Using word frequencies to analyze historic documents provides new perspectives on topics that may have already been thoroughly studied. Many scholars have already studied and written about the Boston smallpox epidemic. Text analysis allows new scholars to potentially confirm these results and uncover interesting new patterns. For example, Robert Tindol, in his paper “Getting the Pox off all their Houses” notes that Mather moves fluidly from secular to religious language within his texts while intentionally maintaining a more factual observational tone when writing to the Royal Society of London. The text analysis in this project, though on different documents, confirmed that of all six authors, Mather mixed the two types of language the most. Tindol also noted that in Mather’s 1722 pamphlet (An Account of the Method and Success of Inoculating the Small-Pox, in Boston in New-England) he uses “reason” twice and says that the “epistemological words such as ‘knowledge’ and ‘doubt’ dominate the text.” This text was not analyzed quantitatively in this study due to poor quality OCR, but graphing the frequency of these words and other epistemological words in this text in comparison to words like “belief” “faith” or “hope” could confirm Tindol’s claim or reveal more nuanced patterns.
Quantitative analysis also gives a subjective analysis of a text. When trying to prove a thesis, scholars may be tempted to pull out certain quotes from a text while ignoring, or simply missing, important other points. Quantitative data helps removes this type of subjectivity during the research process.
Finally, using a text analysis tool like Voyant allows scholars to study patterns in huge collections of texts. This study only used seven texts (about 53,000 words). Although tallying word counts in this text would be tedious, it wouldn’t be out of the question, and it is certainly possible to read the entire corpus qualitatively. However, text analysis opens the possibility of analyzing large collections such as all of Shakespeare’s plays. Or even better, a collection that would take decades to read such as all articles written for TIME magazine from 1923 to present.
Despite these advantages, quantitative analysis must be used with caution, click here to read about some of the disadvantages of studying texts using word frequencies.
Click the links below to learn more about the methodology for the project