The Victorian anti-vaccination discourse corpus (VicVaDis): construction and exploration

JOURNAL ARTICLE (Digital Scholarship in the Humanities.)

Claire Hardaker, Alice Deignan, Elena Semino, Tara Coltman-Patel, William Dance, Zsófia Demjén, Chris Sanderson, Derek Gatherer

Published: 26 October 2023


This article introduces and explores the 3.5-million-word Victorian Anti-Vaccination Discourse Corpus (VicVaDis). The corpus is intended to provide a (freely accessible) historical resource for the investigation of the earliest public concerns and arguments against vaccination in England, which revolved around compulsory vaccination against smallpox in the second half of the 19th century. It consists of 133 anti-vaccination pamphlets and publications gathered from 1854 to 1906, a span of 53 years that loosely coincides with the Victorian era (1837–1901). This timeframe was chosen to capture the period between the 1853 Vaccination Act, which made smallpox vaccination for babies compulsory, and the 1907 Act that effectively ended the mandatory nature of vaccination. After an overview of the historical background, this article describes the rationale, design and construction of the corpus, and then demonstrates how it can be exploited to investigate the main arguments against compulsory vaccination by means of widely accessible corpus linguistic tools. Where appropriate, parallels are drawn between Victorian and 21st-century vaccine-hesitant attitudes and arguments. Overall, this article demonstrates the potential of corpus analysis to add to our understanding of historical concerns about vaccination.

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