Marital Captivity: An Update on the Divorce Corpus

1385554520maastrichtuniversityscholarIn November, I will deliver a paper as part of the International MARICAP Conference in the Faculty of Law, Maastricht University, The Netherlands, which is this year titled ‘Marital Captivity: Divorce, Religion and Human Rights’ (see here). This conference will bring together academics and professionals from a range of disciplines including legal anthropology, (international) family law and humans rights law, and of course linguistics. My paper will be part of a multi-disciplinary panel on marital captivity in practice and will focus on a recently built pilot corpus of 30 Christian sermons on divorce, which I am currently poring over. When I am working on a project, I tend to try to deliver multiple versions or even the same version of a paper at several conferences. In this case, I’m presenting an early (read: very rough) version of this paper at the 8th Biennial Inter-Varietal Applied Corpus Studies (IVACS) conference in Bath in June (see here). I will also present a more in-depth version at the Inaugural Lydia Symposium in September (on site at Greystone in Coraopolis, PA USA; details forthcoming).

A brief word about the corpus: In the long-term, I hope to build a large corpus of transcribed sermons on various topics under the umbrella of ‘women and family,’ a venture that will require substantial funding. As a first step, I’ve constructed this pilot corpus focusing on divorce, using funding from a Faculty Small Grant. The size of my corpus was constrained, quite practically, by the amount of money I had for transcription. I decided to focus my attention on the 100 most popular sermons on divorce on SermonAudio and, using various criteria, narrow that list down to 30 (more about factors affecting corpus construction here). Roughly speaking, the first step was to identify the first sermon by each speaker appearing in the top 100 list. If that first sermon was #1 in a 2-part series, both of which appeared in the top 100, I included the whole series. Longer series were not included. I eliminated other sermons because of poor sound quality and/or because of miscategorisation. In all, my aim was to achieve balance and representativeness. I did not listen to any sermon beyond the first few minutes during the selection process, and most of the speakers were unknown to me, which allowed me to select fairly objectively. The resulting corpus of 30 sermons (1,538 minutes) captures, fairly well I think, the most frequently accessed perspectives on divorce by conservative Christians on SermonAudio.

It is early days with this corpus as I only just last week received the final transcriptions, but already there is so much to say. While I am excited about sharing my findings and getting feedback from colleagues at these various venues, this is, in many ways, my favorite stage of a project. Everything is so fresh and new. I’ve already run the corpus through WordSmith Tools and cast my eye over the wordlist. I’ve also created a few concordances using high-ranking words in the wordlist. But since this is a small pilot corpus, I’m also reading through each text carefully to identify features that might not be immediately obvious from quantitative analysis. Using this combination of methods, I’ve already noted the seeming importance of such features as modality, i.e. ‘You cannot divorce your wife for…’, ‘The wife should not divorce her husband for…’, the significance of story,  and the use of exaggeration and repetition, among other features about which I will be blogging, writing, and speaking over the rest of 2016. I note that at least one speaker in the corpus has already made it quite clear that women have no right to write or speak authoritatively about ‘a subject of theological importance and worth any merit’, which suggests there will be plenty to work through here.

Those interested in this topic may want to read more about another conference, entitled ‘Tradition is the New Radical: Remapping Masculinities and Femininities in Theology’, to be held at Lund University from 12-14 Dec 2016 (see here). Abstract deadline is 15 June.