What do Downton Abbey and The Houston Daily Post have in common?

What do Downton Abbey and The Houston Daily Post have in common? Well, the popular show and the Texas newspaper have both been studied using digital analysis to assess their historical contexts.

Next question, what is digital analysis? Digital analysis is a method that uses “distant reading” which requires the use of computers to read massive quantities of text.

So, what?

Well, the digital humanities and technology are advancing historian’s ability to research, learn, and write at a shocking rate. In “Space, Nation, and the Triumph of Region: A View of the World from Houston” and “Mining and Mapping the Production of Space: A View of the World from Houston,” Bevins’ research allowed him to measure and map how late nineteenth-century newspapers created an interpretation of the world for their readers. By printing some places more than others, papers such as the Houston Daily Post continually re-shaped space for nineteenth-century Americans (Bevins).  Additionally, in “Making Downton More Traditional,” Schmidt uses Downton Abbey scripts to check every single line in the show for historical accuracy. He concluded that the “language in Downton is about 50-50; half is more common in 1995, half more common in 1917” (Schmidt).

However, distant reading CANNOT replace the historian’s craft. It has the capability of diminishing the close reading of historical texts and generating interpretations. Historians must not lose the foundation in which their profession is based on: physical texts and archives. As Bevins’ argues, the two must be used together. In both studies, digital methodology played an “indispensable role” in crafting new questions and uncovering hidden patterns. These patterns are intricately documented in the graphs that each study created to depict their researched data. These graphs were able to depict data that would have taken a human brain an unimaginable amount of time and energy to concoct. Yet, technology was able to do it instantaneously. Therefore, “electronic sources and digital tools” offer fundamentally new ways for humanities scholars to practice their craft. As Bevins’ ensures in his research, digital analysis and traditional craft must be woven together to present a more in-depth understanding of the content. Thus, this experimentation of mixing and collaborating with different fields allows the opportunities and insights of research to grow larger.

Additionally, both projects used digital analysis to analyze “imagined” constructs. Bevins’s project deconstructs the purposeful making of an “imagined geography” through the printing of newspapers; and Schmidt debunks the “imagined language” used on Downton Abbey which was set in the early twentieth century. Both projects utilized diverse fields, such as computer programming and coding, in order to procure the most modern, and well researched data possible.

Thus, Bevins’ and Schmidt’s research project begs the question of “what can technology not do?” Where is there to go from here? And will the traditional historian’s craft ever disappear in its entirety?

3 Replies to “What do Downton Abbey and The Houston Daily Post have in common?”

  1. Hi Olivia, I agree that traditional historians craft cannot be replaced, but the integration of digital methods helps sort through the massive amount of data. Even when narrowing a subject and its material to a specific time period can result in, as Matthew Jockers puts it, “big data.” Digital methods helps narrow the field further and makes analysis more manageable, but there still needs to be that human element. This is something technology cannot do; it can pick out the words, but not the context or see the connections. This is why I believe historian’s craft will always be relevant and needed in the field. The data told Blevins that certain towns were mentioned a number of times in newspapers, but he had to make the connection of how this influenced the readers. The computer could only take his research so far. I have no idea how far technology will go, but I see it having a role in the future of historian’s craft.

  2. I was wondering if your reading of the Downton Abbey piece gave you an answer to the “so what” question that I couldn’t shake – is using this technology to determine whether a show like Downton Abbey uses historically authentic language really an effective demonstration of the tools? And even if it was, would it matter? A TV show in entirely early 20th century dialogue might be hard for a modern viewer to understand, given the shifts in language over time. Does using a few more modern phrases really affect the historical value of the show so much that it becomes an issue worth investigating?

  3. Blevins is doing something interesting here that doesn’t seem quite as intuitive on the surface when thinking about the historian’s craft, but when you break it down, it creates another tool for the toolkit. There’s a strain of analysis, hermeneutics, that typically you only catch in, well, bible code theory, and so forth. It takes huge swaths (swathes?) of words and arranges them until they’re legible for various forms of analysis.

    In this case, Blevins describes the basic hermeneutic process that gives you both the syntactic and semiotic meaning behind a lot of what a history text can provide by allowing machines to do the sorting and you to enter the values by which you filter and analyze. Bevins is a good example of this: by looking at how a city is positioned and what words are associated with it, you get a feel for the editorial mood toward that city. This is an example of the syntactic sense (the frequency you see Houston or other cities positioned favorably in stories) and the semiotic (how favorably, if at all).

    As historians, utilizing an analysis of this sort can be as simple as utilizing a word cloud and then searching for instances of that word and making word clouds of those sentences to see if any other words jump out. It can also be a passive activity, whereby you notice eventually that, say, every reference to dogs is negative, and so on. This, however, is time-consuming and inconclusive (and not a digital method…).

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