Wenyi Shang's Dissertation Defense

Wenyi Shang

Wenyi Shang will defend his dissertation, "Moving Between Scales: Computationally Modeling Social Dynamics in the Elite Society of Premodern China." 

His doctoral committee includes Professor Ted Underwood, chair and director of research; Associate Professor Jana Diesner; Assistant Professor Zoe Leblanc; and Associate Professor Song Chen, Department of East Asian Studies at Bucknell University.


This dissertation applies computational methods to revisit longstanding questions in Chinese social, cultural, and political history. It leverages social scientific models to study structural characteristics of premodern Chinese societies. By investigating social networks, prosopographical datasets, and bibliographic metadata over an extended period, it offers fresh insights into the macroscopic trends in premodern China that studies at the individual and microscopic scale often fail to reveal.

This dissertation aims to overcome the limitations of computational models in the humanities, particularly their inability to capture the perspectival and interpretative nuances central to humanistic interpretation. To tackle this issue, it features a “moving between scales” approach, which addresses a multi-faceted challenge with multiple solutions: (1) It bridges scales of analysis by dynamically transitioning between different scales, involving the simultaneous macro-level analyses of a large number of historical facts (e.g., social interactions in historical records) followed by meticulous micro-level examinations; (2) It examines small-scale structures (e.g., triads in social networks) to uncover how they reflect large-scale social dynamics, ensuring that valuable small-scale information is not overshadowed in broader analyses; and (3) It explores mid-range social phenomena by investigating the prosopography of members of the elite society.

Four research questions are proposed: (1) What are the opportunities and challenges in investigating a social network built upon a biased text? (2) How can prosopographical data lead to conclusions about the changing structure and shifting center of political power? (3) How can structural characteristics in multiple networks reveal changes in political culture across a historical period? (4) What can bibliographic metadata reveal about the particularities of the publishing history of books in Chinese language, and how do Western bibliographic metadata frameworks complicate the understanding of the publishing history of Chinese language books?

By addressing these questions, this dissertation intends to leverage theories and practices from information science to develop computational models that unveil historical trends. It seeks to contribute to digital humanities by revealing the historical changes in the longue durée in premodern China, to computational social science by enhancing social scientists’ understanding on the evolution of societies and cultural systems, and to information science by fulfilling its mission of integrating an information perspective into established academic disciplines.