What can be learned from text IV

The fourth property that can be learned from text is the intention of the author. This actually covers a wide range of related ideas:

  • Why did the author write the text?
  • What does the text reveal about the author’s worldview and assumptions?
  • What effect on the minds of readers is the author trying to achieve?
  • What is the author trying to get the readers to do?
  • Are there secondary audiences that the author is trying to affect as well?

There is considerable disagreement about whether these questions make sense, depending on one’s view of how humans model the world and how, or if, we influence each other.

In one view, popular in media studies, worldviews and assumptions come in a small set of flavors into which most (all) media stories can be fitted — for example, conflict or human interest. Others would consider a larger set of possibilities. Intention then includes actions like convincing someone else of your worldview, or merging the worldviews of two different groups so that they can work together (think anti-globalisation and animal rights, for example).

In another view, associated more with sociology, assumptions are much more fine-grained and capture the ways in which  we interpret what we see in the world around us. These assumptions are communicated between people in tacit ways that are hard to make operational.

There’s a kind of middle ground which is much more pragmatic. In this view, intentions are signalled much more by verbs. An intention looks something like: a subject, an object, a verb, and perhaps an adverb (although these terms might describe something much more complicated than just a syntactic structure). Such structures can (clumsily at the moment) be extracted from text, and the ones that are most relevant examined to try and extract the underlying intention, or at least to classify it by importance, and perhaps target. For example, the verb “rise up” has no meaning other than an incitement to some kind of negative action, so finding such intentions in text could be helpful in a law-enforcement or intelligence setting.

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