questions and test the value of our approach. Read more about these corpora and other project publications.

Funded by the Swedish Research Council (Vetenskapsrådet), the project is run by Benjamin G. Martin (Department of History of Science and Ideas, Uppsala University) in collaboration with Fredrik Mohammadi Norén (School of Arts and Communcation, Malmö University) and systems developers at Humlab Umeå.

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.