Flash Interview with Uriel Abulof of the Diachronic Global Corpus

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Flash Interview with Uriel Abulof of the Diachronic Global Corpus, April 2015


H-Nationalism recently had the chance to talk with Uriel Abulof, Assistant Professor of Politics at Tel-Aviv University and Visiting Research Fellow at Princeton University. His research focuses on many topics, among them the study of the discourse of “self-determination” through the analysis of text as data. Currently, his work includes leading the development of the “Diachronic Global Corpus” at the Liechtenstein Institute on Self-Determination at Princeton University (LISD). David Prior, an Advisory Board Member at H-Nationalism, conducted the interview via email from Thursday, April 2 to Sunday, April 5, 2015.


DP: Uriel, could you start us off by sketching your research interests, including how these relate to the analysis of “text as data”? How did you become engaged with this method and how has it shaped your work?


UA: Thanks, David. Political legitimacy intrigues me. We usually study legitimacy either philosophically or sociologically. One either seeks the principles that should guide our politics, or else investigates the practical support people lend to certain politics and politicians. I want to bring the two together, to understand how social actors morally reason their political life. So it is less about political legitimacy, more about political legitimation. I am less interested in the extent to which Egyptians had supported or rejected Morsi; I am more intrigued by the changing principles they believe should guide their support (or lack thereof).

This is a phenomenological project, considering politics from the agents’ perspectives. It relates to my larger attempt to construct “political existentialism,” which is all about what sets us apart from other animals, and brings us together as humans: our freedom of choice, moral sense, search for meaning, and dread of death. As a student of nationalism, I was wondering if we can grasp ethnies and nations as, among other things, moral mechanisms of symbolic immortality. If so, what happens when the nation itself is seen by its own members as mortal? I studied the question theoretically and empirically (for example, in the cases of French Canadians, Israeli Jews, and Afrikaners). I argue that such “small nations” seek partial redress in existential self-legitimation: by the nation, of the nation, and for the nation’s very existence.

There are many ways to study political legitimation. I occasionally turn to behavioral indicators, both qualitative and quantitative, as well as to opinion polls. But I mainly draw on discourse, on what we might call “the language of legitimation.” I typically trace it qualitatively, but this method has obvious limitations. Suppose that I want to study the views of Western pundits regarding Islam, and to examine whether, since 9/11, they have increasingly regarded it as innately violent. Granted, I can locate various op-eds, analyze their authors’ views, and suggest the existence of such a change. But qualitatively, I cannot grasp the scale of the change, the extent to which it has underpinned western views of Islam. This is where the analysis of “text as data” (or corpus linguistics, henceforth CL) becomes useful. With CL we use corpora containing large volumes of public discourse and discover patterns. We can trace changes in keywords and their associates (collocates) across time and space. It does not provide a full picture, but it often raises interesting questions, and occasionally provides clues on the answers, which you can then probe qualitatively. And so, a couple of years back, I initiated at Princeton University and Tel-Aviv University a CL project, the Diachronic Global Corpus (DiGCor). We aim to construct such an integrative CL system that will enable everyone to employ the most advanced CL tools to make sense of their own corpora.


DP: Are there topics that DiGCor is particularly interested in? The project is supported by the LISD, which of course references an idea (self-determination) that is integral to the history of nationalism. Yet, as you mention above, the project seeks to make accessible CL tools that could be applied to any subject for which there is a large body of digitized text. Will DiGCor target a specific set of questions, disciplines, or debates?


UA: The simple answer is no. The idea is to offer the academic community a free and powerful toolkit to conduct CL. The creation of the corpora is entirely up to the scholar/student, and, if adequately formatted, DiGCor should be able to help you analyze it. Whether you are interested in children books’ treatment of science or neoliberal discourse on inequality, you should be able to harness DiGCor to gather insights. My personal interest in DiGCor, however, is political legitimation, especially nationalism. I regard nationalism as (also) a doctrine of political legitimation and delegitimation. I distinguish between negative nationalism, which is about eschewing foreign rule, and positive nationalism, which is about holding “the people” as the source of political authority, subscribing to the modern principles of popular sovereignty and self-determination. Seeking to discover how these principles have evolved in public discourse and practice, I turned to CL. It was a gradual process, and we still have a long way to go before DiGCor becomes fully operational and open to the public (sometime in 2016, I hope). Throughout, I was very fortunate to have the support of the LISD and to work with excellent faculty, staff, and students at Princeton and Tel-Aviv. In the last year and a half, our team has also collaborated with kindred spirits in the US and in Europe. CL is a fast growing field, which holds many promises, but quite a few perils too.


DP: Could you expand on that last part in a little more detail? What do you see as CL’s potential, both good and bad, to transform scholarship, especially nationalism studies? What might the field look like in ten years, as CL continues to develop? What would you like to see happen?  


UA: Like any new technology, it is mainly up to us. The potential is immense. Contemporary discourses of numerous genres are largely digital, and documented discourses of past generations are going digital. Meanwhile, CL techniques are becoming more powerful and refined. Text as (big) data thus becomes an important, and scientifically accessible, reflection of social trends, in and beyond the realm of nationalism. But the temptation to regard this partial reflection as a full mirror, even a crystal ball, grows. Could CL reveal the causes and reasons for the emergence and evolution of nations? Can real-time CL predict the eruption of the next ethnic conflict? Can it prescribe remedies? I doubt that. Humans have a unique capacity to communicate, to choose, and to learn. And we should not rely on statistics, however vast and sophisticated, as a sole, or even primary, means to understand human societies. Still, handled with cautious curiosity, CL invites terrific questions and ideas. It is an exciting time to study nationalism. I will obviously be thrilled to see more work on the national language of legitimation. Consider, for example, the Russian annexation of Crimea, and Putin’s justification of it. He turned quite effectively to ethno-nationalism, and to self-determination. Though often discarded throughout the last century, the national language of legitimation keeps returning with vengeance. Paying more attention to how it plays out, and is being played, can illuminate contemporary politics. Moreover, partly using CL, we can now extend such investigation to the public. Leaders do not have a monopoly on legitimation, and professional philosophers are not the only ones capable of thinking about, and deliberating on, moral principles. Martin Luther King Jr. popularized the idea that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” I want to see if it also bends towards justification.


DP: Thanks Uriel, one last question. Do you have big plans for future projects once DigCor is fully operational? What will be next for you?


UA: I might be too curious for my own good. In recent years, I have researched small nations, religion and politics, rentier states, rational choice, ethnic conflict, democratic peace, nuclear proliferation, revolutions, securitization theory, conscientious politics, and conceptual history. Isaiah Berlin once wrote of “foxes,” who are interested in many things, and “hedgehogs,” who focus on one big thing. I might have the mind of a fox, but the heart of a hedgehog, and it beats to the beat of existentialism. My first book, in Hebrew, examines The Existential Uncertainty of Zionism (forthcoming, Haifa University Press); my second, The Mortality and Morality of Nations (forthcoming, Cambridge University Press), goes further in theory and case studies. Now I want to offer a broad view of political existentialism. People worldwide subscribe to various divine covenants and social contracts. Wittingly or not, we follow Filmer, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Rawls, and other thinkers, holding assumptions about the state of (human) nature, and drawing political conclusions. Political existentialism encourages us to revisit these assumptions and conclusions, both empirically and normatively. Consider, for example, the notion of “bad faith.” Sartre used it to describe how we often dodge our innate liberty and responsibility by embracing essentialism and determinism. Studying the politics of bad faith is about uncovering these dynamics in changing social contexts. Nationalism, like all identity politics, can help us realize our individual freedom but at the same time tempts us to forego it. But why and how do we stop taking a given path, and instead realize that we are standing at a crossroads? I am trying to find answers.