Wednesday, December 27, 2006

framing and statistically improbable phrases

one of amazon's text analysis devices that has fascinated me for a while is the statistically improbable phrases (SIP), which in textual analysis appear or emerge as relatively unique to a given text. that is, amazon makes the full text of certain books available online for searching, excerpting, etc. it also has software that performs textual analyses of each book yielding most frequently used words, for example, along with "statistically improbable phrases," that is, phrases that appear relatively unique to that book. of course this uniqueness is never entirely the case, so what's fascinating is how certain SIPs create metaphors and, as cal berkeley linguist and political strategist george lakoff would have it, evoke frames that are rooted in different contexts.

for example, the phrase "intellectual invasion." lakoff would look at how this phrase is essentially metaphorical, that is, it equates ideas with warfare. this is not an uncommon metaphor -- we speak of a "battle of ideas" or a "battle of wills" all the time. lakoff goes further by saying that such a metaphor evokes a cognitive frame, a way of organizing perception and experience that allows that metaphor to make sense and appeal to us and our values. thus, in an "intellectual invasion" there is an invader and an invadee, there are soldiers and weapons, there are strategies and tactics, there are outcomes of victory and defeat.

now in the different contexts in which the phrase "intellectual invasion" appears -- in this case, as SIPs in five different books in the amazon's data -- different frames will be evoked.
  • 1. The Challenge of Fundamentalism: Political Islam and the New World Disorder by Bassam Tibi (U Cal Press, 1998) in a passage like the following "Basically, religious fundamentalists denounce cultural modernity as a virus that has befallen Islam and contributed to the weakening of Islamic civilization. Political Islam purports to reverse this condition. Confronting cultural modernity thus becomes a struggle against the west, in particular a struggle against 'the intellectual invasion of the World of Islam'" (73).
  • 2. Islam Between Culture and Politics, also by Bassam Tibi (Palgrave Macmillan, 2002) in a similar context or with a similar frame.
  • 3. Gender & Knowledge: Contribution of Gender Perspectives to Intellectual Formations by Ferial Ghazoul (American University in Cairo Press, 2000) in the following passage: "The inferiority complex born of belonging to humble mothers who were reduced to the level of ignominy by our forefathers, which cultural colonialism and intellectual invasion implanted firmly in the consciousness and mentality of the East, is well known" (200). similar frame, perhaps redoubled to include islam and feminism.
  • 4. The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA, by James D. Watson, where its usage is pretty general even though the broad frame is one of western scientific discovery.
  • 5. Facing Shame: Families in Recovery, by Merle A. Fossum and Marilyn J. Mason (Norton, 1989) in the following passage: "Intellectual boundary violations result from parents' invading the boundary by criticizing, blaming, mindreading, or mindraping.... Another form of intellectual invasion is the 'prying parent'--the overly interested parent who wants to know everything about the child's activities and thoughts and feelings (from the pretense of caring)." (73-74)
of course statistically these five books do not prove much since only a fraction (though i wonder how great or small a fraction) of all published book get into the amazon database (raising another fascinating question of what books get in and what don't, who decides, how much it costs, etc.).

but clearly the islamic context is dominant, and tibi in particular is getting this phrase from islamic scholars, "two exponents of political Islam," jarisha and zaibaq, authors of Asalib al-ghaZu al-fikri It al-'alain al-Islaini / Methods of the Intellectual Invasion of the Muslim World. so there's a sense in which tibi is sort of single-handedly translating this phrase from islamic into english scholarship.

nevertheless, what's fascinating to me is that this frame should be equally suited to islamic political thought, western science and famliy psychology. does this tell us something about ourselves cognitively?

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