Fully-Funded PhD Studentship – University of Glasgow – Counting the forks: A quantitative approach to the development of a literary genre

Counting the forks: A quantitative approach to the development of a literary genre

DUE 30 JUNE 2017


This project aims to investigate ways of bringing together publicly-available large-scale online resources, in this case Google Books, and the unique and distinctive collections of the University, in this case Special Collections’s rare holding of around 80 early Victorian novels of fashion and high society. The University of Glasgow’s collection represents a large proportion of the total output of novels in a genre called ‘silver fork’ fiction. A nineteenth-century publishing phenomenon something akin to the ‘sex and shopping’ novels of the 1980s, ‘silver fork’ fiction was named in recognition of its fetishisation of luxury household goods. Silver fork fiction depended heavily on its claim to capture the most up-to-date in conversation, ‘brands’, social behaviour and fashionable knowledge: each silver fork novel is thus a kind of mini-collection, a shop-window – or now, a museum display – for its time. The genre also had a short lifespan and is thus reasonably delimitable.

The project has three stages. First, the silver fork collection will be digitised; the project will then use these digitised texts to produce a computational comparison of every possible group of 4 contiguous words in each novel with every possible group of 4 contiguous words in three collections of already-available digitised texts: (a) a collection of core ‘culture’ texts of English literature, including the King James Bible and the plays of Shakespeare, (b) a collection of newspaper and periodical writing contemporary with the silver fork novels, and (c) a collection of non-silver fork novels of the same period. These three collections will be derived in large part from Google Books and from other corpus resources held at Glasgow. This comparison will be aided by statistical methods which will determine those phrases which occur significantly more frequently in the silver fork novels when compared to the three other collections. Finally, these comparisons will be used to generate a set of network maps exploring the ways in which silver fork fiction borrowed from other kinds of writing, cannibalised its own earlier texts, and generated its own distinctive expressions. The project will draw on, and seek to develop and extend, techniques under development by the Literary Lab at Stanford and by digital humanities scholars such as Franco Moretti (Stanford), Matt Jockers (Nebraska-Lincoln), and Daniel J. Cohen (Digital Public Library of America), and which will be extensible to a wide range of literary and other text-based research contexts.

The objectives of the research will be – amongst others – to
• Explore the use of quantitative methods in tracing the history of a genre of popular literature
• Develop our detailed understanding of the ways in which literary influences affected the development of early nineteenth-century fiction
• Contribute to the current rapid growth in the application of network theory methods to innovative literary analysis.

Applications are welcome from students with interests in various areas, including English Literature, English Language, or cognate subjects in the Arts or Humanities, or from students in Statistics or Data Analysis.

Applicants must have an undergraduate degree (2:1 or better), and a Masters degree in a relevant subject. For applicants from the arts or humanities, experience of quantitative methods would be extremely beneficial but is not absolutely essential; for students from statistics or data analysis, a demonstrable interest in literature is extremely beneficial but not absolutely essential.

Application Process – Candidates interested in applying for funded PhD study on this project are encouraged to make informal contact with the Supervisor(s) in the first instance.


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