Reading Contexts: Planet and Narration project

August 27, 2014 10:12 am
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The ways in which futurity is imagined and articulated in the transcripts of the Brundtland Commission Public Hearings is of particular interest to the Planet and Narration research project. This blog post will describe how we used Voyant’s Keywords in Context tool to construct a coding framework for attending to the different iterations of “future” in the proceedings of the Brundtland hearings.

As I described in the last post of this series, Keywords in Context, or Document Type KWICS Grid, is a tool that provides context for a term by showing a set amount of words directly preceding and following every instance of that word in the corpus. I uploaded all of the texts comprising the Brundtland hearings into Voyant. After playing with the settings in the Keywords in Context tool, I found that it worked best when it was used in combination with the Word Trends tool. Voyant’s default skin places both tools together in the bottom left corner, making using them together very intuitive.

I searched “future” in Word Trends, which graphically displayed the word’s relative frequency, or the amount of times the term appears in each text compared to every other word. Clicking the peak point for any document in the line graph caused the Keywords in Context tool to limit the instances of “future” to only that document. This was an important step as it allowed the final PDF containing all of the information in the Keywords in Context tool to be organized document-by-document.

chart (1)
In Keywords in Context I set the context to 25 words (meaning 25 words before and after “future”), and then went through Word Trends one peak point at a time. Each time I clicked a point in Word Trends, I clicked the little floppy disk button in the Keywords in Context tool to export the grid. I then choose “HTML snippet with static tabular data” and clicked “OK.” This generates a HTML code that I could then dump into a blog post. After I dumped all of the HTML snippets into the blog post, comprising the context surrounding the word “future” for every document in the corpus, I previewed the post and then made it into a PDF using Adobe Acrobat.

Screen shot 2014-08-27 at 9.38.45 AM
This PDF was helpful to us because it allowed us to engage in an efficient form of close reading despite the sheer volume of the corpus we are working with. The PDF with the contexts generated through the Keywords in Context tool was primarily useful in germinating a framework for categorizing the passages. As we discussed the contexts in which “future” appeared in the various texts in the corpus, we determined that we should organize every passage into two dominant categories: “aspirational” and “apocalyptic.”

Most of the contexts in which the word “future” appeared in an aspirational way could be best characterized as having a tempered optimism, often placing “future” in the phrase “We/I hope that in the future…[fill in the blank]” In contrast, apocalyptic passages usually went beyond just presenting a dour portrait of the future, and often contained images of ecological annihilation.

To illustrate what the terms mean to this study, I will give an example of both.

In volume 35, doc 12 of the Brundtland hearings taking place in Oslo, member of the Danish UN Association Sidsel Dyekjaer-Hansen says:

“I sincerely hope and also trust that the Commission will be able to conduct and stimulate the dialogue all over the world on the issues presented in its report on the world’s common future, and that it will be able to present for the world community some concrete and realistic action proposals that can change the present non-sustainable development patterns and policies”1

In contrast, Geoffrey Bruce, Vice-President of the Canadian International Development Agency provides a strong example of “future” in an apocalyptic context in volume 36, doc 25 of the Ottawa Brundtland hearings:

“Half a billion people are already undernourished, millions more will be added each year. Without substantial changes in the management of our water, land, air and forest resources, it will be difficult to support the population projected for the next century. Other ecological disasters are not in the future, they are happening now.”2

We quickly realized that because many of the hearing transcripts contained formal documents interspersed here and there with the actual proceedings, and because the Keywords in Context tool could not provide page numbers for the passages in which “future” occurred, a certain amount of manual entry would be necessary for citation reasons. In the end, the PDF generated through the Keywords and Contexts tool served as a launching point for creating another separate document that contained, in addition to the context surrounding ever instance of “future,” citation information and the name and official title of every speaker using that word in the Brundtland Hearings. All of these passages were sorted first by document, then by the categories “apocalyptic” or “aspirational.” These categories seemed too strong for some passages and couldn’t be applied to others, so a third category was created for housing passages in which, for instance, “future” merely appeared as part of a name (e.g., Resources for the Future). The PDF allowed us to efficiently sort the passages into the three different categories.

While Keywords in Context proved very useful for surveying large bodies of text for patterns in how a particular word is used, our experience with this tool confirmed to us that Digital Humanities tools cannot replace the need for actually reading the text. Who is speaking, and whether or not that person is reciting a prepared statement or is responding to a question, are examples of important considerations for making meaning out of the passages collected in the Keyword’s in Context tool.


1. World Commission on Environment and Development. “Verbatim Transcripts of the Public Hearings of the World Commission on Environment and Development Held in Oslo on June 24-25, 1985.” World Commission on Environment and Development, Geneva, CH, 1985. V. 35, doc. 8-12. WCED archive collection, International Development Research Centre, Ottawa. p. 1.

2. World Commission on Environment and Development. “Verbatim Transcripts of the Public Hearings of the World Commission on Environment and Development Held in Ottawa on May 26-28, 1986.” World Commmission on Environment and Development, 1986. V. 36, doc. 21-25. WCED archive collection, International Development Research Centre, Ottawa. p. 191.

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