Spring of 2016 I enrolled in my first ever graduate level data science course at the School of Information at UC Berkeley. The course ‘Deconstrucing Data Science’ investigated quantitative methods of machine learning and data analysis. Coming from a humanist background, the course challenged me to think in drastically different ways about evidence, data, and argument. In the process of learning new data science methods, we reflected on experimental design and challenged the underlying assumptions of empirical methods. These critical reflections resonated with similar debates around the ‘scientific’ character of history and the social sciences to draw informed conclusions about the past and society.
It’s been nearly a year since I’ve stumbled upon the fascinating text Technique du Peuple Annamite (Mechanics and Crafts of the Vietnamese People) (Published 1908-1910). I had hoped to come to more of a conclusive analysis of this text before posting about this project. However like most intellectual projects, more questions and directions for analyses have opened up rather than converged into a neat finality.
Thus, I wanted to at least share my initial observations and inquiry into the text. Below is a brief introduction to the text itself and excerpts (Methods & History of the Book) from my essay “On Examining a Peripheral Text: Technique du Peuple Annamite”, which I hope to finish editing and publish here. Additionally, I created a timeline of the life of the text and author below:
Last summer I started thinking about translating historical texts into ‘data’ and wrote a short blog post about it when I worked on the Cultural Heritage Informatics project. At that point, I pondered about the limitations of my recently minted Master’s thesis, where I analyzed tourism advertisements and travel stories to understand how individuals ‘mapped’ places with cultural, colonial, and personal significances.As a heavily theoretical cultural history project, I enjoyed the textual, literary, and tentativeness of such an endeavor. However, I could not answer many structural questions about the nature of Vietnamese tourism and genre of travel stories more broadly because of the qualitative nature of my project.
I wonder if others have had this experience in their own historical research? I myself am drawn to digital tools and more quantitative ways of thinking as a way of offering a broader perspective to my often very textual-based questions. With a deep yearning for more ‘concrete,’ quantitative data, I hope to create a digital history project within this line of thinking: translating historical text to data.