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Conceptual Analysis through Corpus Text Patterns: Researching W.E.B. Du Bois’ Concept of Democratic Despotism via Regular Expressions

Published onMar 19, 2024
Conceptual Analysis through Corpus Text Patterns: Researching W.E.B. Du Bois’ Concept of Democratic Despotism via Regular Expressions
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Concepts are important components of, and insights into, human thinking. They involve the ways through which we humans understand the world and our roles in it and, vitally, by which we plan our actions in the world and justify such actions (De Bolla; Olsthoorn 156–159). Indeed, concepts are integral to the interpretation of texts. Humanities scholars have studied, for example, how the author applies concepts, what concepts mean within the historical milieu of the author, how concepts develop over time and texts within multi-author traditions of thought, and how concepts have been received and understood by various readers (Blau; Beckstein and Weber).

I have been studying the ideas of W.E.B. Du Bois (1868–1963) for many years as the means to interpret how he understood and justified human actions in the world (R.W. Williams, “A Democracy of Differences”, “Early Social Science”). Both positively and controversially, he remains a well recognized civil rights activist and scholar. He addressed numerous issues still debated nowadays, including his famous concepts of the colour line, double consciousness, Talented Tenth, and one with relevance to this paper, democratic despotism. For Du Bois, democratic despotism referred to the enjoyment of democracy at home for some, while supporting exploitation and oppression abroad.

Of course, the world of Du Bois differs in some ways from today, so I am not arguing that we can easily or definitively apply Du Bois’ ideas to current issues of today (Reed). The dynamics of a concept like democratic despotism can, nevertheless, point us to current situations in which supposed democratic policies lead to justifying exploitation and oppression. Accordingly, we can study Du Bois’ ideas as one way to pose salient and critical questions about our own times.

Although we can benefit from studying Du Bois’ concepts, practical issues will arise. How do we study his two thousand-plus publications and thousands of unpublished materials? My project seeks to address partially that practical issue by using a non-representative, non-comprehensive, 220-document corpus that I personally gathered and compiled as plain-text files from various books, essays, newspaper columns, and correspondence written by Du Bois. To this corpus I apply regular expression (regex) search protocols via concordancer software. Regexing via concordancer allows me to locate not only the concept qua word, but also at least some of the varied expressions by which Du Bois evoked any given concept without naming it as such. We also can apply these techniques to multi-authored corpora.

My research approach is unique among scholars of Du Bois who have studied his ideas because they do not utilize corpus-based techniques to uncover the traces of his ideas in their associated expressions. Nevertheless, I consider this paper to be exploratory because of the many branches that could be taken in pursuit of Du Bois’ ramifying and interconnected ideas across time and text.

In the sections below I present Du Bois’ concept of democratic despotism; examine conceptual analysis and the linguistic justification for my research; provide a general overview of regular-expression research and its benefits; specify the regexes employed to study “democratic despotism;” discuss the results; and offer several theoretical and methodological implications emerging from this research.

Readers will note several conventions applied throughout this paper:

  • The citations to Du Bois’ works contain an abbreviated title. The Works Cited section arranges his works alphabetically by the abbreviated titles.

  • Formatting in the manner of

    {re-1}      (?i)democratic[\s\-]despotism

    indicates a sequentially numbered regular expression, which the “{re-1}” so designates. Note that “{re-1}” is not part of the regex.

  • Formatting in the manner of »\b« designates text strings (i.e., words or their fragments) that form part of the research process, including regular expression search patterns.

As a final note, my project is more than an analysis of Du Bois’ ideas. By discussing the techniques of regexing via concordancer I am inviting other scholars to research their own corpora in a similar manner. As a starting point of inquiry, others need only substitute their search terms in the regexes that I present here. Such textual explorations, in my experience, promote systematic rigor and sometimes even produce serendipitous results.

Du Bois on Democratic Despotism

The concept of democratic despotism is a specific term by which Du Bois described a particular historical dynamic of colonizers and colonized, one that involved some form of citizen participation incorporated in the processes that generated oppression abroad (Gooding-Williams; Henderson; Karenga). In “The African Roots of War” (AROW par.13–15), published in 1915, Du Bois wrote:

The theory of this new democratic despotism has not been clearly formulated. Most philosophers see the ship of state launched on the broad, irresistible tide of democracy […]. It is this paradox [of democratic despotism] which allows in America the most rapid advance of democracy to go hand in hand in its very centres with increased aristocracy and hatred toward darker races […]. Yet the paradox is easily explained: The white workingman has been asked to share the spoil of exploiting [Asian and Black slurs.] It is no longer simply the merchant prince, or the aristocratic monopoly, or even the employing class, that is exploiting the world: it is the nation; a new democratic nation composed of united capital and labor.

In addition to the US, he named England, France, and Germany as perpetrators of such oppression. For Du Bois the First World War resulted from the world-spanning struggles of European empires seeking control of colonies.

Over his long life Du Bois continued to challenge European colonialism and belatedly interwar Japanese colonialism of Asia. Colonizers typically justified their activities via racial hierarchies and engaged in horrific acts of inhumanity (Mullen). He worked with various organizations over his life, including Pan-African ones that sought to unite Africans as a challenge to colonialism and to bolster African-control over their own industries, government, and the education of their citizens (PAFM). He presented his challenges in fictional works, such as Dark Princess (DRKP) in which he advocated uniting peoples of colour around the world.

Perhaps the concept of democratic despotism might seem puzzling to some: how could a country be at once both democratic and despotic? Conceptual analysis is one way to unpack this and to examine the idea in its ramifications across a small corpus of Du Bois’ texts.

Concepts and Conceptual Analysis

Conceptual analysis in the humanities and social sciences seeks to better study concepts by breaking them into their component pieces (Olsthoorn 153). Such analyses can be directed, for example, toward interpretive research or toward the conceptualizations of quantitative studies (Dowding, Ch.8 passim). The conceptual analysis applied herein provides a way to study how an author (Du Bois) expressed his thoughts via concepts, often presented in the form of a word (or phrase). Any given concept involves a definition and its constituent attributes, as well as the social and historical cases by which he exemplified the concept.

Two dimensions of conceptual analysis require further elaboration. First, concepts are not reducible only to a word/phrase. Authors also will articulate the sense(s) of the concept through synonyms, metaphors, and other associated expressions (Skinner; Gunnell; Hampsher-Monk et al.). Onomasiology is the linguistic practice that examines how concepts are articulated in different, but related ways (Grondelaers et al.; Pearson). Second, authors might redefine a concept and/or apply it in different ways. An author’s use of a concept, therefore, may not be stable over time.

The concept and its onomasiological indicators are operationally manifested in the author's word usage across one text or many. In analyses, arguments, and personal expressions, an author patterns texts via concepts articulated in meaningfully varied ways. Such variations can involve changes in the original component word order of the concept's definition and application, as well as additions and subtractions of previous component words, the substitutions of previous component words by (near) synonyms, among other linguistic possibilities. All such possibilities constitute the associated expressions of a concept. Accordingly, such expressions will entail repetitions themselves—repetitions of words and phrases that we can observe as patterns in the texts. Insofar as the concept is repeated via associated expressions and thereby can be delineated by their repeated words, regular expressions can be created to match the patterns formed by those repetitions.

Conceptual analysis, as pursued herein, has other benefits. First, exploring one concept might point us toward other dimensions of the idea that are not necessarily included in the strictest sense. Such are what can be called “companion ideas” (which I will discuss in the Implications section.) Second, the concept, its component words, and associated expressions derive from Du Bois himself rather than from words not contained in his own lexis. Accordingly, when conducting interpretive research, we as scholars can minimize the imposition of words and concepts that are not present in the author's own writings. This in turn hopefully will help us to minimize the effects of our positionalities as researchers interpreting the ideas of others. As a White man, my daily life experiences would be quite different from Du Bois’ and those with other intersecting identities. My point of view will not necessarily coincide with others; my voice cannot speak for them.

Regexing via Concordancer

I apply regular expression searches via concordancer in order to locate patterns in the texts in ways that supplement, not supplant, other approaches in the digital humanities. Various computational techniques have been developed and refined to locate patterns formed by the concepts themselves, such as the distant reading techniques of topic modelling (Jockers; Underwood), or the corpus analytical techniques of collocation studies (Sinclair).

I liken regexing via concordancer to a combination of close and distant forms of reading. My technique allows me to address several aspects of the complementary relationship between those two approaches (Jin; Rockwell and Sinclair). Once a corpus is created—itself a task of immense proportions—then the regexing techniques can process large amounts of texts in the corpus or even in one large text. From such processing we can ascertain which documents contain the word or words we seek. This then is the distant-reading aspect of regexing via concordancer. The close-reading aspect occurs next.

Figure 1: AntConc 3.5.9 Concordancer (Screen capture by the author).

Among the results of the searches we can decide which matches require closer focus, whether we read the co-text surrounding the search match—which is displayed in the Key Word In Context (KWIC) window of the concordancer (see Figure 1 for a screen capture of the AntConc 3.5.9 concordancer, and Figure 2 for a screen capture of #LancsBox 6)—or access the full text itself (which is often available as a concordancer feature). Such a close-reading procedure is called disambiguation and helps us to sort the matches relevant to our conceptual analysis from the irrelevant ones.

Figure 2: #LancsBox 6 Concordancer (Screen capture by the author).

In this section I sketch the three elements of regexing a corpus via a concordancer, starting with the differences between my computational technique and others.

Some Differences with Other Methods

Despite their value, many computational techniques possess certain assumptions or protocols that make it difficult to explore the intricacies of how authors express and expand their ideas in various ways across texts. In short, those techniques make it difficult to study the onomasiological aspects of an author's concepts. We can observe four differences between regexing via concordancer and other computational techniques.

Collocation windows benefit studies that seek the co-occurrence of words near each other as a means to understand their conjoined meaning. Corpus linguists typically set the span around the node word to five words, sometimes a few more (Sinclair; see also De Bolla), as does a large-scale project like the Genealogies of Knowledge (Luz and Sheehan). The goals of their informative projects, however, differ from mine. A narrow collocation window makes it difficult to examine complex, conceptually associated expressions arranged across sentence and paragraph boundaries.

Minimum word frequencies refer to a researcher-chosen threshold, below which the word type or word token would not be included in the analysis. In seeking themes across a corpus some techniques assume that major patterns in a corpus are correlated with a larger number of any given type or token within the corpus itself. Such a research assumption, however, would make it impossible to locate a phrase like “democratic despotism” because in my modest-sized corpus the concept appears only twice among almost three million words.

Stop word lists assist in the processing of large numbers of texts because they remove words considered irrelevant, such as “of”, “from”, “the”, and even “no” and “never”. However, in my research on Du Bois’ conceptual expressions, some of the listed words do not help. For example, in my studies of Du Bois’ concept of the unknowable, I search for phrases such as “can never know” which is associated in a few some cases with that idea. Yet if “never” is excluded via a stop-word list, then my efforts are hindered. (Obviously, I could exclude relevant words found on stop-word lists).

The bag-of-words model underpins various text processing approaches, including various digital humanities techniques like topic modelling. A database of words is created by extracting each of the tokens without regard to context or whether they are part of a phrase. This aids in processing the documents for some research projects (Gavin et al.). A phrase like “democratic despotism,” however, could be treated as two distinct words without any recognition that the two words constitute a concept in Du Bois’ lexicon. For my project, accordingly, textual context is important when studying how Du Bois expresses the concept.

Concordancers

Concordancers are powerful software programs, often used by corpus linguists, language translators, and language instructors (Bradley; Tribble). In addition to applying the regex techniques I describe in this paper, with such tools we can conduct frequency counts of words in a document or corpus; find collocations (i.e., words situated near a search term); and sequentially list groups of 2, 3, 4, or more words (n-grams). Concordancers also include the ability to use statistical measures by which to quantitatively study a corpus.

I regularly use two freely available, popular concordancers: AntConc 3.5.9 (Anthony) and #LancsBox 6.0 (Brezina et al.). Both incorporate Perl-Compatible Regex Expressions (PCRE) for regex searching. As is typical with concordancers in general, #LancsBox and AntConc differ in their respective PCRE implementations, which in practice produces slightly different search results. Thus, I usually employ both in my projects. Below, I will note any needed adjustments to the regexes. For my concordancer-mediated regexing techniques both programs provide KWIC-viewing capabilities that allow for the disambiguation of a word with multiple meanings within the co-text of the matches. Also, both provide full-text access to the documents of the corpus.

Regexes

Regular expressions are often used by computer programmers (Goyvaerts and Levithan; Friedl) and corpus linguists (Sinclair; Stubbs; Tognini-Bonelli). Compared to more standard forms of wildcard searches, some regexes can be complex to create and read. Regexes, nonetheless, are valuable because of their versatility in matching text in source code and documents, as well as because of their capacity to validate user input in software and web page interfaces. (For excellent web-based tutorials visit rexegg.com and regular-expressions.info).

This project utilizes two types of regexes: I call them node word and proximity regexes. Node word regexes search the text unidirectionally for one word or a phrase (e.g., {re-1} and {re-2} listed below). Proximity regexes can be bi-directional and search for words near each other within a designated span, such as twenty or thirty words (e.g., {re-3} and {re-4} listed below). Proximity regexes cross sentence and paragraph boundaries which is a beneficial feature when studying Du Bois. He often connected ideas together across adjacent linguistic structures, when conducting his analyses and formulating his arguments. Disambiguation of the search results can discover this.

The developers of the two concordancers discussed herein have furthered improved the software programs for performing corpus linguistic research. Unfortunately, the proximity-regex-based studies that I conduct cannot be implemented in the newer versions. Regarding AntConc my proximity regexes will work with AntConc v.3.5.9 (Anthony), but do not work in the newer version, AntConc v.4x. The latest version searches a database of words extracted from the texts rather than the texts themselves, which version 3.5.9. does. Regarding #LancsBox, the latest release, #LancsBox X, does not allow regexes to be directly entered as a search string (Brezina and Platt). It uses a Corpus Query Language which involves a different search protocol disallowing some of the more extensive capabilities of regexing. In addition, #LancsBox X currently has no feature to access the full-text of the document by clicking on the node word. Because the new versions do not implement the powerful and valuable regexes listed herein, I discuss #LancsBox 6.0 and AntConc v3.5.9 below. Both of those previous versions are freely available on their respective websites.

The Corpus

I described my non-representative Du Bois corpus in the introduction above. Here I will indicate that corpus creation is the vital precondition to any hope for success in concordancer-mediated regexing. All the electronic texts must be standardized in some way so that regexes can locate the search terms (Davies; Reppen). Typographical errors, and misspellings can be noted within the documents, for example, by editorial comments that provide a standardized word for the regex to match. Moreover, we might wish to maintain a list of variant spellings so that our regexes can locate them. (For example, »co-?[oö]perative« matches three spellings of the same word found in Du Bois’ writings).

The overview completed, the specific research goal remains. Did Du Bois use the concept of “democratic despotism” in other writings besides “The African Roots of War"?

Work Flow and Specific Regexes

I put forth one set of replicable steps by which to proceed with this project. Du Bois’ own words form the basis for this work flow. After running the regexes, I examine the co-text that surrounds the node word (search term) within in the concordance line displayed in the KWIC-view window; also, I might peruse the full text of those paragraphs containing the match or near it. Such examinations further our project goals by disambiguating the non-applicable matches. This disambiguation process helps to identify homonyms of the search term/phrase, and/or unrelated usages of the word, neither of which would be salient to our project and thus must be ignored. In addition, regular expressions might need to be rewritten after we examine the search results. Indeed, regexes that allow for variations of spelling and word forms also can match irrelevant words. For example, seeking “election: or electoral” via »elect« or »elect\w+« will find “electric” among Du Bois’ writings. Accordingly, regexes would need revision (consider {re-9} below). The regexes herein represent only some of the numerous possible text patterns to seek.

We start our search with the term “democratic despotism” itself:

{re-1}

(?i)democratic[\s\-]despotism

Or we could check for variants of each word as part of the phrase:

{re-2}

(?i)democra\w+[\s\-]despot\w*

The phrase occurred twice among the texts of my corpus. It first appeared in “The African Roots of War” in 1915 (AROW), and then once more in several sentences, repeated verbatim, in his 1930 book Africa, It's Geography, People, & Products (AGPP) (see Figure 1).

To apply these regexes in #LancsBox remove the modifier flag for case insensitivity »(?i)«. Then enclose the regex within forward slashes, as so: »/regex/i«, appending the »i« only if case insensitivity is desired. These changes hold for the other regexes presented below using the »(?i)« modifier flag (view Figure 2).

Here is a proximity regex that seeks “democratic,” “democracy,” and their word forms vis-à-vis “despot,” “despotism” and their word forms within 30 words of each other, and vice versa (i.e., bi-directionally).

{re-3}

(?i)(?(DEFINE)(?'grp1'democra\w+)(?'grp2'despot\w*)(?'prox'\W+(?:\w+\W+){0,30}?))(?P>grp1)(?P>prox)(?P>grp2)|(?P>grp2)(?P>prox)(?P>grp1)

The regex located relevant matches in the two documents containing the specific phrase (AROW; AGPP). The »(DEFINE)« allows us to more easily change various search parameters in the regex string. For example, we can change the distance between search terms (»{0,30}«) or change the search terms (also called subpatterns) in »'grp1'« or »'grp2'«.

If one's concordancer does not allow DEFINE for assigning and referencing subpatterns within the regex, then the following substitutes for regex {re-3}.

{re-4}

(?i)democra\w+\W+(?:\w+\W+){0,30}?despot\w*|despot\w*\W+(?:\w+\W+){0,30}?democra\w+

Referring to the quotation where Du Bois initially wrote “democratic despotism” (AROW), I list the component words associated with the relevant and related paragraphs in which Du Bois defined and applied the concept in that essay:

·         democracy                   democratic

·         aristocracy

·         darker races

·         Asian               African                        Black               white

·         workingman

·         exploit

·         nation

·         capital              labor

Some of Du Bois’ words will become the search terms included in later regexes. In those regexes “labor” becomes »labou?r«.

To match any three words within 30 words of each other we can use a more complex kind of regular expression. The regexes here, {re-5}, {re-6}, and {re-7}, are similar to regex {re-3} because they permit us to more easily modify the search terms during our research process. According to Goyvaert and Levithan (352–354), these regexes may not work as intended in various regular expression implementations. The regexes, however, do work in AntConc v3.5.9 and #LancsBox 6.0. #LancsBox returns most of the same results as AntConc but with slight differences. Accordingly, I recommend using at least two concordancers on the same corpus or text. I present them here as examples and templates for future searches.

{re-5}

(?i)(?:\b(?>democra\w+()|race\w*()|exploit\w*()|(?>\1|\2|\3)\w+)\b\W*?){0,30}\1\2\3

Regex {re-5} returned two matches that did not include any associated expressions of the concept.

{re-6}

(?i)(?:\b(?>nation\w*()|race\w*()|exploit\w*()|(?>\1|\2|\3)\w+)\b\W*?){0,30}\1\2\3

Regex {re-6} returned five matches, but none included any associated expressions of the concept.

{re-7}

(?i)(?:\b(?>nation\w*()|capital\w*()|labou?r\w*()|(?>\1|\2|\3)\w+)\b\W*?){0,30}\1\2\3

Regex {re-7} returned 21 matches among 12 documents. Two texts contained the explicit term “democratic despotism” (AROW; AGPP), but no texts included any associated expressions of the concept. Other combinations of three words also could be sought in future projects.

I will now create several node word regexes {re-8} and {re-9} to search for synonyms of, and related words to, specific parts of the phrase “democratic despotism,” such as “democracy” and its variants.

{re-8}

(?i)\bdemocra\w+\b

Regex {re-8} generated 1976 matches in 118 different files. Much disambiguation of co-text or full text was needed in order to find some of the synonymous ways by which Du Bois expressed democracy. We read these components of democracy from Du Bois’ works:

  • franchise—suffrage

  • election—ballot

  • vote—voter—voting

This list is represented in regex {re-9}.

{re-9}

(?i)\b(franchise|vot|suffrage|elect[^r]|ballot)\w*\b

The negative character class »[^r]« is designed to exclude such words as “electric” or “electricity” which Du Bois wrote at times (as I discussed above).

With the previous regexes {re-8} and {re-9} we also find, while disambiguating, that Du Bois referred to “citizens,” “citizenship,” “rights,” “governance,” and “government,” as well as references to democracy as a political system. As will be discussed below, Du Bois mentioned “world democracy” a few times, both with and without a hyphen.

Continuing with regex creation, I will search for synonyms of, and words related to, “workingman” and “labor,” which are component words of the definition of democratic despotism. Search for these node words:

{re-10}

(?i)\b(labou?r|worker|working)\w*\b

Regex {re-10} will match, for example, “laborer,” “labourer,” “laboring,” as well as “worker,” “workers,” or “working” (which forms compound nouns with “people,” “woman,” or “man”). This regex returned 7405 matches among 180 documents, including irrelevant ones like “laboratory,” “workings,” and “labored.” Regex {re-10} provides the search terms for later regexes.

Regarding the second part of the concept being studied, we can seek “despotism” and its variants:

{re-11}

(?i)despot\w*

Regex {re-11} found 37 matches among 15 texts. The following are valuable words associated near despot and its variants:

  • aristocracy—nobles

  • monarchies—kings

  • tyranny—dictatorship

  • imperialist—imperial

We could also search for any other expressions of the previous list, with a regex such as this.

{re-12}

(?i)\b(despot|aristocra|monarch|king|nob|tyran|imperial|dictator)\w*\b

Although such a pattern could locate many more possible variants, only the words presented in regex {re-12} will form the basis for further regexes.

The preceding leads to several valuable proximity regexes. With these we can pursue the associated expressions of democratic despotism. Regex {re-13} seeks synonyms of »democra\w+« vis-à-vis synonyms of »despot\w*« within 30 words of each other.

{re-13}

(?i)(?(DEFINE)(?'grp1'\b(democra|franchise|vot|suffrage|elect[^r]|ballot)\w*\b)(?'grp2'\b(despot|aristocra|monarch|king|tyran|imperial|dictator)\w*\b)(?'prox'\W+(?:\w+\W+){0,30}?))(?P>grp1)(?P>prox)(?P>grp2)|(?P>grp2)(?P>prox)(?P>grp1)

Regex {re-13} found 250 matches among 46 texts. Disambiguation was necessary. I will discuss the very few findings of associated expressions of democratic despotism in the next section.

Because #LancsBox's regex engine is not able to define subpatterns, here is a bi-directional proximity regex that substitutes for {re-13}:

{re-14}

/\b(democra|franchise|vot|suffrage|elect[^r]|ballot)\w*\b\W+(?:\w+\W+){0,30}?\b(despot|aristocra|monarch|king|tyran|imperial|dictator)\w*\b|\b(despot|aristocra|monarch|king|tyran|imperial|dictator)\w*\b\W+(?:\w+\W+){0,30}?\b(democra|franchise|vot|suffrage|elect[^r]|ballot)\w*\b/i

Regex {re-15} seeks the associated expressions of democratic despotism by means of searching synonyms of »labou?r\w*« vis-à-vis synonyms of »despot\w*« within 30 words of each other.

{re-15}

(?i)(?(DEFINE)(?'grp1'\b(labou?r|worker|working)\w*\b)(?'grp2'\b(despot|aristocra|monarch|king|tyran|imperial|dictator)\w*\b)(?'prox'\W+(?:\w+\W+){0,30}?))(?P>grp1)(?P>prox)(?P>grp2)|(?P>grp2)(?P>prox)(?P>grp1)

Regex {re-15} found 286 matches among 44 texts. Disambiguation led to one finding of an associated expression of democratic despotism.

Here is a bi-directional proximity regex to substitute in #LancsBox for regex {re-15}:

{re-16}

/\b(labou?r|worker|working)\w*\b\W+(?:\w+\W+){0,30}?\b(despot|aristocra|monarch|king|tyran|imperial|dictator)\w*\b|\b(despot|aristocra|monarch|king|tyran|imperial|dictator)\w*\b\W+(?:\w+\W+){0,30}?\b(labou?r|worker|working)\w*\b/i

What examples of the concept's associated expressions did I find?

Discussion of the Results

My research located three cases among the documents of the corpus where Du Bois conveyed the concept via associated expressions without so naming it explicitly as democratic despotism. Du Bois did critique oppression of peoples of colour in countries and regions around the world and in the USA, but (as it relates to my corpus) not usually or specifically with the dynamics designated by “democratic despotism.”

Regexes {re-5), {re-6}, and {re-7}, which seek three words near each other, did not yield any alternate expressions of democratic despotism. Further combinations can be attempted.

Regexes {re-13) and {re-14}—proximity regexes seeking synonyms of “democratic” vis-à-vis synonyms of “despotism"—located four different matches in the corpus. In 1924 Du Bois wrote:

The dullest European wage-earner will gradually come to see that by upholding Imperial Aggression over the darker peoples by his political vote and his growing economic power he is but fastening tighter on himself the rule of the Rich [...]. (WND1 113)

In this quotation “imperial” and “vote” were necessary to find this passage. Note that “wage-earner” as a synonym is present; this was not found in earlier node word searches for “labor,” “labour,” or “workingman.”

As regards the second match located by regexes {re-13) and {re-14}, I argue that democratic despotism is invoked by inference in a passage that Du Bois penned in 1945:

[W]ithin the imperial nations, the status of the colonies has been determined largely by the attitude of the mass of the working people, whereas in Spain, where workers were disfranchised and had little power, colonial labor conditions prevailed even in the mother country. (CDCP 65)

Du Bois indicated that the Spanish workers were not able to vote which, within the sentence's context, implied that voting was one way that the attitude of workers in the metropoles could influence what happened in the colonies. To avoid repeating similar-sounding material, I will not quote the last two matches located by regexes {re-13) and {re-14}; they may be found in “The Negro Mind Reaches Out” (NMRR 388), and “The Future of Europe in Africa” (FEAF 188).

The proximity regexes {re-15) and {re-16}, which sought synonyms of “labor” vis-à-vis synonyms of “despotism,” located one instance in my corpus. It implicated democratic despotism obliquely:

All these centers of civilization envied England the wealth and power built upon her imperial colonial system. One looking at European imperialism in 1900 therefore should have looked first at the depressed peoples. One would have found them also among the laboring classes in Europe and America, living in slums behind a façade of democracy, nourished on a false education which lauded the triumphs of the industrial undertaker, made the millionaire the hero of modern life, and taught youth that success was wealth[...]. (WAAF 16-17)

In this quotation “imperialism” and “laboring” were matched by the regex in order to find the passage. With the phrase “façade of democracy,” Du Bois arguably was invoking the idea of democratic despotism.

After such results what have we learned about Du Bois from conceptual analysis via regexing?

Implications: Theoretical and Methodological

The paucity of associated expressions of democratic despotism does not hinder my interpretation of the concept's theoretical implications, or my evaluation of the regexing technique's benefits for research. The more frequent a word is used in a corpus does not necessarily help us to interpret how an author understands and acts in the world. Three implications emerge from the concordancer-mediated research presented here.

World Democracy

Democracy for Du Bois is not contained and not implemented solely within one country. International boundaries are transgressed by policies that exploit others via colonialism and imperialism—which his concept of democratic despotism entails. As a consequence, Du Bois called for “world-democracy.” In “The African Roots of War,” which inspired my initial study, we read the following quotation many paragraphs after the ones naming “democratic despotism.”

We shall not drive war from this world until we treat them [Black persons] as free and equal citizens in a world-democracy of all races and nations. Impossible? Democracy is a method of doing the impossible. It is the only method yet discovered of making the education and development of all men a matter of all men's desperate desire. It is putting firearms in the hands of a child with the object of compelling the child's neighbors to teach him not only the real and legitimate uses of a dangerous tool but the uses of himself in all things. (AROW par.31)

Du Bois put forward the ideal of world democracy, here and in other texts, as one way to challenge the oppression of democratic despotism. To uncover this passage, I performed close reading; the proximity regexes presented in this paper did not match it.

On the practical side, Du Bois did discuss some of the contours of implementing a world democracy with his activism in international organizations to promote peace and end war (Lewis). Moreover, the promotion of democracy and democratic norms extending beyond national borders is discussed by recent scholars (Cunningham): for example, some call it “cosmopolitan democracy” (Held) or “global democracy” (Young 9, 265-271).

Companion Ideas

Companion ideas can emerge when disambiguating the results list generated by node word and proximity regex searching. Among the matches we may notice expressions of democracy in relation to oppression but without the international dimensions. Such companion ideas are valuable because they indicate how Du Bois applied democracy vis-à-vis oppression to situations other than cross-national ones.

An important example is abolition democracy, which utilizes many of the elements of democratic despotism, but does not exactly embrace all of the salient characteristics of the original concept because it does not explicitly reference an international dynamic. Nevertheless, abolition democracy speaks to the necessity of ending slavery, as well as the creation of supportive social and political institutions, all designed to further democracy in the US (BR). Such a concept is to be expected because Du Bois criticized White supremacism and racism across his life, whether in the US or abroad. The concept has gained further applications nowadays. For example, Angela Y. Davis and others refer to abolition democracy in terms of abolishing the prison-industrial system in order to pursue the promises of democracy.

Although beyond the scope of the present paper, companion ideas in relation to democratic despotism or other concepts merit further study.

Regexing as Technique

Regexing raises two methodological issues that affect our research efforts. First, proximity regexes of two or more terms can reduce the number of hits and potentially find more relevant matches than with single node words alone. But there is always the possibility that we may miss some combination of words that we did not explicitly include. For example, further research on democratic despotism would need to include other components of its definition not studied here, including words referring to race, as well as words like “nation” and “capital” and their synonyms. Such words can be regexed in relation to democracy and exploitation. Second, various proximity distances need to be explored. What lies in the texts beyond twenty or thirty words of separation between the search terms? Du Bois often referenced concepts across the boundaries of sentences and paragraphs via various types of pronouns. There exist, of course, other complexities with regex creation and application that would require a different article.

In Closing

This essay is part of a larger, on-going project that I have pursued in recent years. I plan to add more texts to the corpus from Du Bois’ copious writings. Such work takes much effort; a team would hasten the work. Also, I plan to continue my inquiries into Du Bois’ ideas and their multiple expressions through the techniques of regexing via concordancer. Indeed, I have conducted such research on his concepts of the unknowable and “science of human action” (Williams “One Challenge;” “Reading at a Distance”).

Conceptual analysis via regexing is only one among many valuable research techniques. Speaking personally, regexing allows me to remain close to the written evidence of Du Bois’ thinking, to concentrate on the words and arguments he penned, all the while accessing large numbers of his works as one assemblage. This technique will not necessarily find every instance of a concept and its associated expressions. Yet with millions of word tokens to read, regexing offers a capacious technique and a replicable, effective procedure by which we can explore the ideas of Du Bois and others across time and texts.

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Acknowledgments

I have benefitted greatly from the assistance of Dr. Caroline Winter, University of Victoria, British Columbia, as well as the splendid efforts and success of the organisers of the 2022 Digital Humanities Summer Institute. In addition, I appreciated the constructive comments made by the anonymous reviewers; they helped me to clarify various parts of my paper.

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