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Visualizing the Birth of Settler Colonial Empires with Multimodal Digital Historical Research Methods

Posted in Digital Humanities, News and Notes, Percolating Ideas, and Research


Long Abstract

Digital historical research methods have transformed my understanding of primary source materials with which I am already deeply familiar. As the Director of the Digital Research Studio at the Claremont Colleges, I employ computational methods, such as text analysis and data visualization, to interrogate historical sources in new ways, ask bigger questions, and identify patterns in the establishment of settler colonies in the American Midwest and French Algeria. This presentation describes the concomitant use of text analysis, data visualization, and network analysis to challenge prevailing theories about American and French colonial actors’ motivations and interests. 

Settler colonialism was (and is) a process in which settlers emigrate(d) with the express purposes of territorial occupation and the formation of a new community, rather than the extraction of labor or resources (however, these may have been or become secondary objectives). Prevailing settler colonial theory asserts that access to arable land was the primary factor motivating settlement. The United States has been presented as the quintessential case supporting this theory, but my comparative study reveals more complex motivations.  Text and social network analyses of American records uncover the diverging goals and interests of settlers and metropolitan officials. American settlers, more than anything, wanted to achieve a “competency.”  Settlers defined “competency” as enough fertile land to provide a comfortable independent living for their families and successive generations.  In contrast, the federal government sought to extend the territory of the United States while repaying war debts with the land, itself, and through profits from land sales. To achieve these goals, both American and French colonial and military leaders, together with settlers, employed various strategies of “elimination” to remove Indigenous people literally and figuratively from the land. Additional convincing evidence is found through visualizations of demographic data that French colonial administrators collected on the European settlers in Algeria. These visualizations show that settlers were, in fact, motivated by urban business opportunities, which further challenges this prevailing settler colonial theory outside the traditional US example.  

Employed in tandem, text and network analytical approaches work together to create a more complete, comprehensive, and nuanced picture of the settler colonialism and the factors that motivated such endeavors. Using this research as a case study, I will also discuss the challenges and possibilities that digital historical inquiry presents. I am continually relearning how much time and technical expertise digital research methods require. Both time and skill are necessary to structure unstructured textual data and clean data and text. Even posing questions that can be meaningfully answered using digital research methods takes some familiarity with the methods prior to their implementation. What is more, no tool or approach is perfect. While scholars have access to many more tools that have been designed specifically for humanists, we often find ourselves repurposing and “hacking” software designed for STEM, business, and the social sciences for humanistic inquiry and representation. Nevertheless, the time and effort necessary to learn new skills, explore innovative research approaches, and experiment with our own source material is well worth it.

From the earliest days of historical research, scholars have meticulously taken notes, often on notecards, “massaged their sources,” (in the words of Johnny Faragher) and spent countless hours re-familiarizing themselves with their primary source materials. The Digital Humanities provide a new and different way to do historical research. Every time I use a new tool or skill to revisit the sources I already know so well, I gain insight and identify new questions I did not even know I could ask. For instance, I had not realized I had the metadata needed to construct the American correspondence network that I will share in this presentation until I prepared a workshop on cleaning text documents. Serendipity and a commitment to revisiting sources and notes remain important factors in historical research, but digital research methods often provide the catalyst for important unanticipated findings and prompt us to examine our sources through new lenses. In closing, I will reflect on the aspects of my research that would be impossible without technology, what would be lost without these insights, and what is at stake as we grapple with new modes of historical inquiry.

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