Special Issue at the Austrian History Journal “Österreichische Zeitschrift für Geschichtswissenschaften (OeZG)”
This issue focuses on historical semantics as a new approach to labour and social history. Historical semantics have long time been primarily understood as a linguistic subdiscipline or as a subfield of area studies. It is only in recent years that more and more historians refer to it as a relevant methodological approach to history in general. Yet, up to today, no standard definition, no handbook or introductory literature exists on what historical semantics means to historians. Historical semantics, it seems, stands in contrast to a traditional history of concepts. While the history of concepts – both in its German (Otto Brunner, Werner Conze and most importantly Reinhard Koselleck) and in its British (Quentin Skinner and the Cambridge School) traditions – is conceived as intellectual history of political thought, historical semantics adheres to a more materialistic and more comprehensive approach to language analysis. Instead of taking ideas and abstract lead terms as a starting point for historical analysis, the semantics approach studies situations of word usage (“Situationen des Wortgebrauchs”, Ludolf Kuchenbuch) as semantic representatives and producers of contextual social taxonomies and power relations. By doing so, this approach owes much to Michel Foucault’s notion of “microphysics of power” and his idea of an “archaeology of knowledge”. Yet, other than in classical discourse analysis, the historical semantics approach calls for a much more radical historical contextualization. The study of social change as a historical anthropology of scripture (“Schriftanthropologie”, Ludolf Kuchenbuch) is understood as a constant searching movement between the onomasiological and the semasiological level of analysis.
This new interest in historical semantics as an approach to social history has met with the rise of digital humanities and its new possibilities of textual analysis and data mining. Here, historical semantics serves as one of the primary battlefields for ongoing debates on the use of computational tools for textual analysis. While supporters of quantitative analyses of digitized mass corpora celebrate the computer’s agnostic way of recognizing semantic patterns and modelling topics, adherents of classical hermeneutic interpretation, in return, warn that the external exploitation of data through computer-based pattern detection must go hand in hand with careful introspection.
The computer, by being “semantically speaking blind” (Silke Schwandt) and calculating algorithms, raises the awareness for the blind spots of classical hermeneutic interpretation and points to the patterns we would otherwise have overlooked. At the same time, textual data mining risks to create new contortions and blind spots due to programming errors or a naïve trust in technology. Thus, how to combine human and computational reading, how to bring together close and distant reading is one of the main methodological challenges discussed in historical semantics.
Working group 1 of the COST Action WORCK has tried to make us of the historical semantics approach by studying and comparing the semantic structure and language use of documents from different world regions and time periods dealing with labour and coercion. The results of this collaborative work are presented in the special issue. The issue is divided into three parts. The first part gives an introduction into the historical semantics approach and presents the conceptual objectives and methodological decisions of the working group. The second part contains the case studies presenting semantics of labour coercion in very different historical contexts. The third part, finally, discusses the benefits of historical semantics and the role of digital humanities for the field of labour and social history.