Diagnostic tools – or – the pretty visualization is not the end

As the semester and my first graduate digital history class wind down, I’ve been thinking a lot about building DH things for investigation vs. argument.  There’s a lot of good work on tools-as-theory, and whether a digital thing can be a satisfying argument, and an upcoming conference on argumentation in the digital humanities – so I’m not the only one.

I also just finished writing 1-2 pages – maybe 1,000 words – based on a diagnostic tool that it took me over a month to build.  I’m hoping to spin what it tells me out into a longer article in future, but for now I thought I’d share it here, with some commentary on how I made it, what it told me, and why it is not an effective argument.

One of my book chapters is on a group of enslaved and free people in Richmond who raised funds for victims of famine in Ireland.  The First African Baptist Church of Richmond raised just under $35 in 1847. While the amount per congregant was low (the church listed thousands of active members, but many of them were not able to regularly attend because of their enslavement) the donation itself was relatively unique in the church’s history.  This was one of the first times that this congregation raised funds for people not connected with the church.  I have a much longer argument on the political work that this donation did, but I wanted to be able to make some concrete statements about congregants’ experiences in the 1840s.

This was helped by the church minute books, which recorded the names of baptized, excluded and restored members (there were a lot of exclusions for adultery in the 1840s) as well as the names of the men and women who owned the congregants who were enslaved.  So I built a network (using Gephi, which benefits tremendously from the recent update) that showed only relationships characterized by slavery, to see if any white Richmonders were particularly over-represented. (made with sigma.js and the Gephi plugin created by OII)

While some men and women owned more than one congregant, by and large this network was fairly diffuse.  Congregants obviously shared the religious and physical space of the church, but their relationships outside of the church did not seem to be conditioned by their enslavement by particular men and women. (There is an excellent and robust literature on enslaved people in urban spaces, resistance and community building, which I won’t recap here – but suffice it to say that scholars have charted many other ways of relating beyond ownership by the same person, and I assume those modes were at play in 1840s Richmond).

As I put together the database of congregants, I realized that many and unusual names (Chamberlayne, Poindexter, Frayzer, Polland, among others) recurred among both slaveholding and enslaved people.  So I made another network, this one assuming that people who shared a surname had some kind of relationship (this is not a 100% defensible assumption – some of the more common names might have been happenstance).  With those kinds of connections, the network (which includes all of the same people as above) becomes much more dense, with clusters that signify relationships based both in slavery and (most often coerced) sex.

It’s interactive!  It’s dynamic!  It’s a network!

It is not an argument.

At best, this is a tool that lets me locate an individual and see connections.  It relies on two kinds of relationships (and likely overstates the certainly of genetic relationships or previous ownership based on shared surnames).  It helped me to write two pages about the density of connections among black and white Richmonders, and bolster claims about the broader relationships that the First African Baptist Church was embedded in.  It remains an investigative tool.

I think it could be helpful, which is why I am putting it on the internet, but it does not constitute argument.  It does not even constitute analysis (that happened behind the scenes in R).  It did take – from the start of transcription to now – over a month to build.

Was it worth it?  Well, I was able to see connections among the 800+ congregants mentioned in the minute books from 1845-1847 that I would not have been able to see just by reading the names.  I was able to place individuals in a broader social context.  I wrote two pages.  I think that work like this can be tremendously generative, but either happens behind the scenes and only lives on a researcher’s computer, or is presented as the end of an investigative process. This is firmly in the middle of the investigation, but I suppose that has value too.

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