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A Conversation with Data: Prospecting Victorian Words and Ideas
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A Conversation with Data:
Prospecting Victorian Words and Ideas


“Literature is an artificial universe,” author Kathryn Schulz recently declared in the New York Times; “the written word, unlike the natural world, can’t be counted on to obey a set of laws.” Schulz was criticizing the value of Franco Moretti’s “distant reading,” although her critique seemed more like a broadside against “culturomics,” the aggressively quantitative approach to studying culture (Michel et al.). Culturomics was coined with a nod to the data-intensive field of genomics, which studies complex biological systems using computational models rather than the more analog, descriptive models of a prior era. Schulz is far from alone in worrying about the reductionism that digital methods entail, and her negative view of the attempt to find meaningful patterns in the combined, processed text of millions of books predominates in the humanities.

Historians largely share this skepticism toward what many view as superficial approaches focused on word units in the same way that bioinformatics focuses on DNA sequences. Many of our colleagues question the validity of text mining because they have generally found meaning in a much wider variety of cultural artifacts than just text, and, like most literary scholars, consider words themselves to be context-dependent and frequently ambiguous. Although occasionally intrigued by it, most historians have taken issue with Google’s Ngram Viewer, the search company’s tool for scanning literature by n-grams, or word units. Michael O’Malley, for example, laments that “Google ignores morphology: it ignores the meanings of words themselves when it searches. . . . [The] Ngram Viewer reflects this lack of interest in meaning. It disambiguates words, takes them entirely out of context and completely ignores their meaning . . . something that’s offensive [End Page 69] to the practice of history, which depends on the meaning of words in historic context.”

Such heated rhetoric—probably inflamed in the humanities by the overwhelming and largely positive attention that culturomics has received in the scientific and popular press—unfortunately has forged in many scholars’ minds a cleft between our beloved, traditional close reading and untested, computer-enhanced distant reading. But what if we could move seamlessly between traditional and computational methods as demanded by our research interests and the evidence available to us?

In the course of several research projects exploring the use of text mining in history, we have found that it is both possible and profitable to move between these supposed methodological poles. Indeed, one of the most productive and thorough ways to do research, given the recent availability of large archival corpora, is to have a conversation with the data in the same way that we have traditionally conversed with literature: by asking it questions, ascertaining what the data reflects back, and combining digital results with other evidence acquired through less technical means.

We provide here several brief examples of this combinatorial approach using both textual work and technical tools. Each example shows how the technology can help flesh out prior historiography as well as provide new perspectives that advance historical interpretation. In each experiment, we have tried to move beyond the more simplistic methods made available by Google’s Ngram Viewer, which traces the frequency of words in print over time with little context, transparency, or opportunity for interaction.

The Victorian Crisis of Faith Publications

One of our projects, funded by Google, gave us a higher level of access to their millions of scanned books, which we used to revisit Walter E. Houghton’s classic The Victorian Frame of Mind, 1830–1870 (1957). We wanted to know if the themes Houghton identified as emblematic of Victorian thought and culture—based on his close reading of some of the most famous works of literature—held up against Google’s nearly comprehensive collection of over a million Victorian books. We selected keywords from each chapter of Houghton’s study—loaded words like “hope,” “faith,” and “heroism” that he deemed central to the Victorian mindset [End Page 70] and character—and queried them (and their Victorian synonyms, to avoid literalism) against a special data set of titles of nineteenth-century British printed works.

1. A grid of search results showing the frequency of a hundred words in the titles of books and their change between 1789 and 1914. Each yearly total is normalized against the total number of books produced that year, and expressed as a percentage of all publications.
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