Newspapers, Poverty and Long-term Change

A corpus analysis of five centuries of texts

Historical corpora (large bodies of digital texts) are increasing in availability and popularity and they offer scholars of the humanities hitherto unimagined opportunities for research. Historians, in particular, now have the capacity to exploit highly-developed computing technologies already used by corpus linguists to transform the way they approach and make sense of historical texts. Digitised reproductions of printed sources from the early modern period, for instance, can be searched and manipulated by a computer to enable researchers to gain an understanding of the past that is of unprecedented depth and scale.

This research project aims to demonstrate that corpus linguistics has a great deal to offer as a method in the study of the humanities. We will achieve this by 1) building the most comprehensive integrated collection of historical digital texts ever assembled, dating from 1473 to 1900 and amounting to approximately 10 billion words; 2) proving the effectiveness of this dataset by using it to conduct an innovative, corpus-based analysis of the changing attitudes to poverty in Britain over a very long period of time and 3) meeting the demand for training from scholars of a wide variey of backgrounds who wish to widen their research skills.

The study of poverty is a socially and politically significant area of historical research. Poverty, its causes and the legislative responses to it, have always attracted a great deal of media debate. We will trace how historical discourses on poverty have changed, and how they have stayed the same, from 1473-1900, and compare the results of our corpus-based analysis against the findings of earlier research based on close-reading methods. As our corpus consists of both local and national sources we will explore these variations and examine the extent to which the discourse has varied at the local level over time. Our corpora offer opportunities to examine a wide range of subjects and, once our exemplar study has been completed, we hope to investigate further important historical issues.

This project has received funding from the Newby Trust. The project will last for 12 months, in the first instance, starting in July 2014. It will be delivered by an interdisciplinary team of academics, including Professor Tony McEnery and Dr. Andrew Hardie who are renowned corpus linguists and Professor Ian Gregory, an historical geographer and Dr. Helen Baker, an historian. For more information, please contact Dr. Helen Baker.


Principal Investigator: Prof Tony McEnery

Co-Investigator: Dr Andrew Hardie

Senior Research Associate: Dr Helen Baker

Project Ambassador: Rt Hon Alan Milburn

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