Moving Between Scales

Computationally Modelling Social Dynamics in the Elite Society of Premodern China




Computational social science, Network analysis, Bibliographic metadata, Prosopography, Premodern Chinese history


This dissertation employs the perspective of library and information science (LIS) to inform and guide methodological reflections in two interdisciplinary fields, computational social science (CSS) and digital humanities (DH). However, CSS often prioritizes recent digital trace data over archival material from earlier periods, and the large-scale methods used in DH face criticism from humanists for their incapability to capture perspectival and interpretative nuances.

This dissertation blends humanistic and social-scientific approaches to study premodern China, emphasizing the importance of “moving between scales.” It bridges different scales of analysis by transitioning dynamically between them, examines small-scale structures to uncover how they reflect large-scale dynamics, and explores mid-range social phenomena by investigating prosopography of elite society members. Four research questions are posed: (1) What are the challenges and opportunities in investigating a social network based on biased text? (2) How can prosopographical data lead to conclusions about the shifting center of political power? (3) How can structural characteristics in multiple networks reveal changes in political culture? (4) What can bibliographic metadata reveal about the particularity of publishing history of 16th-to-19th-century Chinese books?

By addressing these questions, this dissertation intends to leverage theories and practices of LIS to develop computational models unveiling historical trends. It seeks to contribute to CSS by enhancing social scientists’ understanding on how societies and cultural systems evolve over time, to DH by revealing the historical changes in the longue durée in premodern China, and to LIS by fulfilling its mission of providing an information perspective to traditional academic disciplines.

Author Biography

  • Wenyi Shang, School of Information Sciences, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

    I am a fifth-year Ph.D. candidate (“all but dissertation”) at the School of Information Sciences, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Prior to joining the University of Illinois, I earned a bachelor’s degree in information management at Peking University, China. I am advised by Professor Ted Underwood, and I expect to complete my Ph.D. degree requirements by June 2024.

    My research uses computational methods to study the development of human society, including its social, cultural, and political dimensions. I have made contributions to digital humanities and computational social science, using the perspective of information science to inform and guide methodological reflection in both fields.

    Methodologically, I’ve employed network analysis to delve into the social structure and transformations in political culture in premodern Chinese societies. I’ve also used text mining to uncover new insights into literary history and the revelations that literary texts offer concerning cultural changes in human society. Both methods often intersect with predictive machine learning models. Moreover, my work also involves exploring bibliographic metadata to examine the opportunities and challenges it presents. My articles on these subjects have been featured in 11 peer-reviewed journal articles (9 first-authored), published in venues such as Digital Humanities QuarterlySociological ScienceCataloging & Classification QuarterlyJournal of Historical Network ResearchInternational Journal of Digital Humanities, along with 11 peer-reviewed conference proceedings (8 first-authored), presented at venues like ACM/IEEE Joint Conference on Digital Libraries (JCDL), iConference, Association for Library and Information Science Education Annual Conference (ALISE), and Digital Humanities (DH).






Jean Tague-Sutcliffe Doctoral Poster Competition