Distant Reading

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Overview

'Distant reading' is a research method coined by Franco Moretti in his 2005 book Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History. The book argues that the current scholarly literary domain has not accomplished enough and its studies and techniques have become 'typical', limiting progress. Moretti proposes, then, that the introduction of quantitative methods from natural and social sciences may serve to open up a new front of discussion.

In classic humanities research methods such a close-reading -the detailed observation, deconstruction, and analysis of the text itself and its content - the researcher closely interacts with one particular text at a time and emphasizes a text's 'uniqueness'. Distant reading, however, takes a step back; 'distant reading instead encourages aggregating and analyzing massive amounts of data. As Moretti puts it, "instead of concrete, individual works, a trio of artificial constructs - graphs, maps, and trees - in which the reality of the text undergoes a process of deliberate reduction and abstraction"(2).

Distant reading versus close reading: An example

In his graphs chapter, Moretti uses quantitative data to trackthe rise of the British novel. Moretti argues that one of the flawswith close-reading is that because it relies on reading a few texts'intensely' it covers so little of the literary field atthe time on a whole. A researcher may do a close reading of 200books published in 19th century Britain to attempt to understandthe scope and nature of the literature and its genres butthere's still 60,000 more books published during this time.Even more books were published in other periods and places thatwould still be considered relevant to this canon, and the 200 bookswould make up less than 1% of this.

In order to cover more data, Moretti read many more books 'superficially' by breaking books down into their least particular, most interchangeable, most aggregated forms. The texts are represented through fewer elements but, he argues, are more capable of representing sharper interconnections. He relies on quantitative data gathered by other researchers from several different fields to make his own graphs and through it, he found cycles, shifts, and emerging patterns that 200 books would be unable to make immediately clear.

The graph shown in this section is one of the graphs he created based on the data he found on genres during the time. It reveals that over the course of 160 years there was 44 genres and two thirds of them lasted between 23 to 35 years. This is concrete data. However, what is does not do is explain 'why' the data is the way it is - answers would require interpretation.

In this sense, the use of methods like graphs is better suited to help raise questions and spark new discussion.

Criticisms against distant reading

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