Mentoring Social Science Researchers in Corpus Methods and Critical Discourse Analysis: Final Symposium at Keele University

Yuze Sha, with Luke Collins

On 25th January, members of the ESRC Centre for Corpus Approaches to Social Science joined colleagues from across universities in the North West to participate in a Symposium, celebrating the work of postgraduate students getting to learn how to use methods from corpus linguistics in their existing research.

In September 2022, Dr Luke Collins (Lancaster University) and Dr Kathryn Spicksley (Keele University) secured funding from the ESRC’s North West Social Science Doctoral Training Partnership, as part of the ‘Methods North West’ initiative, to launch the programme “Mentoring Social Science Researchers in Corpus Methods and Critical Discourse Analysis”. The aim of the programme was to set up a mentoring scheme, pairing postgraduate students based at Lancaster University with expertise in corpus linguistics (and optionally, critical discourse analysis) with postgraduate researchers working in other areas of the social sciences, to provide guidance on developing their understanding and skills in corpus linguistics research.

Five postgraduate researchers from Lancaster University with expertise in the field – Anastasios Asimakopoulos, Kevin Gerigk, Hanna Schmück, Yuze Sha and Yanni Sun – offered their time and expertise to, respectively, five mentees based at one of the universities in the North West Doctoral Training Partnership between September and January.

Despite having no prior training in corpus linguistics, our five mentees confidently presented their work at the Symposium, demonstrating how they had adopted concepts from corpus linguistics and found new ways to approach their study data. Topics for presentations included digital decisions in Higher Education (Fiona Harvey, Lancaster University), the way the UK prison system holds power accountable (Irfan Pandor, Keele University), to the marketising discourse in Speed Awareness course provider websites (Emily Brannen, Keele University). The data sources for corpus construction were also diverse, including interviews (Yi-Fang Chen, Lancaster University) and newspaper articles (Rebecca Page-Tickell, Lancaster University).

Our invited guest speaker was Dr Gavin Brookes, who started proceedings with a talk demonstrating the application of approaches from corpus linguistics to the study of healthcare. Guests also heard from Dr Fabienne Emmerich, the ESRC NWSSDTP Institutional Lead at Keele University and Lecturer in Law, who provided some encouraging observations of the talks and the mentoring programme, recognizing the engagement of our participants and the work that they had been doing with their mentors.

As a mentor, I absolutely enjoyed the mentoring process, working with my mentee, Yi-Fang. Yi-Fang came to the programme with a dataset consisting of 20+ interview recordings, averaging 2 hours in length. Given the amount of data, one of her concerns was for ensuring that she had an objective way to identify a sample that she could be confident was representative of the larger dataset. We established the key questions she wanted to explore in her study and co-designed a corpus-assisted critical discourse analysis approach for her project, outlining the ways that several corpus linguistics methods could be implemented into her study to facilitate her focus on particular extracts and support her in her qualitative analysis.

Yi-Fang was enthusiastic about using corpus methods to help identify statistically prominent features of her dataset, which helped her pick up the thematic topics in a relatively objective way. She then focused on the relevant concordance lines, applying a more detailed, qualitative analysis of the linguistic features and the ideologies behind key features. Collocation analysis using GraphColl (accessed using #LancsBox) also helped Yi-Fang to visualise connections between key language features in the data and do so in the original Chinese language of the texts.

This was the first time the mentoring programme had been carried out and based on the Symposium, we have been encouraged by the interest and application of corpus methods by our participants. We hope that establishing this network is just the beginning for building working relationships between postgraduate colleagues in the North West and sharing the advantages offered by corpus analysis.