For today (in Nov. 2014) I have a short observation that I might develop in the future. The post is about how digital tools for text analysis fit into the practice of historical research (the doing of history). Advanced students of history will be familiar with the “linguistic turn” of the late 20th century. This is the scholarly practice of analyzing how language shapes (our knowledge of) reality. Postmodern skepticism about objective historical knowledge is the best-known variant of this trend. However, it is not the only one. In recent decades many historians — not all (perhaps even few) of whom would accept the label of post-modernists — have paid increasing attention to literature and popular media as sources. One example is the British cultural analyst Raymond Williams, who, starting in the 1970s, outlined a program for the study of “keywords.” Voyant is a fabulous digital tool for the study of keywords.
Updated, Jan. 2023: For some background on the scholarship of keywords, see Raymond Williams’s excellent introduction to Keywords. Williams’s methodology is similar to the project of history of concepts (Begriffsgeschichte) pioneered in post-WWII West Germany. Keith Tribe has written a very helpful introduction to that scholarship, and readers interested in more might explore a book by one of the project’s main contributors: Reinhart Koselleck, Futures Past.
To learn more about Voyant Tools, I recommend the book and accompanying website by Rockwell and Sinclair called Hermeneutica.
I have been experimenting with Yoyant Tools in my teaching (HIST 2F90 — about Atlantic world history — at BrockU) and in my research (this site). To help me analyze Dutch texts with Voyant, I built a Dutch stop words list that Stéfan Sinclair added to the Voyant Tools site online. The list includes early modern spelling variations. You can find the list on Academia.edu and in Voyant Tools itself (https://voyant-tools.org/). If you catch mistakes, please let me know.
Some sad news is that Stéfan Sinclair died in August 2020. For more about him, see this Twitter thread (https://twitter.com/digiwonk/status/1291766403784204291). I corresponded with Stéfan over the years but I never met him in person; I wish I had!
- Otto Brunner, Werner Conze, and Reinhart Koselleck (eds.), Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe: Historisches Lexikon zur politisch-sozialen Sprache in Deutschland (Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 1972-1997).
- “Keywords Project: Raymond Williams and Keywords,” online.
- Reinhart Koselleck, Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time, transl. Keith Tribe (New York: Columbia UP, 2004).
- Geoffrey Rockwell and Stéfan Sinclair, Hermeneutica: Computer-Assisted Interpretation in the Humanities (MIT Press, 2016 ).
- Stéfan Sinclair and Geoffrey Rockwell, “Voyant Tools Documentation: Examples of Voyant in Research,” (no longer available online, it seems [Jan. 2023]).
- Keith Tribe, “The Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe Project: From History of Ideas to Conceptual History,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 31, no. 1 (1989): 180-84.
- Raymond Williams, Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, rev. ed (New York; London: Oxford University Press; Fontana Paperbacks, 1985; first published in 1976).