Annual Lecture – 12 December 2013

Tracking Trolls: New Challenges from the Folklore Macroscope

Humanities scholars now routinely confront a vexing problem of scale—how does one deal with the complexity presented by the massive electronic resources at our disposal without losing sight of compelling research questions? In a recent article, Katy Börner proposes the theoretically tantalizing concept of the “macroscope.” For Börner, “Macroscopes provide a ‘vision of the whole,’ helping us ‘synthesize’ the related elements and detect patterns, trends, and outliers while granting access to myriad details. Rather than make things larger or smaller, macroscopes let us observe what is at once too great, slow, or complex for the human eye and mind to notice and comprehend” (Börner 2011, 60). The macroscope holds the promise of wedding “close reading” approaches, which have been a fundamental analytical approach in folkloristics since the beginning of the field, to what Franco Moretti has called “Distant Reading” where “Distance… is a condition of knowledge: it allows you to focus on units that are much smaller or much larger than the text: devices, themes, tropes—or genres and systems” (Moretti 2000, 57).

In this presentation, I explain how we began developing a macroscope for the study of folklore, based on ongoing work with the Evald Tang Kristensen collection of Danish folklore (250,000 stories, jokes, songs, riddles, and descriptions of everyday life). From problems of acquisition to problems of presentation, from problems of classification to problems of discovery,  I explore some of our solutions and some of our unexpected discoveries as we focus the macroscope on this 19th century collection.

Timothy R. Tangherlini teaches folklore, literature and cultural studies at the University of California, where he is a professor in the Scandinavian Section, and the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures. He is also an affiliate of the Center for Digital Humanities, the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, the Religious Studies Program, and a faculty member in the Center for Korean Studies and the Center for European and Eurasian Studies.


He has published widely on folklore, literature, film and critical geography. His main theoretical areas of interest are folk narrative, legend, popular culture, and critical geography. His main geographic areas of interest are the Nordic region (particularly Denmark and Iceland), the United States, and Korea.
He is the author of Interpreting Legend: Danish Storytellers and their Repertoires (1994), Talking Trauma. Paramedics and Their Stories (1998), and the co-editor of Nationalism and the Construction of Korean Identity (1999), and Sitings. Critical Approaches to Korean Geography (2008). He has also produced or co-produced two documentary films, Talking Trauma: Storytelling Among Paramedics (1994) and Our Nation. A Korean Punk Rock Community (2002). His current work focuses on computation and the humanities.  In 2012, along with James Abello and Peter Broadwell, Tim Tangherlini published a paper called ‘Computational Folkloristics’ in: Communications of the ACM vol 55, no. 7, pp. 60-70. His most recent book, Danish Folktales, Legends, and Other Stories (2013) is a hybrid publication that includes the rich digital interface, The Danish Folklore Nexus.