Report: DH Benelux 2015, Antwerp

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The second annual Digital Humanities Benelux Conference took place in Antwerp this year and provided an opportunity for a diverse array of disciplines whose work falls under the remit of the ‘Digital Humanities’ to present their research, or to showcase their tools and application in special demonstration sessions.

Panels included contributions from literary scholars, historians, librarians, classicists and linguists whose work spans different forms of engagement with the digital – from creating digital scholarly editions and publishing, from curating and collecting digital corpora and collections, to the analysis of digitised or born-digital textual corpora, images, and social media. A dominant theme for computer scientists focused on developments that harness the possibilities of linked open data. Specific panels on geospatial applications, on network analysis and topic modelling provided a forum for debate for those interested in these forms specific forms of critical enquiry.  In addition, theoretically themed panels provided a platform to discuss issues relating to the methodology and hermeneutics of digital research.

In a collaborative contribution from Tessa Hauswedell (Asymenc) and Melvin Wevers (Translantis) entitled ‘Reporting the Empire’, we analysed a British newspaper from the late 19th century, as a test case on how newspapers reported on the British Empire.

Historians of the British Empire state that the role of the domestic press in the late nineteenth century was overwhelmingly supportive of the project of “empire”, and that in fact the press was crucial in “whipping up support” domestically. Yet how does this alleged support manifest itself –quantitatively and qualitatively? To what extent can digital tools aid us in analysing how the British Empire was reported in a given diachronic corpus? Which methods are useful and insightful, which ones less so? What insights can one gain into a topic as complex, sprawling as the British Empire through the use computational techniques, which rely to a large degree on quantitative data?

In our presentation, we presented several techniques in order to analyse the corpus, beginning with simple frequency counts and named entity recognition (NER) of place names in order to identify which places the newspaper reported on, and what cognitive map of the empire it presented to its readers. In a second step, we use topic modelling as a means of identifying recurring and ongoing topics as they relate to empire.

 

wordcloud

Above, a wordcloud of key themes as they appear in the Pall Mall Gazette in 1899.

 

Lastly, a cluster and collocation analysis of the much used term “British Empire” reveals subtle shifts in the way British Empire is discursively framed over the thirty year period.  While the analysis suggests a change in preoccupations, there is no evidence to suggest that the reporting incrementally turns more supportive or enthusiastic. Rather, the analysis  reveals new routes of research and directions for further close reading of the texts that will help to map out a fuller, more nuanced picture of the manifold meanings and connotations of the British Empire in newspaper reports of the time.

Tessa Hauswedell

Click here for the slides of the presentation.

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