Concept Mover’s Distance: measuring concept engagement via word embeddings in texts


We propose a method for measuring a text’s engagement with a focal concept using distributional representations of the meaning of words. More specifically, this measure relies on word mover’s distance, which uses word embeddings to determine similarities between two documents. In our approach, which we call Concept Mover’s Distance, a document is measured by the minimum distance the words in the document need to travel to arrive at the position of a “pseudo document” consisting of only words denoting a focal concept. This approach captures the prototypical structure of concepts, is fairly robust to pruning sparse terms as well as variation in text lengths within a corpus, and with pre-trained embeddings, can be used even when terms denoting concepts are absent from corpora and can be applied to bag-of-words datasets. We close by outlining some limitations of the proposed method as well as opportunities for future research.

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    As the document-by-term matrix used with WMD is weighted by relatively frequency this is the same as saying 100% of words are the same word.

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    Specifically, O(\(p^3\) log p), where p is the number of unique words in the collection.

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    Replication materials are available at

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    We compared the difference between including and removing stopwords on a variety of terms and corpora. Overall the results were highly correlated, but the larger the initial corpus size, the higher the correlation. However, including stopwords tended to make the distances much more stark, i.e., documents which were close became much closer and documents which were far became much further. Therefore, we chose to remove stopwords throughout. This is certainly an area for further research.

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    CMD works with any size document; therefore, we could have compare the two works as a whole (or even sentence by sentence), rather than by individual chapters. Our choice is entirely for illustrative purposes, more specifically to show variation across more observations.

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    It is outside the scope of this paper to unpack this further, however it is worth noting that Jaynes saw a direct connection between “gods forsaking” people and the breakdown of bicamerality (see [21]).


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Stoltz, D.S., Taylor, M.A. Concept Mover’s Distance: measuring concept engagement via word embeddings in texts. J Comput Soc Sc 2, 293–313 (2019).

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  • Cultural sociology
  • Concept Mover’s Distance
  • Word embeddings
  • Natural language processing
  • Text analysis