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.

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