Distant Reading: Plural Pronouns Reflect Collectivist Society

Distant reading of texts can help readers understand overall themes, concepts, and cultural context. For this reason, distant reading can help to answer the following question: Were the Moravians in the 18th century a collectivist or individualist society? Some distant reading strategies will better display this orientation in society than others, however the theme remains sound. In order to test if this distant reading can adequately answer this question, I will use the the full compiled transcription of the Payne/Froehlich Travel Journal.

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The size of the words indicates the number of times the word was used in the travel journal. Some of the largest words are “we,” “our,” and “us” — all plural pronouns.

Though the writer was directly and heavily involved in the travel events described, he chose to use plural pronouns, as can be seen in the Cirius cloud to the right. This is something that Whitley, in Visualizing the Archive, would identify as a form of “spatial reading.” He continues to explain the ways in which this type of spatial readings, world clouds, blur the lines between close and distant reading. As the graphics display the most frequently used words in the text in a visual way (the size of the words), however are still very much displaying the worlds. This allows distant readers to gather information about the text that may otherwise go unnoticed in a close reading. Whitley also points out that the reader must find a balance between looking at the word cloud as a big picture, or focusing on specific words. In order to help answer the research question posed about Moravian society it is important to notice that some of the largest, and most used, words are plural pronouns.

The below image is another visualization tool that helps to show word use and frequency in the the Payne/Froehlich Travel Journal. The pink line of bubbles represents the use of “we,” the purple represents the use of “he,” the neon blue represents “our,” the yellow represents “us,” and the blue represents “I.” All of the plural pronouns are used more frequently in the text overall. Again confirming that the Moravians were likely a more collectivist society. Though in order to answer the posed research question, it is not necessary to show what segments of the text use the provided pronouns most frequently.

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This tool, Bubblelines, shows the frequency of words in certain segments of the text.

However, it is interesting to note that “I” is used virtually not at all in the beginning of the text, but becomes more frequently used towards the end. There are many possibilities as to why this is the pattern. But, it is something that would have gone entirely unnoticed without the distant reading tools.

The next representation of the text is through Links, which shows both frequency of word use as well as connections between the words.

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This is the first Links image. It shows the connections between words, especially those that are frequently used. There is a “the” cluster and a “we” cluster that are not connected.
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This is the second Links image, that includes “I.” It shows that adding the word “I” was essential to connect two different sets of clusters.

The first links image shows networks of words in relation to the two most frequently used words: we and the. However, the two networks do not connect. Once introducing the word “I,” the clusters become connected. This would prove that though less frequently used, singular pronouns (such as “I”) are more important to the coherence of the text than would have been deduced based on the other two spacial readings. For this reason, this approach is not the most helpful in answering the research question.

Despite the journalist’s personal experiences being documented it is clear that for this society at this point in history a more collective and plural writing style was preferred. The visualization methods used in the distant reading of the Payne/Froehlich Travel Journal allow the reader to see the big picture, instead of getting bogged down in the details of the text. It would be interesting to further research the question of “were the Moravians in the 18th century a collectivist or individualist society?” by comparing this journal with another Moravian travel journal from that time.

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Caroline MacLure is a student at Bucknell University and blossoming Digital Humanities scholar. Collaborating with her peers and professors, she helped to transcribe the Payne-Froehlich Travel Journal. After transcribing the journal the team explored different programs and tools to read the journal in different ways. MacLure particularly enjoyed mapping their journey using ArcGIS and making sense of their experiences in various locations.

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