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Can we quantify literary relations?


This paper explores the pros and cons of quantitative research methods with regard to the study of literary networks. While quantitative methods such as Social Network Analysis and computer programs such as Ucinet and Pajek help to locate clusters of contacts and to visualize social networks, it is not easy to determine the strength of a relation or to gauge its significance or importance by means of ‘numbers’. How can we measure literary relations? What type of information is not only gained, but perhaps also lost when we do? Are ‘exact methods’ useful when dealing with ‘inexact data’ drawn from incomplete or biased sources such as letters, autobiographies and memoires? To what extent are results coloured by the original set-up and intentions of the researcher? And can we quantify concepts such as ‘literary influence,’ ‘cultural cross-fertilization’ and ‘literary strategy’?

In my PhD-project, I investigate the relations between English and French cultural formations at the beginning of the 20th century. I examine the connections between six literary circles in London and Paris and focus on different types of networking: the publication of literary magazines and manifestoes; social gatherings in salons, restaurants and cafés; the financing of authors and artists by literary patrons and financing projects; the collaboration of artists, authors, and their translators; and their representations in both fictional and non-fictional works. The project thus requires the processing of an enormous amount of diverse information, for which quantitative methods are suitable. Yet what can these add in terms of ‘new information’? Can they reveal new insights that are not already implicitly stated? And how does the quality of the results relate to the size of the datasets?

Referring to a case study of a network of four little magazines (Mercure de France, Nouvelle Revue Française, English Review and Criterion) at the beginning of the 20th century, I want to trace the limits of quantitative models for the study of literary relations. Starting from the question as to what extent quantitative methods are useful for the study of literary networks, this paper aims to open a discussion on the advantages, but perhaps more extensively on the disadvantages, limits and challenges of quantitative models for socio-literary research.

SvD, October 2009

  • Conferences > NEWW November meetings > 2009 > Van Puymbroeck

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