Benjamin D. O’Dell: Thoughts on Frederick Gibbs and Daniel Cohen’s “A Conversation with Data,” Victorian Studies (Autumn 2011)

Literary scholars and historians have generally been reluctant to accept the value of text-mining as a tool of analysis.  Given that a word’s meaning is context dependent and often ambiguous, they argue that text-mining deprives historical documents of their context and transforms complex content into decontextualized data.  In contrast to these criticisms, advocates of the digital humanities have been quick to challenge the notion that digital humanities’ research methodology represents a dramatic—and, by extension, misguided—shift in the direction of conventional humanities scholarship.

As an illustration of this point, Frederick Gibbs and Daniel Cohen’s contribution to the Autumn 2011 edition of Victorian Studies offers a brief example of how one might combine methods of distant and close reading to either confirm or correct previous assumptions.  Drawing from the themes and values articulated in Walter E. Houghton’s influential 1957 text The Victorian Frame of Mind, 1830-1870, Gibbs and Cohen compare key themes from Houghton’s study such as “hope,” “faith,” and “heroism” with data from Google’s Ngram Viewer to determine whether or not the values articulated in Houghton’s text hold up to the test of quantitative analysis.

In order to address the issue of context, Gibbs and Cohen restricted their data to titles, based on the assumption that “word choice in a book’s title is far more meaningful than word choice in a common sentence” (71).  Their initial efforts subsequently produced a large collection of graphs “portraying the changing frequency of thematic words in titles, which were arranged in grids for an initial, human assessment” (72).  From there, the pair analyzed the data for trends.

While most of the graphs produced failed to provide an easily recognizable pattern, Gibbs and Cohen did notice one interesting trend:  a decline in religious titles incorporating words such as “God” and “Christian,” starting in the mid 1840s and proceeding rapidly between 1850-1880 (72).  At a disciplinary level, these findings complicate conventional historical accounts of the Victorian crisis of faith outlined in texts such as Houghton’s Victorian Frame of Mind in that they place a decline in Victorian faith several decades earlier than it has traditionally been assumed.   Thus, Gibbs and Cohen conclude that “here, publishing appears to be a leading, rather than a lagging indicator of Victorian culture” and suggest that future scholarship pay greater attention to “the overall landscape of publishing” as opposed to conventional canon of primary and secondary texts (73).

Overall, while this article is primarily concerned with cultivating a set of “best practices” for digital humanities scholarship, I found Gibbs and Houghton’s investigation of Houghton’s Victorian Frame of Mind to be one of the more compelling projects in the digital humanities that I have encountered thus far. As with other contributions to the Autumn 2011 edition of Victorian Studies—such as Maurice Lee, who verifies a New Historicist argument about Moby-Dick’s critique of American slavery and capitalism— Gibbs and Cohen seem particularly enthusiastic for the potential for digital humanities scholarship to act as an important form of “peer review” in determining what counts as valid interpretation in historicist criticism.

This seems to be a new—and necessary—direction for the digital humanities as it gains status within historical discipline, although I imagine that it will not resolve objections from scholars in subfields such as queer theory and the history of sexuality, who can offer legitimate complaints about the insufficiency of quantitative data to verify aspects of the past pertaining to complex and intellectually significant topics such as sexuality and desire.  As such, a logical “next step” for digital humanities research, then, would appear to be the need for the field to more clearly acknowledge the existence of fields of inquiry that cannot be verified by its methodology. Gibbs and Cohen provide a starting point for this practice in their study, in which they note that  “Flexibility is crucial, as there is not monolithic digital methodology that can be applied to research questions” (76).

Benjamin O’Dell

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Work Cited

Gibbs, Frederick W. and Daniel J. Cohen.  “A Conversation with Data:  Prospecting Victorian Words and Ideas.” Victorian Studies 54.1 (Autumn 2011): 69-77.  Print.

Lee, Maurice E. “Evidence, Coincidence, and Superabundant Information.” Victorian Studies 54.1 (Autumn 2011): 87-93. Print.

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