J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, June 19, 2006

food for the mind from the Dublin Seminar

I'm back from a busy and stimulating two days at the Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife, followed by a brief visit to Historic Deerfield, where I studied the engraved powder horns on display at the Flynt Center of Early New England Life.

At the Dublin Seminar, one of the talks I had the honor of introducing was Raoul N. Smith of Northeastern describing how he's used some common software programs to analyze the diaries of the Rev. Jonathan Fisher (1768-1847). With Word, Excel, and other common programs, Raoul can do in an afternoon what would once have taken many months of graduate student time. For instance, any word-processing program can help a scholar count how many times a diarist uses particular words each year to see if they change over time.

There are some practical obstacles to applying those techniques more widely, but they're hardly insurmountable:

  • The entire text of the diary has to exist as a digital text. Raoul has such a text for the first part of the Fisher diaries since he's translating it from the minister's phonetic alphabet. Older printed diary transcriptions would have to be turned into digital texts with scanners and OCR software—which is becoming increasingly easy. Handwritten diaries, however, would have to be transcribed by individual scholars, and that can take years.
  • Spelling was variable in the past, especially for people without much formal education, and abbreviations more common. (At least until text-messaging.) Again, Raoul has an advantage since he's rendering Jonathan Fisher's phonetic writing into consistent modern spelling.

I came away from the conference wondering what some of Raoul's techniques might reveal about other long diaries that speakers were working on. For instance, Linda S. Meditz, a graduate student at the University of Connecticut, discussed her early work on the diary of the Rev. Stephen Williams (1693-1782). Linda focused on the refrain in Williams's diary about feeling "dull." That term comes up a lot in Puritan ministers' writing. A word-count comparison could tell us exactly how often Williams's proclamations of dullness compare to those in other ministers' writings.

Several people in the audience (including me) wondered if Williams's "dullness" indicated a recurring psychological/biological depression that he was interpreting through a theological lens. Or did a theological struggle affect his psychology? How did Williams's boyhood experience as a captive after the 1704 Deerfield raid play into either possibility? (And what about the experience of living in Longmeadow? That might have been "dull" all by itself.)

Again, there might be a software solution. Raoul had talked about the Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count program, developed
to determine the rate at which the authors/speakers use positive or negative emotion words, self-references, big words, or words that refer to sex, eating, or religion.
Those measurements, in turn, are said to offer psychologists better understanding of the writers' mental and emotional states. (I see in this article from Northeastern's alumni magazine that Raoul has also worked on another kind of intersection of psychology and computers.)

Is it possible now, or will it become possible, to scan a long text like Stephen Williams's diary for signs of depression? Would a tool created for our society and our language be applicable to the world of the 1700s? Naturally, researchers would have to do a lot of testing to establish the validity of such a method. And they might also have to overcome historians' professional worry about pasting modern labels onto past behavior patterns. We mustn't let our understandings get in the way of understanding their understandings, if you see what I mean. And we'll never be able to gather as much diagnostic data from historical figures as therapists can get from their clients and patients, so such retrospective diagnoses will always be iffier.

But we don't discuss smallpox in purely eighteenth-century terms; we always apply what we know about the smallpox virus. Similarly, someday we may not discuss historical figures' psychological behavior without considering what we've learned about brain science and how brain conditions come out in our language and behavior.

3 comments:

Caleb said...

Your point about letting our understandings get in the ways of "theirs" is exactly what makes me nervous about Joshua Shenk's recent book contending that Abraham Lincoln was clinically depressed. He does seem to have some good evidence, but some of his evidence seems to consist of citing Lincoln's penchant for dark poems and somber jokes about death: maybe today such penchants would be cause for clinical concern, but were they really that abnormal in the early nineteenth century, the Age of Poe?

J. L. Bell said...

I agree. Lincoln's lugubriousness has to be measured against the benchmark of his time: Poe, Longfellow, Julia A. Moore, etc. Psychological tools developed for today's culture need to be "normed" in other cultures before their findings could be considered worthwhile.

Joshua Shenk's strongest evidence, I think, is that Lincoln's friends were once worried that he might kill himself and sat watch to make sure he didn't. That indicates that for a time even they saw something out of the ordinary and potentially dangerous in his behavior and demeanor.

Caleb said...

Right: the suicidal episode (and as far as I know, Shenk has evidence of only one) stands up better than some of the other evidence he adduces. But even a modern clinician would probably hesitate to conclude from one pyschotic episode, occurring shortly after a devastating romantic break-up, that a patient was a depressive. (And even suicidal impulses, arguably, have to be placed in historical context: if someone is moved to thoughts of suicide by reading Lord Byron, and another by Camus, I'd still hesitate to draw trans-historical conclusions about the two subjects. I agree with you, though, that the alarm of Lincoln's friends is evidence of a stronger order, since it suggests something out of the ordinary in that day and time.)