…2,958 Nineteenth-Century British Novels

A Quantitative Literary History of 2,958 Nineteenth-Century British Novels: The Semantic Cohort Method by Ryan Heuser and Long Le-Khac.

From the introduction:

The nineteenth century in Britain saw tumultuous changes that reshaped the fabric of society and altered the course of modernization. It also saw the rise of the novel to the height of its cultural power as the most important literary form of the period. This paper reports on a long-term experiment in tracing such macroscopic changes in the novel during this crucial period. Specifically, we present findings on two interrelated transformations in novelistic language that reveal a systemic concretization in language and fundamental change in the social spaces of the novel. We show how these shifts have consequences for setting, characterization, and narration as well as implications for the responsiveness of the novel to the dramatic changes in British society.

This paper has a second strand as well. This project was simultaneously an experiment in developing quantitative and computational methods for tracing changes in literary language. We wanted to see how far quantifiable features such as word usage could be pushed toward the investigation of literary history. Could we leverage quantitative methods in ways that respect the nuance and complexity we value in the humanities? To this end, we present a second set of results, the techniques and methodological lessons gained in the course of designing and running this project.

This branch of the digital humanities, the macroscopic study of cultural history, is a field that is still constructing itself. The right methods and tools are not yet certain, which makes for the excitement and difficulty of the research. We found that such decisions about process cannot be made a priori, but emerge in the messy and non-linear process of working through the research, solving problems as they arise. From this comes the odd, narrative form of this paper, which aims to present the twists and turns of this process of literary and methodological insight. We have divided the paper into two major parts, the development of the methodology (Sections 1 through 3) and the story of our results (Sections 4 and 5). In actuality, these two processes occurred simultaneously; pursuing our literary-historical questions necessitated developing new methodologies. But for the sake of clarity, we present them as separate though intimately related strands.

If this sounds far afield from mining tweets, emails, corporate documents or government archives, can you articulate the difference?

Or do we reflexively treat some genres of texts as “different?”

How useful you will find some of the techniques outlined will depend on the purpose of your analysis.

If you are only doing key-word searching, this isn’t likely to be helpful.

If on the other hand, you are attempting more sophisticated analysis, read on!

I first saw this in Nat Torkington’s Four Short Links: 18 March 2013.

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