Zooming In and Out: Close Reading and Distant Reading

After reading through Jocker’s (Macroanalysis 2013) introductory chapters, one concept really jumped out to me that I found very valuable to understanding the role of Macroanalysis and “distant reading” in the humanities. One usually hears about the close reading/distant reading debate as something that is mutually exclusive—where a humanist either employs close reading or distant reading when analyzing sources. Close readings suffer from what Jocker’s refers to as “anecdotal evidence” (8), where one hypothesizes overarching theories from a very limited sample. Distant readings, on the other hand, may be able to analyze more texts in different ways, but often result in a loss of the contextual information that a close reading can reveal.

Jockers, however, in his third chapter, “Tradition,” uses a word that I think is a very valuable way of thinking about the close/distant reading debate. He uses the word “zooming” (in and out), to describe how close and distant readings can be complementary. To “zoom” is a useful and interesting way to describe this phenomenon. It infers a spectrum of scale in text analysis, and in digital work in general. Instead of choosing to do a close reading OR a distant reading on a given corpus, one can zoom in and out along this spectrum of textual analysis. Zooming establishes a complementary rather than a combative interplay between close and distant reading.

And this zooming can be employed across different projects or within the same one. One can “zoom in” on a single work or small corpus of sources, employing a traditional close reading, or one can “zoom out” and perform a distant reading of a million books. But this does not mean that once one zooms in they cannot zoom out in the same project. The scholar analyzing a single work or small corpus of sources can still benefit from a distant reading of both those sources and the larger corpus of digitized works. They can perform a basic text analysis of word usage, word pairings, and structural components to inform their close reading. Moreover, one can zoom out even more and use a broader text analysis of related works during the period to confirm or support their broader claims based on close reading. For example, one might postulate broader societal, political, and religious trends of a certain place during a specific time period based on a close reading. A distant reading of the larger corpus of works from the same region around the same time can support or disprove these speculations. A distant reading, therefore, complements a close reading by acting as means to sidestep only using “anecdotal evidence.” A distant reading can also be supplemented by a close reading of text. A pure distant reading runs the risk of becoming too abstract or removed from the texts. A close reading of a sample of works from a larger text analysis can support the broader phenomenological and discursive trends that distant readings attempt to reveal. Consequently, zooming in and out along this spectrum of scale allows close readings to compliment distant readings and large-scale text analysis to support the claims of in depth study into a limited number of sources. Zooming in and out allows those working in the humanities—digital or traditional (for lack of a better word)—to make their arguments with a greater level of precision and efficacy.

(this post is a repost from http://benschmidt.org/dighist13/)

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