Using Big Data to Answer Historiographical Questions; or, Can Digital History Fulfill the Promise of Social History?

Monday, January 5, 2015: 11:40 AM
Murray Hill Suite A (New York Hilton)
Michelle Moravec, University of Rosemont
Social history promised to decenter the few in favor of the many in historical narratives. However, in the case of women’s history, that promise remains unfulfilled. Histories from “the bottom up” still focus on a relatively limited number of grassroots activists and tend to favor certain groups in large cities. In large part narratives of women’s history are driven by the limitations of the historian’s mind, but they also reflect historiographical trends. The history that I investigate here is that produced by Alice Echols in the highly influential Daring to be Bad in order to see if her concept of “cultural feminism” is supported by a large data analysis. Corpus linguistics provides a methodology for uncovering mathematical patterns within large bodies of texts that ultimately reveal larger discourses. Using files from data for research provided by JSTOR, as well as self digitized periodicals, I explore a corpus of feminist periodicals from 1978-1981. Relying on machine reading of thousands of articles published in both academic and activist journals, far more information that the mind of any one historian could hold, allows me to explore patterns of discourse that go beyond the number of individuals or recognized groups any one traditional history might include to investigate the historiographical validity of Echols’ thesis about cultural feminism. Preliminary analysis of a partial corpus revealed exciting results around the ways “nature” was used in two activist periodicals associated with disparate feminist ideologies. The larger corpus will allow me to explore these patterns of discourse in a wider range of sources, as well as one that includes both academic feminist and women’s liberation content.