Blogpost: Thomas Jacobs: Integrating digital tools and methods in research design

As part of our recent Digital Humanities Doctoral School's programme, participants were asked to write a blogpost capturing their experiences with the digital humanities. In our first blogpost of 2018 we hear from Thomas Jacobs, a PhD fellow from Ghent University's Centre for EU Studies. He holds an Advanced Master in International Relations and Diplomacy from the College of Europe, Bruges. His main research interests include European trade policy, international political economy, and political communication. 


The integration of digital tools and methods into a poststructuralist research design

For me, the most revelatory element of our Doctoral School was the significant amount of attention devoted to research designs in their entirety. Rather than just learning to work with various platforms, tools, and algorithms, we genuinely engaged in a holistic manner with how digital methods affects the set-up of a research project as a whole. 

This was particularly eye-opening for me personally, since it could be contended that the theories at the core of my research project are of such a nature that they do not fit together all that well with a methodological toolbox in which digital tools feature strongly. My research is focused on the discursive constitution of international trade as a policy area in the debates in the European Parliament, with a research design built around the post-structuralist theory of discourse and politics elaborated by Laclau and Mouffe (1985/2001). Given the strong post-positivist epistemology and the radically constructionist ontology in which their theory is rooted, there is certainly an argument to made that any synergy with digital tools for text analysis is problematic. The latter could easily be seen as reifying and essentializing meaning.  

Simultaneously, there is also quite some promise in a combination of both. Laclau and Mouffe’s Discourse Theory offers a strong theoretical apparatus to understand how wordings, phrasings, denotations, practices, and framings inform the way we make sense of the social world around us, but simultaneously, it lacks concrete methods to tease these crucial signifying features out of larger data units such as texts and conversations (Torfing 1999, 292). As such, combining Discourse Theory with various digital tools for text analysis is a potentially interesting path to go down from a methodological point of view, particularly since digital tools offer the potential to explore far larger corpora than close reading ever could, allowing us to make more convincing and more precise statements about the normalization or ‘hegemony’ of particular forms of signification. 

However, to facilitate cross-pollination between both traditions, it is necessary to explore under what meta-theoretical conditions digital text analysis tools can be used for discourse analysis. This question is fundamentally different from the one asking in what way digital tools can contribute to discourse analysis. Indeed, the promises digital methods hold for discourse-analytic praxis are well-established and have in fact been explored quite intensely in corpus linguistics (Baker 2006). What I am concerned with here, is how digital tools can be bring their considerable added value to bear on in a research design informed by a poststructuralist theory of discourse, without creating an internally inconsistent and contradictory set-up. The concern is with internal validity, rather than with empirical potential. In other words, I came to realize the importance of demonstrating that the ideas about meaning and signification inherent to the underlying theory can in fact be operationalized through the chosen method. For my own research, this means that I have to show that topic modelling and semantic network analysis can indeed treat meaning in text the way poststructuralist Discourse Theory does, and to outline which circumstances have to be established and what practical and methodical steps have to be taken for this to be the case.



Baker P. (2006). Using corpora in Discourse Analysis. London: continuum.
Laclau, E. and Mouffe, C. (1985/2001) Hegemony and socialist strategy: Towards a radical democratic politics. London: Verso.
Torfing, J. 1999. New Theories of Discourse: Laclau, Mouffe and Žižek. Oxford: Blackwell.