Tag Archives: methodology

I may not have the answers, but neither does social psychology

One of the double-edged swords of working in the humanities is that the news media doesn’t often report on the findings we publish in journals. Double-edged because on the one hand, we don’t get much popular exposure for the work we do, and on the other hand, that work doesn’t get grossly mischaracterized as tends to happen when the media reports on the findings of a particular study. So it’s not often that I see sloppy reports about study findings that actually relate to my academic interests.

But a recent article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology about reading and identification (though that’s not how the authors phrase it) has been getting (typically hyperbolic) headlines: Do Your Favorite Book Characters Change Your Life?, You are what you read, study suggests, ‘Losing Yourself’ in a Fictional Character Can Affect Your Real Life, etc. Each of those articles was more unhelpful than the next in figuring out what this study was actually claiming about reading and (implicitly) fiction, so I had to take a look at the study itself.

The results summary in the abstract gives a nicely succinct synopsis of what the authors are claiming about their research:

“Results from Studies 1–3 showed that being in a reduced state of self-concept accessibility while reading a brief fictional work increased—and being in a heightened state of self-concept accessibility decreased—participants’ levels of experience-taking and subsequent incorporation of a character’s personality trait into their self-concepts. Study 4 revealed that a first-person narrative depicting an ingroup character elicited the highest levels of experience-taking and produced the greatest change in participants’ behavior, compared with versions of the narrative written in 3rd-person voice and/or depicting an outgroup protagonist. The final 2 studies demonstrated that whereas revealing a character’s outgroup membership as a homosexual or African American early in a narrative inhibited experience- taking, delaying the revelation of the character’s outgroup identity until later in the story produced higher levels of experience-taking, lower levels of stereotype application in participants’ evaluation of the character, and more favorable attitudes toward the character’s group.”

There are a couple of things about this study I find interesting and potentially useful, and a great many more I have reservations about. First of all, this being social psychology, the terminology is significantly different than what I would tend to use. The authors focus on “experience-taking,” which they define as follows: “We propose that when experience-taking occurs, readers simulate the events of a narrative as though they were a particular character in the story world, adopting the character’s mindset and perspective as the story progresses rather than orienting themselves as an observer or evaluator of the character.” That definition has some implicit genre-limitations, since any number of fictional modes attempt to intentionally disrupt the reader’s ability to adopt a character’s mindset. But that aside, “experience-taking” seems to be very similar to Kenneth Burke’s idea of identification or consubstantiality, a definition I lean heavily on when I talk about fiction, identification, and reading here and here. According to Burke, “In being identified with B, A is ‘substantially one’ with a person other than himself. Yet at the same time he remains unique, and individual locus of motives. Thus he is both joined and separate, at once a distinct substance and consubstantial with another.”

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Learn to code?

As I’ve said, I’m often on the fringes of digital humanities. I try to follow what’s going on (although, in the interest of not being on the internet all the time, not as closely as I might), partly because digital archives are important to the way I work, and partly because I think there’s interesting and important stuff going on over there. But I have to admit, I’ve mostly ignored the calls to make 2012 the year of coding. I read references to Codeacademy and moved on because, well, I’m busy.

And then there was a bit of a kerfluffle over gender and the exhortation that digital humanists learn to code. Miriam Posner said it first and best here. Follow-up is here. Both are right on, and I’m not going to bother linking or recapping to the inevitable back-and-forth on gender and coding that followed because, well, I’m lazy.

But Posner’s discussion of gender and coding, particularly the part about how men are more likely to have been given access to a computer and encouraged to learn to use it at a young age, got me thinking. I think she’s right. That’s certainly been what I observed, both of the people I know, and in my experience as a woman (girl at the time) who did have computer access and tech skills. It’s something I often forget about myself, but I do know how to code. I learned BASIC and C++ at computer camp in high school, Unix for my first job, HTML from years of using the internet, and tiny bits of CSS during the two years I was hosting my own knitting blog (I also know how to knit, spin, quilt, sew, and participate in the overwhelmingly female DIY online communities Posner talks about in her follow-up). My freshman year of high school, I won the state-wide math and science fair with a project on Benford’s law. I wrote some code to test data sets for first- and second-digit distribution, which would be beyond laughable today, but which was a bit more impressive before everyone had access to high-powered computers on their phones. I wrote the code in C++ and it was a pain in the butt, and then a year and a half later I learned Unix scripting and realized how much quicker it would have made the whole thing.

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Why I study reception: methodology(ish) edition

Still blocked on this chapter. I’ve resolved not to fight it too much, but to get some other things done, too, while I wait for things to work themselves out. In the meantime, what it is I’m doing when I study reception:

As I noted earlier, I want to know what people said about novels when they were first published, and what sort of strategies they had available for reading them. To be honest, that’s often enough for me—if my committee would let me stop at description, I’d read a whole bunch of reviews and describe away. But that generally falls a bit short of an actual argument, so the most important part of my job (and what’s been holding me up for a while on the new chapter, just like it did on the last one) is showing what it is about the reviews that’s significant to our understanding of the novel, the criticism, or some other broader issue.

In order to do that, the first thing I do is find every review I can of the book and read them all, labeling each one with the major themes that I see recurring. Scrivener is particularly good at handling the practical side of this, but that’s a different post. Then I read them again, and again, paying attention to the different strands running through them, and then I keep reading them until I have some sense of the story they tell. Then I try to tell it.

Not very systematic, right? It generally takes a whole lot of re-reading and writing a bunch of crappy notes before I figure out what it is about the reviews that’s interesting and significant. Once I see the seeds of the argument, it gets a bit easier. Then I’m putting together a case and providing evidence to support my claims that we should interpret the reviews in the way I’m proposing.
The evidence I provide is textual—direct quotation, paraphrase, and analysis of the reviews. And this is where it starts to get sticky, because how much evidence is enough evidence? None of the patterns I point out are going to be present in all the reviews. The impulse then is to count—tally up how many review deal with x theme and offer some percentages. But there are lies, there are damn lies, and there are statistics. What would the numbers actually show? That 36% of the reviews that I have available evidence this trend? My data set is “reviews I am able to find.” I’m able to find enough reviews that I can make some fairly confident arguments about the patterns and trends I see across them, but that doesn’t make them a statistically significant sample size of all the reviews of the book that were published. In this case, statistics would be damn lies, provided to give a sense of significance that mostly just takes advantage of our cognitive biases about certain types of data.

And that’s why the “so what” part of my argument is so important. I need to find compelling connections between the reviews, the novel itself, the historical context, and the criticism. If I can do that, then I don’t have to rely on some false sense of quantitative significance to justify my argument. Unfortunately, finding those connections takes a lot longer than crunching the numbers.

All of this puts me on the fringes of DH work and debates about quantitative analysis in literary study. I don’t do quantitative analysis, and despite the hypotheticals above, I’ve never attempted it, but I can’t say I haven’t thought about it. Most of the time, I have trouble seeing what data mining actually adds to the conversation, but in the face of curmudgeonly responses like Stanley Fish’s, I sometimes want to try it out just to be ornery. I’ve got some more thoughts on data mining that I want to work through at some point, but until then, Ted Underwood has a pretty thorough response to Fish’s grumpy rant.

Why I study reception: teaching edition

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the work I do and what it has to offer—partly because the isolation and hyper-focus of trying to work on the dissertation all day, every day may be getting to me, partly because it’s a question I need to have a compelling answer for as I get closer to the job market, and partly because what I do is in many ways so removed from the sort of work most other graduate students in the department do that I sometimes feel as if I must be going about things all wrong.

That last part makes it sound like I’m some sort of iconoclast or innovator, which could not be farther from the truth. But I work on late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century reception, and I spend a lot more time looking at what people had to say about books when they were first published than I do putting forth new or challenging readings of a novel. To some people, that looks very little like literary study.

My interest in reception is two-fold. The first and most important reason is that I want to know what readers and reviewers had to say about books, particularly novels. It gives me a better sense of how novels fit into nineteenth-century American culture (plus, people had some crazy and hilarious things to say). Novels and book reviewing had a different status at the turn of the century than they do today. In 1902 Frank Norris declared (with more than a little self-interest, of course), “The Pulpit, the Press and the Novel—these indisputably are the great moulders of Public opinion and Public morals to-day. But the Pulpit speaks but once a week; the Press is read with lightning haste and the morning news is wastepaper by noon. But the novel goes into the home to stay. It is read word for word, is talked about, discussed; its influence penetrates every chink and corner of the family.” It seems worth knowing, then, what kind of public opinion novels were molding.

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