18.163 historical development of tools

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
Date: Wed, 25 Aug 2004 07:48:14 +0100

               Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 18, No. 163.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to: humanist_at_princeton.edu

   [1] From: "Ken Cousins" <kcousins_at_gvpt.umd.edu> (18)
         Subject: Re: 18.159 historical development of tools

   [2] From: "Donald Spaeth" <d.spaeth_at_history.arts.gla.ac.uk> (59)
         Subject: Re: 18.136 historical development of text-analytic

         Date: Wed, 25 Aug 2004 07:23:47 +0100
         From: "Ken Cousins" <kcousins_at_gvpt.umd.edu>
         Subject: Re: 18.159 historical development of tools

One suggestion (for which I completely lack technical skills) is that such
a page could be constructed as a Wiki - this would allow the page to grow,
according to the contributions of registered users.

See http://wiki.org for detail on Wiki itself, and www.wikipedia.org for an


Ken Cousins
Harrison Program on the Future Global Agenda
Department of Government and Politics
3114 C Tydings Hall
University of Maryland, College Park
T: (301) 405-4133
C: (301) 758-4490
F: (301) 314-7619

"The important thing is not to stop questioning.
Curiosity has its own reason for existing."
         Albert Einstein

         Date: Wed, 25 Aug 2004 07:23:14 +0100
         From: "Donald Spaeth" <d.spaeth_at_history.arts.gla.ac.uk>
         Subject: Re: 18.136 historical development of text-analytic tools?

Dear Ovind,

You are right that historians have not made much use of textual analysis
tools. I can think of only a couple of exceptions, which I have appended to
the end of this email. I experimented with textual analysis tools (esp
TACT) in the early 1990s, and for several years I taught TACT to
undergraduate and postgraduate students. But I have now largely stopped
using text analysis software, primarily because I felt unsure that my
results were sufficiently robust to report to other historians.

Why? There are several reasons. Variant spellings presented a technical
problem, since my texts are primarily 17th century, but this is not
insuperable. A larger problem was that I was not particularly interested in
the specific word that was used, but in the subject of discussion and the
construction of arguments. Quantitative collocation analysis produced
patchy results, which I found myself validating by intuitive understanding
of the text. Often understanding of an historical text comes from reading
between the lines in a text, which may not be explicit. In any case,
historians rarely rely on intensive analysis of single texts, but are more
likely to build up a corpus of information from many different sources. In
most cases, they are extracting isolated information from much larger
sources. Computerate historians are most often interested in entering
sources into structured databases, a task for which textual analysis tools
are not designed.

Literary and linguistic users of textual analysis may respond that these
concerns are just as valid for their disciplines. If so, I can only fall
back on the statement that historians do not make use of text analysis
because it does not enable them to answer the kinds of questions they are
interested in (although I note the impact of post-modernism on some recent
history). Historians could use the collocation and indexing features of
text analysis programs for simple text retrieval, but I am not sure that
this would add enough value to make it worth doing, when other software
(e.g. Asksam) works just as well.

A few references:
M. Olsen & L-G. Harvey, 'Computers in intellectual history', J of
Interdisciplinary History 18 (1987-88): 449-64. (Uses collocation.)

M. Olsen, 'The language of enlightened politics: the Societe de 1789 in the
French Revolution', Computers in the Humanities 23.4-5 (Aug-Oct 1989):

P. Schöttler, 'Historians and discourse analysis', History Workshop Journal
27 (1989), 37-65.

R. Garrard, 'English probate inventories and their use in studying the
significance of the domestic interior', in Probate Inventories, ed. A van
der Woude and A Schuurman, 55-82 (Wageningen: Afdeling Agrarische
Geschiedenis), 1980. (Suggests use of concordance software, but only
preliminary report.)

Donald Spaeth

> Date: Mon, 16 Aug 2004 07:44:33 +0100
> From: Øyvind Eide <oyvind.eide_at_muspro.uio.no>
> I am also interested in discussions on reasons why historians are less
> interested in using such tools than other researchers.

Dr Donald Spaeth
Modern History
2 University Gardens
University of Glasgow
Glasgow G12 8QQ

Tel. 0141 330 3580
Mobile 0774 982 0911
Email d.spaeth_at_history.arts.gla.ac.uk
Received on Wed Aug 25 2004 - 02:58:18 EDT

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