Emerging conversations between literary history and sociology.

As Jim English remarked in 2010, literary scholars have tended to use sociology “for its conclusions rather than its methods.” We might borrow a term like “habitus” from Bourdieu, but we weren’t interested in borrowing correspondence analysis. If we wanted to talk about methodology with social scientists at all, we were more likely to go to the linguists. (A connection to linguistics in fact almost defined “humanities computing.”)

But a different conversation seems to have emerged recently. A special issue of Poetics on topic models in 2013 was one early sign of methodological conversation between sociology and literary study. This year, Ben Merriman’s sociological review of books by Moretti and Jockers was followed by comments from Andrew Goldstone and Tressie McMillan Cottom, and then by a special issue of Cultural Sociology and by Goldstone’s response to Gisèle Sapiro. Most recently a special issue of Big Data and Society (table of contents), organized by sociologists, included several articles on literary history and/or literary theory.

What’s going on here?

Conveniently, several articles in Big Data and Society are trying to explain the reasons for growing methodological overlap between these disciplines. I think it’s interesting that the sociologists and literary scholars involved are telling largely the same story (though viewing it, perhaps, from opposite sides of a mirror).

First, the perspective of social scientists. In “Toward a computational hermeneutics,” John W. Mohr, Robin Wagner-Pacifici, and Ronald L. Breiger (who collectively edited this special issue of BDS) suggest that computational methods are facilitating a convergence between the social-scientific tradition of “content analysis” and kinds of close reading that have typically been more central to the humanities.

Close reading? Well, yes, relative to what was previously possible at scale. Content analysis was originally restricted to predefined keywords and phrases that captured the “manifest meaning of a textual corpus” (2). Other kinds of meaning, implicit in “complexities of phrasing” or “rhetorical forms,” had to be discarded to make text usable as data. But according to the authors, computational approaches to text analysis “give us the ability to instead consider a textual corpus in its full hermeneutic complexity,” going beyond the level of interpretation Kenneth Burke called “semantic” to one he considered “poetic” (3-4). This may be interpretation on a larger scale than literary scholars are accustomed to, but from the social-scientific side of the border, it looks like a move in our direction.

JariSchroderus, "Through the Looking Glass," 2006, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Jari Schroderus, “Through the Looking Glass,” 2006, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

The essay I contributed to BDS tells a mirror image of this story. I think twentieth-century literary scholars were largely right to ignore quantitative methods. The problems that interested us weren’t easy to represent, for exactly the reason Mohr, Wagner-Pacifici, and Breiger note: the latent complexities of a text had to be discarded in order to treat it as structured data.

But that’s changing. We can pour loosely structured qualitative data into statistical models these days, and that advance basically blurs the boundary we have taken for granted between the quantitative social sciences and humanities. We can create statistical models now where loosely structured texts sit on one side of an equals sign, and evidence about social identity, prestige, or power sits on the other side.

For me, the point of that sort of model is to get beyond one of the frustrating limitations of “humanities computing,” which was that it tended to stall out at the level of linguistic detail. Before we could pose questions about literary form or social conflict, we believed we had to first agree on a stopword list, and a set of features, and a coding scheme, and … in short, if social questions can only be addressed after you solve all the linguistic ones, you never get to any social questions.

But (as I explain at more length in the essay) new approaches to statistical modeling are less finicky about linguistic detail than they used to be. Instead of fretting endlessly about feature selection and xml tags, we can move on to the social questions we want to pose — questions about literary prestige, or genre, or class, or race, or gender. Text can become to some extent a space where we trace social boundaries and study the relations between them.

In short, the long-standing (and still valuable) connection between digital literary scholarship and linguistics can finally be complemented by equally strong connections to other social sciences. I think those connections are going to have fruitful implications, beginning to become visible in this issue of Big Data and Society, and (just over the horizon) in work in progress sponsored by groups like NovelTM and the Chicago Text Lab.

A final question raised by this interdisciplinary conversation involves the notion of big data foregrounded in the journal title. For social scientists, “big data” has a fairly clear meaning — which has less to do with scale, really, than with new ways of gathering data without surveys. But of course surveys were never central to literary study, and it may be no accident that few of the literary scholars involved in this issue of BDS are stressing the bigness of big data. We’ve got terabytes of literature in digital libraries, and we’re using them. But we’re not necessarily making a fuss about “bigness” as such.

Rachel Buurma’s essay on topic-modeling Trollope’s Barsetshire novels explicitly makes a case for the value of topic-modeling at an intermediate scale — while, by the way, arguing persuasively that a topic model is best understood as an “uncanny, shifting, temporary index,” or “counter-factual map” (4). In my essay I discuss a collection of 720 books. That may sound biggish relative to what literary scholars ordinarily do, but it’s explicitly a sample rather than an attempt at coverage, and I argue against calling it big data.

There are a bunch of reasons for that. I’ve argued in the past that the term doesn’t have a clear meaning for humanists. But my stronger objection is that it distracts readers from more interesting things. It allows us to imagine that recent changes are just being driven by faster computers or bigger disks — and obscures underlying philosophical developments that would fascinate humanists if we knew about them.

I believe the advances that matter for humanists have depended less on sheer scale than on new ideas about what it means to model evidence (i.e., learn from it, generalize from it). Machine learning honestly is founded on a theory of learning, and it’s kind of tragic that humanists are understanding something that interesting as a purely technical phenomenon called “big data.” I’m not going to try to explain statistical theories of learning in a short blog post, but in my essay I do at least gesture at a classic discussion by Leo Breiman. Some of my observations overlap with an essay in this same issue of BDS by Paul DiMaggio, who is likewise interested in the epistemological premises involved in machine learning.