Quantitative Literature?

You know how much you hated maths and statistics back in school, right? And so you purposely chose to enter Arts & Social Sciences, hoping to avoid crunching numbers on a calculator forever. You realised that many social sciences, such as psychology and sociology, have statistics components. They always have a compulsory research module that teaches you how to statistically analyse mass data and results. So what subject would be the most divorced from statistics? What course is qualitative and deals with specific data that you simply cannot analyse with statistics?

Why, Literature, you may think! Literature has nothing to do with statistics or mathematics at all. It is sometimes portrayed as the antithesis of the maths and sciences. Surely you’ll see the end of numbers when you learn Literature.

Not anymore.


Yes, computer programs have been coded to specifically analyse the words in literary forms. They can tell you, in terribly monotonous emotionless computerised terms, which author your writing is most like (even if you may have never read any of his books before). They can tell you what to write in your advertisement to capture the minds of audiences. They can study literature in a way scholars don’t. The question now is whether scholars don’t do it because they don’t want to, or they cannot. And if they couldn’t before, does this new technology help them discover a new side to literary analysis now?

Will Literature become a new Communications & New Media or Political Science, whether statistics are the preferred choice when making academic assessments?

Now I can’t say I know precisely how Literature or Linguistics are studied, especially in university. I took introductory English Language and it was rather technical (which I enjoyed, because I understood all the linguistic rules easily and they made a great deal of sense) but not to the point of analysing sentence structures and word frequencies in numerical terms. Nothing in English Language teaches us that there is a formula to making memorable movie lines. Formula. A distinctively mathematical word, but not only in that realm anymore.

Is this a good thing? Do I like it? Well, I must say it does open up a branch of new possibilities and I can imagine many useful and interesting discoveries leading from the digital output of Big Data. However, I’m not sure if I would enjoy my own writing, were I an author, to be psychoanalysed in this way. Not all authors pen each word intentionally, and to deduce meaning from whether the author mentions “1980” in his text or “1985” as supporting evidence of our memory of the past seems to be making too much meaning out of nothing. Then again, the methodology of Literature essentially works this way, that content analysis is applied to the author’s choice of words, choice of what words to exclude. So in this view, Big Data is merely aggregating all the content analysis work of every literary scholar into a large database.

But I’m a supporter of technology, especially in this domain which seems to have enjoyed a monopoly of humanistic research techniques all these centuries. Computers + literature sounds like an exciting marriage.


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