Friday, November 27, 2009

New Favorite Research Tool?!

I think I've made an emotional connection with something I've learned in my digital history class here at Western. I'm not the most tech-savy student, so most of what I've been learning is a constant struggle and frustration - but this past week, we have been discussing data-mining - and I think I GET IT. Well, maybe I don't quite understand how the whole thing works necessarily, but I understand how to use it and I'm starting to see windows for how it can be extremely useful for this field in the future.

My curiosity struck me whilst completing our last digital history assignment (my search for outdated books). I was skimming through the texts that I found onilne, of which the theme was issues of gender and domesticity, and some of what I was reading struck me as completely ridiculous. Of course, I had to avoid my presentist bias and think about what would have been acceptable during the 19th century rather than what I would consider acceptable as a woman living in 2009. So I thought again - what caused these types of attitudes toward gender roles at this point in history? My first inclination was religion.

The book The Physical Life of Women (1871) by George Henry Napheys struck me as particularly interesting because it was claiming to have absolute scientific authority on the physical beings of women (and also because it was written by a man). The marriage of science and God at this time in history is perhaps a bit odd due to the popularity of Darwin's Origin of Species just a few years prior - so I was curious to see just how big of a role God actually played in Napheys "advice to maidens, wives, and mothers."

Now this is where data mining comes in handy, to say the least. Using a digital tool such as the Canadian TAPoR Project, one can perform such tasks as exploring specific themes in a texts and even visualizing that text analysis results in Excel. In order to do what I needed to do, I first needed to generate a list of words for the theme I was trying to identify within the text (religion). I used a program from Notre Dame University called WordNet 3.0 Vocabulary Helper.

This is the list I came up with: faith, belief, spirit, holy, God, Creator, He, Him, divine, immortal, deity, moral.

The next step is making a Concordance, or a list of principle words used in a text and their immediate context. This is what will help us analyze our text. I used TAPoR Took Broker. I was rather impressed with the results it returned. It created a chart that measure how often my selected words appeared throughout the course of the text. In this case, references to religious were made quite evenly throughout the entire text, indicating that is was an underlying theme in Nephey's arguments.

I came to find that some words were much more effective than others. For example, the program couldn't discern between a capitalized He (as in a religious context) or the He that starts a sentence, or a he in the middle of a sentence - so I had to modify my word list a bit. I really liked that I could choose how many words of the sentence or context surrounding the religious words that the results would show me. I found that even ten words could cause some misinterpretation in terms of the author's religious references, so I eventually decided that twenty words of context would be more appropriate for my purposes.

Some of the phrases that the concordance returned were:
  • "according to God's ordinance"
  • "scientific value and moral"
  • "this marvelous and holy mission"
  • "safety amidst the moral pitfalls that environ us"
  • "We have an immortal soul, but a body of clay."
  • "as a religious step, pleasing to God"
  • "Science never disagrees with God."
  • "Neglect of physical laws leads to moral evil."

There was a shocking amount of references to biblical stories, namely Adam and Eve and the story of Creation. Other ideas that the concordance pointed out to me showed how religion affected not only science at the time, but society as a whole. Some of them that I found interesting were the belief that a couple's religious affiliation will affect the sex of their offspring, and the only way to ensure moral purity in one's children is to send them to boarding school.

The fantastic thing about this concordance tool is that it lets you save your results right to your computer. I thought perhaps it would be even more useful if it also returned the page number in the text that the results came from - that way, if further investigation was necessary, it would be right at one's fingertips.

This data mining process was interesting and very helpful in matters of research involving a primary source. It's kind of a more efficient way of using the index at the back of a book. I know that personally, I've been searching for sources in a research project and the indexes are just so incomplete and perhaps don't include a term I'm looking for, or broader themes and ideas and attitudes, and that's frustrating because I know I don't have time to read the whole book, but I really feel like it may be useful! This provides an answer. Perhaps I won't have to go on research rants (like the one that just escaped me) in the future. I shall remain positive.

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