Seeing the old through new lenses – Digital Humanities

A few weeks back I attended a talk on Digital Humanities organized by Center for Public History at Srishti . I figured that what appeared new was something which we (my startup partner & I) were already doing without quite knowing that a new set of technology tools applied to sociology is now going by a new name called ‘digital humanities’. It applies a range of computing and digital technologies to humanities discipline making research in this area deliver on aspects which were earlier not possible. Some rather peculiar and interesting ways of looking at text and images have emerged as a consequence – Google’s n-gram viewer for instance and wordle tool. While  I think these computational tools are exciting to use and valuable in exploring and mining material, these do not make for very sound techniques which can be at par with the conventional research methods.

Here is a small wordle based analysis to explore what is the kind of shift in focus, value, thinking and prominence of literary ideas that happen in over a century. [Wordle generates “word clouds” from text that you provide. The clouds give greater prominence to words that appear more frequently in the source text.] For this I use Nobel Prize in Literature citations from year 1900 to 2010, a period little more than a century. I split this duration into two periods of 1900-1950 and 1951-2010. The split at 1950 is to contrast between pre and post World War II world. And in what manner does such a large scale (almost the entire world gets involved) and extremely bloody event in the history brings about a change in the values and literary themes pre and post war. Like the way Walt Whitman’s work gets shaped by his experiences as a field nurse during the American Civil War, I try to explore how global ideas shape after WW II. Here, I assume Nobel Prize in Literature as a representative of global values of the time. 

Word cloud of Nobel Prize in Literature from 1900-1950 –

Word cloud of Nobel Prize in Literature citations from 1900-1950
Word cloud of Nobel Prize in Literature citations from 1900-1950

Word cloud of Nobel Prize in Literature from 1950-2010 –

Word cloud of Nobel Prize in Literature citations from 1951-2010
Word cloud of Nobel Prize in Literature citations from 1951-2010

The two word clouds were a fascinating picture. Notice how a major word “recognition” before WW II changes to “narrative” after the war. In fact, the word “recognition” almost disappears along with “idealism”. And well, I am tempted to look at “idealism” ‘s disappearance after WW II and “realistic” ‘s appearance.

A quick discussion with my peers (when I project these two images and ask them what is striking for them) reveals a multi-dimensional view. Words like “condition” , “human” , “sympathy” and “life” by their appearances post 1950s suggest a wide and rich range of reasons that made these as key concerns of literature after the people worldwide live through some of the most horrendous times. When I look at this picture, it comes out as a fertile ground for various sort of enquiries – sociological, literary and in writing styles also.

This, I think is the deliverance of digital humanities – these ideas which wouldn’t quite have occurred to an investigator. It has been a valuable tool in my research projects.

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