Ted Underwood

Two Ways to Use Numbers in the Humanities
An Argument with Thomas Piketty

September 18, 2014 at 4:30 p.m.
Murray Hall, Room 302
510 George St.
New Brunswick, NJ

Quantitative methods are still unusual enough in the humanities that all projects of this kind tend to be lumped together as a single odd phenomenon. But one can also see humanists’ recent experiments with numbers as expressions of two distinct impulses. On the one hand, there’s an emphasis on the value of scale as such, which could be traced back to the Annales school, or associated with Moretti’s “distant reading.” On the other hand, there’s a tradition of understanding social phenomena through “modeling,” recently given new impetus by innovations in computer science. These methods aren’t necessarily in conflict, but I think it’s valuable to sort them out, because it may help humanists understand how our own methodological debates are participating in a larger conversation between disciplines. I’ll illustrate with a research question drawn from Thomas Piketty, both because he’s engaging these debates himself, and because he makes claims about literary history that present humanists with an interesting challenge.

About the speaker

Ted Underwood is Professor of English and Liberal Arts and Sciences Centennial Scholar at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He teaches English literature (mostly British, mostly from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries). Trained as a Romanticist, his research is as much about information science as literary criticism. He is especially interested in applying machine learning algorithms to large digital collections; some of his collaborative work is presented in The Uses of Scale. He is the author of two books, Why Literary Periods Mattered: Historical Contrast and the Prestige of Literary Studies (Stanford, 2013), and The Work of the Sun: Literature, Science, and Political Economy, 1760–1860 (Palgrave, 2005). He blogs at The Stone and the Shell.

This event is supported by the School of Arts and Sciences and the Center for Cultural Analysis.