Tracing Cold War perceptions of nuclear weapons in Denmark through distant (and close) reading
Anne Sørensen, history researcher at the School of Communication and Culture, Aarhus University, has embarked on a journey to expand her digital horizon – most recently by participating in the Digital Literacy course. This case gives insight into her digital journey through (and beyond) the course.
Qualifying, visualising and disseminating Cold War research
“Digital methods carry the potential to unearth new, overlooked historical links – to qualify and elaborate our theories and to identify historical agents or sources that we have not paid sufficient attention to. But at the end of the day, they are not something that ‘revolutionises’ science. They are tools like any other – with affordances and limitations, and worthy of methodological scrutiny.”
Anne needs to expand and strengthen her digital repertoire for a project that aims to qualify and elaborate research on Cold War culture and politics. In light of Anne’s current work as editor of danmarkshistorien.dk, a popular scientific website that conveys history research to broader audiences, Anne is motivated to examine how to disseminate and visualise data and use digital methods for lay audiences. Finally, methodological discussions interest her – discussions on e.g. use, validity and bias. In other words, what kinds of knowledge can historians produce with digital tools – and what not?
In addition, digital tools provide a way of overcoming a common research challenge: scarcity of time and resources. 20 years ago, when Anne launched her career, history research relied predominantly on analyses of selected data sources because any entire source material would be too extensive to cover.
However, new digital methods allow for more (time) efficient research practices. What previously took days or years (e.g. rolling through newspapers in microfilms) can now be done in a few minutes (e.g. typing in a Google search). Digital methods have their limitations and their own kinds of archival biases, but being able to access large data sets quickly – e.g. the entire Danish daily press coverage of a single historic event in Mediestream – is a huge advantage for her work.
About the project
Discourses on nuclear weapons
Anne’s project focuses on perceptions of nuclear weapons, threats and emerging superpowers (US, USSR) in Denmark 1945-1950.
1. How are nuclear weapons described?
2. How is knowledge and perceptions of the new weapons disseminated?
3. Is it possible to track historic changes, developments and processes in the data?
1. Public opinion (newspapers in Mediestream and digitised Danish illegal press)
2. Politics (the official publication “Folketingstidende” from the Danish parliament)
3. Science (“Ingeniøren”, a Danish scientific newspaper).
According to Anne, discourses on nuclear weapons changed from being about ‘peace keeping’ to ‘peace ending’, emerging gradually as the new threat of World War III. This discursive trend is widely known in history research communities. However, equipped with digital tools, Anne asks:
“Is it possible to locate a turning point in the Danish debate at a big data level? And does it confirm our existing theories? How do the public, political and scientific domains affect each other? There might be networks and stories in the daily press that have escaped our attention until now.”
From data location to validation
- Locating relevant data material and digital collections and clearing access.
- Determining search terms and truncation
- Performing spot checks of the material to qualify delimitation of theme and time period
- Pre-processing (preparing the material for analysis, building a data corpus)
- Conducting temporal analysis (statistics)
- Conducting semantic analysis (topic modelling, word embedding, voyant-tools.org, corpus linguistics, qualitative discourse analysis)
- Presenting the results in an article with data visualisations and methodological discussion
- Validating the work
New personal competences
Access to IT support
Assistance on foreign territory
During the course, Anne has had continuous access to IT support – a ‘lifeline’ that has made a huge impact by helping her validate her work in a field that is foreign territory:
“We humanists tend to lack an overall sense of security with digital methods. Had I seen R a year ago, it would have looked too technical and daunting. This is why our access to IT support throughout the course has been so invaluable. It has made me unafraid and more willing to jump right into it. The digital tools have been taken down from their pedestal,” Anne explains.
More tests, more methodological discussions
So far, Anne is yet to produce results, but she plans to allocate more time for the project during the spring 2019. It has been an enriching experience for Anne to develop her own ideas, to discuss and be inspired by projects ranging from Luther to Facebook in a vibrant and academically diverse environment. Next step in Anne’s project is doing tests of the material and writing a research article:
“With this, I would like to discuss with my colleagues how we can use this kind of research and methodology. I’ve ‘landed’ in this field now, I have established a network of competent people, and it is beginning to become something that I automatically integrate in my practice and everyday life.”
Behind the researcher
Anne Sørensen is a researcher at the Department of History and Classical Studies at the School of Culture and Society, Aarhus University. Her research background is European contemporary history, and she has worked extensively within digital history and digital presentation and dissemination. Currently, she works as editor of danmarkshistorien.dk.
Behind the Digital Literacy course
The Digital Literacy project is a competence development project organised by the Digital Arts Initiative at Aarhus University. It is a unique opportunity for researchers to qualify themselves in the digital area – with their own research questions as a point of departure.