Unveiling the character gallery of sermons: Labelling and social network analysis of 11,955 contemporary Danish sermons
Kirstine Helboe Johansen, Associate Professor in Practical Theology, and Anne Agersnap, PhD student in The Study of Religion, both Aarhus University, are interested in questions of how religion is actualised in contemporary society – and how such questions can be addressed digitally. This case gives an insight into their digital journey through (and beyond) their participation in the Digital Literacy course.
The ability to move within sermons as a linked collective genre – as a landscape
“Sermons form a long-established genre, and every week, pastors produce vast amounts of text. Yet it has never been possible to approach sermons as a group of texts – to understand them collectively, synchronously. However, digital humanities methods offer unique opportunities to work across the entire text material – to see sermons as a collective genre with unique links between each other. And with social networks, we are allowed to move within our sermons as if they were a landscape,” Anne explains.
For her PhD project, Anne Agersnap is building a massive database of contemporary Danish sermons, with researcher Kirstine Helboe Johansen as her supervisor. The two of them registered for the Digital Literacy course at Aarhus University with a fundamental curiosity for how pastors “enter into a dialogue” with contemporary culture and society – how sermons respond (and relate biblical narratives) to the events and narratives of the world outside.
About the project
Working with characters allows for both distant and close reading strategies
When the project began, the text material – the 11,955 sermons – had so far been uncharted territory for Kirstine and Anne. Working with them digitally presented at least a first way to unlock and familiarise themselves with the entire text material at once.
“Initially, we asked ourselves: How do we get to know the material? We’d been introduced to the digital method “named entity recognition” (the automatic recognition of person entities in a text) which seemed to be a good way to get to know the data. A way to work with a textual category (persons) that exists throughout the entire data set. And by working with the person gallery, we could get a sense of which non-biblical cultural contexts are put into play – and how they relate to the biblical contexts,” Anne explains.
Working with characters both allows for distant reading (patterns across the entire character gallery) and close reading strategies (analysis of individual characters).
- How do pastors integrate and interconnect biblical and non-biblical characters in sermons?
- NER tagging (named entity recognition) is an automatic process that identifies persons in texts based on syntactical information (e.g. subject or object position).
- Manual coding of NER-tagged characters
- Social network analysis of characters
- 11,955 Danish sermons from 2011-2016 (from Anne’s PhD project)
- A character gallery of around 700 unique persons
So far, Kirstine and Anne has created a prototype of a network analysis. This preliminary network shows a “biblical centre” where all biblical characters gather, the three largest being John the Baptist, Paul and Virgin Mary. Non-biblical or contemporary characters, however, are scattered around this centre.
Kirstine and Anne were interested in how non-biblical characters relate to the biblical ones. For instance, Paul is a frequent bridge between biblical narratives and dominant non-biblical characters such as Martin Luther or N.F.S. Grundtvig. Another observation is that the Devil is a frequent link between narratives of evil in the Bible and modern narratives of evil around e.g. Hitler, Stalin or other problematic political figures in modern times. Thus, a network analysis is the ideal method for identifying such links – and such ways that pastors make sermons and by extension religion relevant for today.
”It is clear that there is so much more structure in the data than I had dared to hope for. If we hadn’t worked this way, we wouldn’t have identified the centrality of Paul – how he seems to be a central link between the biblical and non-biblical worlds,” Anne says.
From data collection to preliminary observations
- Collecting and cleansing data (this work was done through Anne’s PhD project)
- Labelling data for archiving (date, file names) and adding meta data (gender, location)
- Automatic labelling of characters with NER tags (named entity recognition)
- Coding 700 characters manually (adding their cultural contexts, e.g. politics)
- Performing network analysis and visualising the data
- Observing trends and forming preliminary hypotheses
- Cleaning up network (matching up e.g. “Martin Luther” and “Luther” as same entity)
- Visualising data according to character’s gender and cultural context.
- Publishing case-based research article on relevant subnetworks in the network.
New personal competences
Access to IT support
Positively surprised about the smooth cross-disciplinary dialogue
According to Anne and Kirstine, the IT support during the course has been an essential part of their project success. The two had regular meetings with IT supporter Ross Deans Kristensen-McLachlan, a Research Software Engineer at the Center for Humanities Computing Aarhus (CHCAA).
“Our dialogue with Ross has been smooth, informative and exciting. Ross is a linguist, so he already has a “foot” in the humanities. This eased our mutual understanding,” Anne explains.
Spillover effect on teaching
Spurring discussion in the area between the qualitative and quantitative zoom
Later this year, Anne is teaching a third year core course on qualitative and quantitative methods at The Study of Religion. For this, she plans to bring in digital text reading and analysis:
“It is incredibly ideal to bring in digital quantitative methods to spur a discussion in the area of tension between the qualitative and quantitative perspectives,” Anne says.
Exactly this dynamic between the qualitative and the quantitative methods is best described by a fluctuating motion of “zooming in” and “zooming out” according to Anne:
“We’ve had this feeling of zooming in and out on our texts. By coding characters manually, we had to get really close to the material. Then we zoomed out to a helicopter view of all characters in a network analysis. And finally, we chose a case-based approach, zooming back in again on individual characters. Both zooms are equally important to be able to answer our specific research questions,” Anne explains.
A growing digital interest across the faculty
Next steps include cleaning up the network and continuing to look at character categories. For instance, how are gendered characters, the pastors themselves or the congregation constructed discursively in the texts?
“During the last year, my horizon for questions that I am able to ask has really grown and taken on a new shape. I have a certain literacy now. I can’t do it all by myself, but I can read code and somewhat understand what is going on. I wouldn’t have been able to do that a year ago. I’ve gotten so far that it is easier to enter into a dialogue with the technical experts in a qualified way – in a way where I know what they’re doing”.
“In the beginning, it was lonely to work with this type of project. But it is great to witness the growing digital interests coming from various research groups across our faculty, so it has been wonderful to take part in this,” Anne finishes.
Behind the researcher
Kirstine Helboe Johansen is an Associate Professor in Church History and Practical Theology at the School of Culture and Society, Aarhus University.
Her research interests include religious rituals, the theology of worship, cognitive approaches and cultural symbolic approaches to religion as well as lived religion.
Behind the researcher
Anne Agersnap is a PhD student at The Department for The Study of Religion at the School of Culture and Society, Aarhus University. In her PhD project, she works extensively with the data of the Digital Literacy project, the 11,955 sermons.
Her research interests include contemporary religion – specifically how religion is made relevant today, e.g. through sermons.
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.