Economics and Crisis in the Public Consciousness

This Digital Humanities project was designed to provide a quantitative analytical supplement to the qualitative research forming the basis of my dissertation project.
Dissertation Project:
The goal of my dissertation is to analyze the link between the imposition of certain trade policies made by the French government with regards to their colony in Indochina, and their effects on the working conditions on rubber plantations, which continually decreased in quality. These policies, which were generally mercantilist and protectionist in nature, included export bans, pricing controls, wage controls, and an unstable monetary policy, all of which artificially raised costs on plantation owners. The owners, in an effort to reduce costs and maintain profit (an end goal which did not always occur), responded through minimal spending on the working conditions. This culminated in a series of severe malaria outbreaks during the late 1920s, causing the deaths of tens of thousands of workers. I argue that the imposition of these trade policies was in part responsible for this humanitarian disaster, and by extension created the conditions in which the origins of the Vietnamese nationalist movement began to arise.
The Plan:
The initial focus of this semester project was the textual analysis of French-language newspapers published in Indochina during the colonial period, specifically from 1905 (the date of the establishment of the first rubber plantations in Indochina) to 1940 (when Indochina was occupied by the Japanese). This would ideally provide much-needed context for more intensive qualitative research which would form the basis of my sources. It could illuminate crisis points otherwise left invisible to scholars, expose silences in the face of critical conditions, and give a broad, birds-eye account of the French public sphere as it related to the rubber industry. There were nine major newspapers in production in Indochina during the first half of the 20th Century, with some spanning decades of publication, providing statistically significant evidence to supplement the rest of my research.
The primary limitations of this project were threefold:
1. The amount of documents available: Given the extreme number of documents available for this project (numbering well over ten thousand), it was clear that means of increasing the efficiency of document collection would be required. The solution was to, in conjunction with a colleague from the University of Oregon, develop a digital scraping tool to allow for massed retrieval of the newspaper editions.
2. Digital Construction of the archives: All of these documents are freely available on the French digital archive, an entity run by the French government. However, This site, which has existed for over a decade, contains extremely inconsistent coding patterns which make the massed retrieval of documents extremely inefficient and time-consuming. As such, and given the time restrictions on this project, I was forced to change my project scale from nine newspapers over thirty-five years to a single newspaper’s entire print run.
3. Issues with Textual analysis software: While not a major concern for the purposes of this project, the software that was utilized, Voyant, was fairly buggy, and would often reset itself before I was finished working with a certain set of data. In addition, it was not the most intuitive system when it came to extracting and storing data presented by the program.

Initial Findings:
The newspaper chosen for this project, Achats et Ventes, was a publication which focused on markets, commodities, and the general business climate in Indochina and around Southeast Asia. As such, it was targeted primarily towards economically-minded individuals within the small settler population of Indochina. Given the intensity and recurrence of violent strikes, protests, malarial outbreaks, and scandals of abuse, it was then remarkable to find that there was very little correlation between terminology reflecting social negatives like “strike,” “malaria,” “protest,” or “violence” and terms reflecting the industry in which these negatives were most commonly associated. Rubber plantations were only mentioned occasionally, with individual spikes occurring once a year or so. However, the raw numbers of the data reflecting this were also low, with 11 being the highest for a single ten-page edition. In addition, there was very little correlation between these spikes and actual historical crises that were occurring.
This is fairly remarkable in and of itself, given the severe crisis that was facing the rubber industry during this time period. Plantation owners’ profits were dwindling, and the Great Depression was deflating demand for rubber-based products like tires. Malarial morbidity rates were peaking at an apocalyptic 96.8% in some plantations, and French metropolitan and colonial legislatures were in a panic regarding the potential for a communist insurgency. What’s more, it would be expected that a newspaper which focused on commodities exchange would seek to inform its customers of the potential for significant events which could affect the prices or shares of those commodities and their interested companies. For all of that, Achats et Ventes was effectively silent.
The Future:
Certain caveats need to be applied towards the analytic utility of this data. While this does encompass the entire print run of a major newspaper, it remains just that: a single newspaper. This is a significant, but incomplete dataset. It remains entirely possible that other publications did choose to cover these events in a more comprehensive manner, in which case explanations must be sought out to discover why this paper in particular was less inclined to do so. In addition, the circumstances of this particular paper need to be explored in greater detail, regarding its political viewpoints, personnel, and other social factors with can provide greater clarity. However, as the data from this and other newspapers comes in, steadily, over time, I continue to believe that this project will provide considerable quantitative additions to my research.

Pedagogical Proposal

One of the key difficulties in any historical pedagogical approach is the question of empathy. Commonly, students analyze questions of the past in the terminology and mindset of the present. This is understandable, given their knowledge base, but it is incumbent upon us, as educators, to provide the materials and training to allow students to place themselves in the positions of historical actors to inhabit their decision-making process in order to provide a greater understanding of the historical context of the events and persons they are studying.
Digital humanities provides one potential answer to this conundrum. Given its focus on visual and interactive media, students are more capable of developing a personal attachment, or at least some investment, in subject material with which they are directly engaged. And while many digital projects provide such interaction on an individual level, there is one avenue that allows for group participation as well as a greater opportunity for an empathetic approach: games.
In particular, I’m thinking of strategy games, along the lines of Hearts of Iron IV, Europa Universalis IV, and Victoria II. These games represent, respectively, aspects of the Interwar/WWII period, the Renaissance and Early Modern Period, and the 19th Century through a complex combination of economic, political, social, diplomatic, and military functions. And, in contrast to many other strategy games, considerable effort is taken to reflect historical disparities between nations in the realms of technology, population, and economic potential. A small class section, numbering say up to twenty-five students, and equipment permitting, could simulate or replicate a vast array of historical scenarios.
The goal here isn’t necessarily to recreate the Scramble for Africa or Operation Barbarossa, but to allow for students to place themselves into the position of decision-makers, and to provide for a better understanding of the geopolitical contexts of major events. The population and industrial pressures affecting France in the 1920s and 1930s, for example, have major consequences and limitations for players during that time span. The success of the individual in circumventing these challenges is less important than a tangible representation of their existence and impact.
Finally, it should be noted that this approach does not necessarily require a digital component. Simulations and role-playing activities have been utilized in pedagogical exercises fairly regularly. However, given the constantly decreasing cost of access to technology, and the comparative ease of use and dissemination, the efficiency of such a project would doubtless be improved dramatically.

Project Bibliography

Achats et Ventes: Bulletin d’Affaires (Saigon), June 1, 1927-September 15, 1929,
Chantecler (Hanoi), April 17, 1933-December 28, 1939,
Cri de Saigon (Saigon), March 1, 1912-June 13, 1913,
Depeche d’Indochine (Hanoi), November 8, 1933-December 5, 1933,
L’Ere Nouvelle (Saigon), August 17, 1926-June 22, 1929,
L’Éveil économique de l’Indochine (Saigon, Hanoi), May 19, 1918-June 16, 1935,
L’Information d’Indochine (Saigon), October 16, 1933-December 28, 1940,
La Jeune Asie (Saigon), March 18, 1919-April 21, 1921,
L’Écho annamite : organe de défense des intérêts franco-annamites (Saigon), January 8, 1920-September 14, 1944,
La Nouvelliste d’Indochine (Saigon), August 29, 1936-December 27, 1942,
Bulletin de Syndicat des Planteurs de Caoutchouc de l’Indochine, September 1918-June 1940,

Bone, Johnathan, Rice, Rubber, and Development Policies: The mise en valeur of French Indochina on the Eve of the Second World War, Proceedings of the Meeting of the French Colonial Historical Society, Vol. 16 (1992), pp. 154-180, Michigan State University Press
Brocheux, Pierre, Le prolétariat des plantations d’hévéas au Vietnam méridional: aspects sociaux et politiques (1927-1937), Le Mouvement social, No. 90 (Jan. – Mar., 1975), pp. 55-86, Editions de l’Atelier
Harp, Stephen, Marketing the Metropole: Colonial Rubber Plantations and French Consumerism in the Early Twentieth Century, in Callahan, Kevin and Curtis, Sarah, Views from the Margins: Creating Identities in Modern France, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln 2003
Peycam, Philippe, The Birth of Vietnamese Political Journalism: Saigon, 1916-1930, Columbia University Press. 2012
Tully, John, The Devil’s Milk, A Social History of Rubber, Monthly Review Press 2011

3d Printing, Ethics, and ISIS

This week’s readings focused on the question of 3D printing, specifically as it pertains to ethics, within the historical realm, utilizing several examples of printing projects that have developed in recent years.
The first of these was the reconstruction of a triumphal arch from Syria, the original version of which had been destroyed by ISIS during their attempted conquest of the region. This arch was placed in Manhattan, amid minimal fanfare, and with little in the way of supplementary information to provide context for visitors and tourists. Ostensibly, the reconstruction was created in order to display the resilience of the human spirit in the face of terrorism and extreme violence, while utilizing images collected by the community to complete the printing project. Ethical questions were raised by some of the attendees regarding the lack of emphasis on the crisis in Syria that destroyed the original, and the use of monetary resources that could have been better spent on aiding refugees. Others remarked that the project seemed more like an opportunity to showcase technology than to serve as a memorial.
Clearly, whatever was hoping to be accomplished by the project organizers has more or less failed in the realm of public opinion. A small, indistinct arch was erected in New York City by individuals with little connection to the incident in question, attended by few people, who were confused as to the motive of the entire event. However, the ethical flaw here is not in the usage of 3d printing to restore a destroyed piece of architecture. This type of technology provides considerable potential for the study of archaeology, artifacts, and architecture while maintaining their integrity. The benefit to analysts, and the lack of potential harm to the objects in question, provide little downside. The ethical flaw is in the ambiguity in the utilization of this reconstruction, not in the reconstruction itself.

The Search for a Clever Title

This weeks’ readings focused on the utilization of audio and visual media in the process of the digital humanities, specifically looking at the Imageplot software. This program and its capabilities are quite interesting, particularly for those who focus on the study of media in general. The ability to quantitatively evaluate brightness, color saturation, and a host of other features can provide for varying degrees of analysis of film, art, photographs, and other visual media.

Unfortunately, this does not apply to my current projects. While I could conceivably conduct a visual analysis of my source base (much of which is derived from newspapers), my research is not a study of media as an entity, though it undoubtedly uses visual media as contextual evidence. It would be difficult, though not impossible, to add a component of visual analysis to what is largely an economic analysis of French trade and monetary policy.

This issue also applies to the second set of readings assigned for today, which focus on the usage of portable recording software for video and audio interviews. Given that my period of research focuses on the 1920s-1930s, potential candidates for oral interviews are fairly limited. Again, the potential for an oral history project exists, but that would be far beyond the scope of my current project.

As it stands, it seems useful to spend the remainder of this post discussing an important update to my project. In searching for a potential digital scraping tool to utilize the totality of Gallica’s Indochinese newspaper archives for textual analysis, I was reminded of an old friend who was recently admitted into the doctoral program in Computer Science at the University of Oregon. After a brief discussion, and the prospect of compensatory imbibing, he offered to write such a program. As it stands, this puts my project in an excellent position for the remainder of the semester, and I should be able to conduct the bulk of the analysis over the coming weeks.

The River Rises

The readings for this week focused on the question of mapping, including its use as a pedagogical and analytical tool. Considering the visual nature of Digital Humanities, this is unsurprising, and I know that for my own research, mapping provides extremely important context for the progression of particular narratives and the comprehension of different events. When used in conjunction with text or other visualizations, the benefits of mapping from a pedagogical standpoint are fairly obvious: they provide a frame of referenced for the student and, when tracking the spread of ideas or geopolitical changes, it can help ground a textual understanding of the subject material.
Diana Sinton’s article on mapping includes several examples, often tracking individual travels. I have used mapping in my own research in the past, mapping trench systems during a certain period during the Battle of Verdun in 1916, where I tracked the movements of the 153e Regiment d’Infanterie over the course of three days of combat operations. In my current research, mapping would provide an excellent window in displaying the geographic distribution of rubber plantations, and a means of establishing patterns for strikes, protests, and other forms of civil disobedience that wracked the industry during the 1920s and 1930s.
This article focuses on other aspects of mapping as a pedagogical tool, specifically looking at maps as a primary source. Tracking the changes in mapping procedures over the lifespan of the French Empire, for example, could show how entrenched certain ideologies became, while others were exchanged or disappeared entirely. This of course opens up the imperial construction of maps as a form of power over the colonized subjects.
The Basic Mapping in the Digital Humanities article expands on other examples, including some that we viewed in class. It provides a list of programs and their most effective functions. Of these, geo-coding seems to be the most applicable for my purposes, though I am interested to see other options moving forward.
One example that was particularly illuminating was the Mapping Emancipation site, which visualizes a variety of events regarding the actions by and towards African American slaves during the Civil War. As a layering tool, it was quite instructive, and provided very interesting patterns to analyze. The preponderance of events occurring in the contested regions of Virginia and the Mississippi River make sense within the context of the war itself, though I was surprised to see comparatively few events occur in Georgia.

Project Proposal

Digital Humanities Project Proposal-
This project’s purpose will be to conduct a mass textual analysis of primary documents relating to the French rubber industry in Indochina. This will serve to identify linguistic trends, points of conflict, the public resonance of certain individuals and locations, as well as identifying key points of contention throughout the time period in question. Given the scope of the project in question (the 1920s and 1930s), a textual analysis will act as a quantitative supplement to qualitative close readings of particular issues and texts, providing a broader context for the emergence of patterns.
Phase 1: Accumulation of Sources
This first step will likely be the most time consuming, as it entails the collection and preparation of several years’ worth of periodicals, newspapers, magazines, and other documents for textual analysis. Key to this section will be the search for a broad document harvesting tool, to streamline downloads. All of these documents are digitally available on, making individual access extremely simple. Mass access will require a little extra work, but should be doable, given the high digital presence. Happily, each of these potential documents has both a visual (scanned) component as well as a purely textual version available.
Time to completion- 3 weeks
Phase 2: Organization of Sources
This step will be somewhat shorter than the previous, effectively cataloging the documents in question to determine particular questions which need to be asked. This will also consist of the construction of data categories based on source dates, publication, physical location at time of publication, and type of document.
Time to completion- 1 week
Phase 3: Conduct of quantitative analysis
This phase will comprise the meat of the project. Utilizing Voyant software, I will input the documents listed above and begin the quantitative analysis. As stated earlier, this will be divided into certain categories prior to the initial uploads, though time will be taken during the analysis to develop new categories and adjust existing ones as necessary. This process will generate correlative relationships between certain subject matters, dates, and publications. A general observation of patterns will signify this phase.
Time to completion- 3 weeks
Phase 4: Conduct of qualitative analysis
This phase, which will continue beyond the completion of this semester, will see the incorporation of this data with a broad range of qualitative research that has been previously conducted, or will be conducted in the future, to contextualize the data and place it within the broader scope of my dissertation project. The connections between previously identified patterns and other significant events (as well as silences and contradictory patterns) will be investigated thoroughly in an effort to glean a rough composite of the state of the French colonial media conception of the rubber industry in Indochina and its varied processes. This will also incorporate visual analysis of publications, in particular newspapers, to illustrate other dynamics at play in the dissemination of information.
Time to completion- ongoing
Phase 5: Presentation of findings
This phase will consist of the visualization of the collected data and its presentation in a digital format, including on this blog. This will make the data legible and decipherable to a wider audience than its raw format, while simultaneously illustrating the correlative elements determined from the research itself.
Time to completion- 1 week

The Wind is a-blowing

The readings for this week focused on the question of textual analysis, for which I was grateful, given the current direction of my project. As we are getting deeper into the semester, my plans are growing more and more concrete, and I expect to have a large project update next week, to fully flesh out my intentions.
As such, the focus on textual analysis was of particular benefit to me this week, confirming many of my preconceptions regarding its utility and its limitations. Each of the four articles assigned shared a singular caveat, however. Textual analysis, though powerful and undoubtedly useful, remains a supplementary tool to traditional research methods. This is entirely unsurprising, given the level of training and historical immersion required to accurately assess period-specific documents for a professional historian. Judgment calls are required on a regular basis, and a computer or algorithm, no matter how sophisticated, remains limited in its ability to assess satire, emotion, and ambivalence.
With these limitations in mind, I found myself interested in the potential of topic modeling, a combination of textual analysis and visualization methods. Two of the assigned articles focused on very different approaches to this topic. The first was “Mining the Dispatch,” an assessment of the issues of the Richmond Dispatch during the American Civil War. The intent was to recreate a certain sense of everyday life from the accumulated data of an extremely large corpus. The limitations of topic modeling, of course, derive from not only the inherent issues with textual analysis, but the historian’s choice of the topics themselves. This project provides some illuminating data points (the dramatic uptick in the mention of war bonds towards the end of the war was particularly striking), but if it were connected to a more qualitative analysis (say, of the aesthetic qualities of the newspapers themselves), it would be even more effective.
The other large example provided was of the correspondence of Henry Kissinger, which was presented in a very different means of visualization. Here, textual analysis sought to illustrate the relationships between words (“bombing” and “Vietnam,” for example), and cluster them together. This had the benefit of not only being interesting, but visually accessible and appealing. Many visualization tools we have engaged with in class do not lend themselves towards legibility, and it can be difficult to recognize patterns even when they do exist (which, of course, is not always guaranteed).
Given my interest in textual analysis, Megan Brett’s Topic Modeling: A Basic Introduction was a good shorthand into the requirements of such a project: A large corpus which has been “tokenized” for computer legibility (i.e. the removal of capital letters, articles, etc); a familiarity with the corpus on the part of the researcher; a program or tool for the topic modeling; and a means of visualization which will make the research accessible upon completion.
My own dissertation, I am convinced, will benefit from some form of textual analysis, especially given the sheer amount of documents I have to work with. While this method remains a supplementary one, it can undoubtedly demonstrate and reveal previously unnoticed patterns and relationships.