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Franco Moretti's work on ‘the great unread’ raises serious questions for any field. In the field of new imperial history, I am especially interested in how the use of distant reading to access “the great unread’ can inform our study of imperial and colonial discourses. To stimulate research in this direction, I conducted a small-scale case study to explore the methodological considerations of applying distant reading to imperial discourse analysis. I performed a distant reading on a small sample of the British Library’s collection of digitized nineteenth century monographs to trace how understandings of the idea of a ‘civilizing mission’ changed over the century. My findings indicate that a core understanding of the civilizing mission as related to agriculture, education, and peace remained constant throughout the century, while peripheral concepts of the civilizing mission appear to have changed from tangible social values such as commerce and rule of law to intangible values such as honesty and liberty. Based on the methodological choices I made, primarily due to the small scale of this case study, these findings should be approached with caution. However, they illustrate how probing ‘the great unread’ can generate new research questions and provide nuanced contexts of conceptual change in which to locate the study of civilizing discourses.
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