Religion, law and national identity in the archived Web: new article

I’m delighted to say that an article of mine has appeared this week in a new collection of essays, edited by Niels Brügger and Ralph Schroeder: The Web as History (London: UCL Press, 2017, ISBN: 9781911307563).

My article is ‘Religious discourse in the archived web: Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, and the sharia law controversy of 2008’ (pp. 190-203). It examines the controversy over a public lecture given by the archbishop on the interaction of civil and religious law, but from a new angle: the imprint the controversy left in the archive of the UK web. It makes particular use of British Library data documenting the link structure of the .uk country code top level domain for the period 1996-2010.

The whole thing is available as an Open Access PDF, but here’s my conclusion.

It is a brave historian who attempts to interpret the very recent past, as opposed to merely documenting it. As with most aspects of very recent history, the full significance of Rowan Williams’ lecture about sharia law will only become clear as the passage of time grants the historian a sufficiently long perspective from which to view it. An exhaustive qualitative examination of both the published record, and memoirs and private papers that are as yet inaccessible (not least the papers of the archbishop himself, not due to be released until 2038) will be needed to place the episode in its fullest context. Without these, we cannot yet know how changes in patterns of communication that are observable in the archived web were motivated, or how opinions expressed online related to broader patterns of social and intellectual change. However, even if it is difficult to explain changing patterns of religious discourse on the web, we may nonetheless document those changes.

First, the sharia law episode prompted a step-change in the levels of attention paid to the domain of the archbishop of Canterbury, as evidenced by the incidence of inbound links, and also a broadening of the types of hosts that contained those links. Second, a comparison of the inbound links to the Canterbury domain to that of the archbishop of York suggests that the historic privilege given to the views of Canterbury over those of York was extended onto the web. Regardless of their actual status in relation to each other within the Church of England, the media and the public at large seemed only to pay attention to Canterbury. Finally, a qualitative examination of the site of the British National Party shows that at least one organization, with a very particular concern with the place of Islam in British life, certainly took new account of the person of the archbishop as a result of the 2008 controversy.

This chapter has also sought to use the episode as a means of demonstrating both the potential for historians to utilize the archived web to address older questions in a new way, and some of the particular issues of method that web archives present. At one level, the methodological complications presented here – understanding the meaning of a link from one resource to another, say – are peculiar to the archived web and must be understood anew. As with all other born- digital sources, there is work to be done amongst historians in understanding these issues of method, and in acquiring the skills needed to handle data at scale. At the same time, it is part of the historian’s stock- in- trade to assess the provenance of a body of sources, its completeness and the contexts in which those sources were transmitted and received. The task at hand is in fact the application of older critical methods to a new kind of source: a challenge which historians have confronted and overcome before.

This chapter has also tried to show some of the potential available to historians, should they accept the challenge. In the study of public controversy, the archived web allows the detection of changing communication patterns at scale that would be impossible using a traditional qualitative method. It also enables the detection of attention being paid online in places where a scholar would not think to look. More generally, the chapter has attempted to outline an approach that combines quantitative readings of the links in web archives with qualitative examination of particular subsets of resources. When dealing with a new superabundance of historical sources, a combination of distant and close reading will be required to understand the archived web.

Doing (very) contemporary history with the archived Web: Oxford, June 9th

Details of a lecture I shall give next week:

Title: Doing (very) contemporary history with the archived Web: Rowan Williams, archbishop of Canterbury, and the sharia law controversy of 2008

Date: Thursday, 9th June, 1pm
Venue: Weston Library Lecture Theatre, University of Oxford
Booking details: booking is advisable but not essential. It’s free.

Abstract: The decade following the turn of the millennium may have seen an epochal shift in the nature of the discussion of religion in public life in the UK. The 9/11 attacks in the USA, and the terrorist bombings in London in 2005 prompted an outpouring of anxiety concerning the place of Islam in British society. The period also saw the coming to prominence of the ‘New Atheism’ associated with figures such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. The uniquely privileged position of Christianity, and the Church of England in particular, was also under greater scrutiny than had been the case for decades.

Wikimedia Commons, CC BY SA 2.0, by Brian (of Toronto)
Wikimedia Commons, CC BY SA 2.0, by Brian (of Toronto)

This paper examines a crucial episode of public controversy closely connected to each of these trends: a lecture given in 2008 by Rowan Williams, archbishop of Canterbury, on the accommodation of Islamic sharia law into British law. Using archived web content from the UK Web Archive, held by the British Library, it examines the controversy as it played out on the UK web. It argues that the episode prompted a step-change in both the levels of attention paid to the archbishop’s web domain, and a broadening of the types of organisation which took notice of him. At the same time, it also suggests that the historic media habit of privileging the public statements of the archbishop over those of any other British faith leader was extended onto the web.

The paper uses techniques of both close and distant reading: on the one hand, aggregate link analysis of the whole .uk web domain, and on the other hand, micro analysis of individual domains and pages. In doing so, it demonstrates some of the various ways in which contemporary historians will very soon need to use the archived web to address older questions in a new way, in a new context of super-abundant data.

Reading old news in the web archive, distantly

[The substance of this post has now been published.]

One of the defining moments of Rowan Williams’ time as archbishop of Canterbury was the public reaction to his lecture in February 2008 on the interaction between English family law and Islamic shari’a law. As well as focussing attention on real and persistent issues of the interaction of secular law and religious practice, it also prompted much comment on the place of the Church of England in public life, the role of the archbishop, and on Williams personally. I tried to record a sample of the discussion in an earlier post.

Of course, a great deal of the media firestorm happened online. I want to take the episode as an example of the types of analysis that the systematic archiving of the web now makes possible: a new kind of what Franco Moretti called ‘distant reading.’

The British Library holds a copy of the holdings of the Internet Archive for the .uk top level domain for the period 1996-2010. One of the secondary datasets that the Library has made available is the Host Link Graph. With this data, it’s possible to begin examining how different parts of the UK web space referred to others. Which hosts linked to others, and from when until when ?

This graph shows the total number of unique hosts that were found linking at least once to archbishopofcanterbury.org in each year.

Canterbury unique linking hosts - bar

My hypothesis was that there should be more unique hosts linking to the archbishop’s site after February 2008, which is by and large borne out. The figure for 2008 is nearly 50% higher than for the previous year, and nearly 25% higher than the previous peak in 2004. This would suggest that a significant number of hosts that had not previously linked to the Canterbury site did so in 2008, quite possibly in reaction to the shari’a story.

What I had not expected to see was the total number fall back to trend in 2009 and 2010. I had rather expected to see the absolute numbers rise in 2008 and then stay at similar levels – that is, to see the links persist. The drop suggests that either large numbers of sites were revised to remove links that were thought to be ‘ephemeral’ (that is to say, actively removed), or that there is a more general effect in that certain types of “news” content are not (in web archivist terms) self-archiving. [Update 02/07/2014 – see comment below ]

The next step is for me to look in detail at those domains that linked only once to Canterbury, in 2008, and to examine these questions in a more qualitative way. Here then is distant reading leading to close reading.

Method
You can download the data, which is in the public domain, from here . Be sure to have plenty of hard disk space, as when unzipped the data is more than 120GB. The data looks like this:

2010 | churchtimes.co.uk | archbishopofcanterbury.org | 20

which tells you that in 2010, the Internet Archive captured 20 individual resources (usually, although not always, “pages”) in the Church Times site that linked to the archbishop’s site. My poor old laptop spent a whole night running through the dataset and extracting all the instances of the string “archbishopofcanterbury.org”.

Then I looked at the total numbers of unique hosts linking to the archbishop’s site in each year. In order to do so, I:

(i) stripped out those results which were outward links from a small number of captures of the archbishop’s site itself.

(ii) allowed for the occasions when the IA had captured the same host twice in a single year (which does not occur consistently from year to year.)

(iii) did not aggregate results for hosts that were part of a larger domain. This would have been easy to spot in the case of the larger media organisations such as the Guardian, which has multiple hosts (society,guardian.co.uk, education.guardian.co.uk, etc.) However, it is much harder to do reliably for all such cases without examining individual archived instances, which was not possible at this scale.

Assumptions

(i) that a host “abc.co.uk” held the same content as “www.abc.co.uk”.

(ii) that the Internet Archive were no more likely to miss hosts that linked to the Canterbury site than ones that did not – ie., if there are gaps in what the Internet Archive found, there is no reason to suppose that they systematically skew this particular analysis.

On Popes, archbishops and their predecessors

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Anglican identities

The majority of the posts on this site are free to read, but this one is available only to my wonderful Patreon supporters. To help me keep creating new writing, and to keep most of it free, become a Supporter over on Patreon. Get access to everything on this site, and advance access to new posts, hot off the press, all for only £2 a month, and you can cancel any time you like. Thanks!
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