Digital history & historiography

The “The Quest for Questions in Digital History” at DH Benelux 2017

The “The Quest for Questions in Digital History” at DH Benelux 2017
The fourth DHBenelux Conference was hosted by Utrecht University (the Netherlands) from 3 to 5 July 2017. Dr Florentina Armaselu presented a paper co-authored with Dr Elena Danescu, entitled "The Quest for Questions in Digital History: A Comparative View on Werner- and Delors Report on Economic and Monetary Union".

Starting from Gaston Bachelard’s assumption that “all knowledge is an answer to a question”, the study proposes the use of comparative textual analysis to formulate research questions (see abstract and presentation). A set of questions were derived via the TXM, Textométrie software, a tool for lexicometry and statistical analysis. Two historical documents on the Economic and Monetary Union (EMU) were examined, the Werner report and the Delors report (French versions).

At the Hague Summit (December 1969), an experts committee chaired by Pierre Werner (Prime Minister of Luxembourg) was set up to explore the progress towards EMU in the European Community (EC). The result was the Werner report (1970), which offered a full definition of EMU (3 stages over 1971–80). The aim was to achieve irreversible convertibility between the currencies of the Member States, the complete liberalisation of capital movements, the irrevocable fixing of exchange rates, and even a single European currency. Two main principles underpinned this report: gradual realisation of EMU and parallelism between economic and monetary convergence. In 1974 the Werner report was put on hold. In 1988 was set up a committee charged with the study of EMU, chaired by Jacques Delors (President of the European Commission). The result was the Delors report (1989) which was appropriating the overall philosophy and structure of the Werner report.

The “quest for questions” was based on the comparison of the documents, using the TXM specificities feature that highlights what properties are specific, as overuse or deficit, to a part versus the rest of a corpus. The documents were analysed both as entire units and as fragments (numbered parts and sections). The specificities were computed for the noun-adjective combination and parts of speech, the properties with specificity scores higher and lower than the TXM default positive and negative banality thresholds being selected for further enquiry and subsequently used to formulate research questions, such as: How monetary, and respectively economic, matters differ in Werner and Delors reports? What influence upon the EMU construction did have the structure of the Werner and Delors Committees membership? Can we speak of an evolution of the EMU concepts between 1970 and 1989? What is behind the range of verbal forms in Werner- and Delors report? Additional questions, on a more general level, may be also articulated. For instance: How to define parallelism in historical processes, from a linguistic, text analysis perspective? Can any correlation be drawn between the categories of authors of historical documents (politicians, bankers, monetary experts, diplomats, etc.) and linguistic forms (e.g. verbs in the future, conditional) used in expressing particular goals (actions, objectives), and what would be the purpose of such a way of expression (persuasion, showing determination or prudence, inspiring confidence, etc.)?

Although further experiments, testing with other corpora and theoretical formalisation are required, the first results show that digital tools may serve not only as hypotheses or conclusions validators but also as means of discovering exploration paths to support interpretation and the construction of new knowledge in digital history.