Research

My work in cultural analytics / folklore studies is focused on understanding the role that discourse plays in the nature and spread of online and offline texts. My principle interest is in narrative texts, in understanding how they are constructed, deployed, and received both because of the ways narrative activates our imaginations and the ways that narrative, as one of many modes of discourse, seems able to make words stick together as they travel across social networks. My focus on the somewhat larger horizon of discourse, as opposed to strictly narrative, is the outcome of years of close examination of actual vernacular texts as they passed between individuals both in face-to-face interaction and online.

While I began this work in folklore studies, I have over the past few years sought to expand the scope of my engagement in order to find those areas of overlap that exist between the humanities, the social sciences, and data and information science in the belief that there is not only strength in diverse perspectives and collaborations but also real opportunity to find tractable insights into larger questions and problems facing the world in which we live and work.

My current research streams converge on the nature of narrative because I am particularly interested in refining our understanding of modes of discourse so that we can more successfully not only distinguish narrative from other kinds of texts but build a better model of narrative itself. Addressing this question draws on work in folklore studies, information science, cognitive science, corpus linguistics (and stylistics), and computational approaches to the humanities and social sciences.

One strand of this work focuses on legends, all of which have long been distributed by traditional (oral) social networks, but many of which first made great leaps in distance via the first information networks constituted by regional, and later international, newspaper networks. While the project to make the historical case is still underway, contemporary manifestations in the 2016 clown legend cascade and the recurring legend of abandoned trucks highlight the ways in which off-line and on-line social networks not only amplify each other but transform the information that passes through them in ways we have not fully documented. This work established the need for closer scrutiny of legend as a form as well as the need to consider alternate methods for evaluating the way legends spread and/or saturate on/off-line social networks.

At the heart of this lies the nature, and status, of narrative itself, a much vaunted but still remarkably not well understood mode of discourse. My efforts here are to understand how individuals use narrative to shape various dimensions of the world as they understand it: time, space, the interactional order. The goal of this work is to build a computational model of narrative such that we can discern narrative from other modes of discourse and begin to understand its place within the larger stream of vernacular discourse, themselves situated within global information flows. One argument, for example, has been that the cognitive mirroring enabled by narrative helps in the spread of fake news and in radicalization processes. And yet the status of legends as narrative within folklore studies has long been subject to discussion, calling into question the narrative nature of those forms which rest upon legend, like fake news. A proper accounting of narrative within legend and fake news would go a long way to clarifying the dynamics of these phenomena.

The relevance of form to our understanding of information flows is at the heart of the collaboration with Katherine Kinnaird of Smith College. Taking TED talks as a corpus upon which we can build a set of methodologies and tests various assumptions, we have, first, established a clean data set available to anyone. Second, we examine the talks as words, performing not only the usual inspections of topics across time and domain but also attending to matters of gender and seeking to understand the relationship between TED talks, often described as “thought leading,” and information flows contemporary with them. In the process, we have uncovered profitable forms of collaboration and dialogue that we are capturing in Me Think Pretty One Day a book focused on collaboration between humanities and the data sciences (under development).

The oldest strand of work that continues to generate some activity began in the wake of the 2005 hurricanes that struck Louisiana, when I embarked upon an exploration of the relationship between culture and landscape. Driven to understand how individuals worked and lived in places dismissed as wetlands, I discovered a tradition of invention that had developed the crawfish boat, an amphibious vehicle that tumbled out of a loose network of Cajun and German farmers and fabricators. Explaining this phenomenon required actor-network theory, and I continue to refine that work as a way of engaging my home discipline of folklore studies in the necessity of re-thinking our work in light of developments in network theory.