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IDSS Distinguished Seminar Series

How Words Lead to Justice: Modeling Language Change in Two Abolitionist Movements

December 4, 2023 @ 4:00 pm - 5:00 pm

Lauren F. Klein (Emory University)



Words matter—not only because they carry specific semantic meanings, but also because they index larger concepts and debates. But the work of elevating these words to the level of national discourse, such that they can be mobilized in the service of social justice or political change, is performed not by individuals but by collectives and coalitions, and takes place not in any single statement but instead over the course of many years. Can this process be tracked with any degree of precision? And if so, what might be learned about the path by which certain words move from the margins to the mainstream?

This talk will present a pair of projects—one historical and one contemporary—that track the changing language of abolitionist movements using machine learning, natural language processing, and information-theoretic techniques. I will describe the development a model of language change aimed at capturing the relationships between Black and white antislavery activists in the nineteenth century, and then turn to new work on the #BlackLivesMatter movement, explaining how humanities scholarship on Black Twitter and on the structure of online social movements influenced key technical decisions in our model design. More broadly, I will demonstrate how a humanistic approach to data science is one that is explicitly framed by historical and cultural context, and that intentionally enables field-specific theory to lead.


Lauren Klein is Winship Distinguished Research Professor and Associate Professor in the departments of Quantitative Theory & Methods and English at Emory University. At Emory, she also serves as director of the Emory Digital Humanities Lab and PI of the Mellon-funded Atlanta Interdisciplinary AI Network. Previously, she taught in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication at Georgia Tech. Klein’s research brings together computational and critical methods in order to explore questions of gender, race, and justice, both in the past and in the present. She is the author of An Archive of Taste: Race and Eating in the Early United States (University of Minnesota Press, 2020) and, with Catherine D’Ignazio, the award-winning Data Feminism (MIT Press, 2020). With Matthew K. Gold, she edits Debates in the Digital Humanities, a hybrid print-digital publication stream that explores debates in the field as they emerge. Her work has appeared in leading humanities journals including PMLA, American Literature, and American Quarterly; and at technical conferences including ACL, EMNLP, and IEEE VIS. Her research has been supported by grants and fellowships from the ACLS, the NEH, and the Mellon Foundation. Her next major project, Data by Design: An Interactive History of Data Visualization, is forthcoming next year from the MIT Press.

MIT Institute for Data, Systems, and Society
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
77 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02139-4307