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Negotiated Texts Network Seminar, Monday 8th May

Since the launch of The Oxford Research Centre in Humanities’ (TORCH) Negotiated Texts Network in Pembroke College on International Women’s Day 2017, The Quill project have committed to putting on several termly events exploring different facets of negotiated texts and digital humanities. The first event of Trinity term took place on Monday, May 8th, with a seminar that continued a theme initiated in the Network’s launch in March and provided an opportunity for people working on the records of formal negotiations to discuss opportunities for future collaboration and fresh insights on existing research. These opportunities were explored in the talks given by two guest speakers, from Dr Meghan Campbell, Deputy-Director of the Oxford Human Rights Hub, presenting on the gaps revealed by the drafting process of CEDAW, and Dr Martin Poulter, Wikimedian In Residence for the University of Oxford, presenting on the wiki-based platforms and the potential for collaboration with open data sets.

Dr Nicholas Cole, director of the Quill Project, began the seminar by giving a brief overview of the Quill platform as well as some historical context. Dr Cole emphasized that negotiated texts are put together by groups of people over lengthy periods of time through procedures which involve a complicated web of committees and sub-committees; while a text may appear to have an iconic historical figure attached to its creation, its content cannot be attributed to any individual author. He also explained an inherent difficulty with interpreting available records: the purpose of any record at a meeting was to keep the contributors at the time informed on the text’s status as amendments were made and the master document adjusted — they were not written with secondary readers or future researchers in mind.

The first of the guest speakers Dr Meghan Campbell substantiated these thoughts by exploring a ‘gap’ evident in the drafting of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), an international treaty adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1979. She raised the issue that the treaty, ratified by 189 states and instituted in September 1981, makes no reference to gender-based violence, intersectionality, racial experience, or poverty — all inherently gendered experiences.

Observations of the text, such as the relationship between the preamble and the main body of the text, may be researched further using the Quill-based analysis of the drafting process. The question posed before us: how did the drafting process inform and shape the finalized version of CEDAW, and could an analysis of the drafting process explain why poverty is excluded from the text?

Dr Campbell provided a few examples of how countries’ differing perceptions on how the issue of poverty ought to be treated caused friction within the negotiating chambers. It was noted that more developed countries, which viewed poverty as a social policy issue rather than a legal issue, believed its inclusion in the text would transform the treaty’s purpose into being more about politics than law; records show that they argued the associated web of related issues would make the text too ambiguous and ineffective, and that prescribing obligations for countries to fulfil would be too costly. To this end, references to money were removed: an obligation that countries made available “paid” care or “free” services, for example, became that they should simply “provide”.

Similarly, that there is no element of progressive development or realization component reflected in the text can be traced back to decisions made on the interpretation of “equality” as a binary quality which cannot be achieved incrementally or progressively. Just as “equality” was interpreted narrowly, “poverty” was seen as an issue of development — of global status — which would be better represented as a separate issue deserving of its own discussions rather than included in the ones at hand.

It was also suggested that Cold War politics had made poverty a sensitive issue to discuss: not only did it make to access documents in their original language difficult, but countries actively avoided discussion which may have risked drawing comparisons of radically different economic systems, which necessarily includes the acknowledgement of poverty in states which wanted to appear superior to its economic opposition.

Dr Campbell’s presentation prompted discussion about how a similar treaty would be written today in the post-Cold War era, and what political situations might render this difficult. Questions were raised about Middle Eastern countries’ treatment of women, and the potential impact of religion on national opinion on such matters. Indeed, there is an interesting story to be told that charts women’s rights throughout the 20th century which may be explored by the Quill platform and a widespread, comparative analysis of different human rights-based texts: the fall of colonialism, the advocation of women’s rights by ‘new’ countries, and an increase in explicit engagement with women’s rights could all be part of the changing face of negotiated texts on human rights to the present day.

Dr Martin Poulter’s talk took the afternoon in a more technological direction by exploring the possible overlaps and links between Wikimedia and Quill. As the Wikimedia in Residence for the University of Oxford, Dr Poulter’s mission is to encourage contributions to the development of content on Wikipedia and to make the Libraries’ digitized collections more accessible; he also helps research projects in the University reach the widest possible audience. While the sciences lend themselves more neatly to online platforms due to their more numerical approach to research and well-established culture of data sharing, he believes it is in the humanities where the benefit of such platforms may make the biggest difference for researchers.

Dr Poulter explained that the Wiki online presence may be divided into three parts: the well-known Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia; Wikidata, a knowledge-base of non-narrative information; and Wikimedia Commons, a digital library of millions of freely usable media files. Dr Poulter also showed us Histropedia, a visualization tool which makes a timeline out of any category associated with a particular topic.

His journey through the different platforms raised questions about the scope of research possibilities that abound when open media, open text, and open data are all brought together. These questions are particularly exciting when interactive, non-linear information pathways using tertiary data. Imports all the different identifier numbers used in big institutions such as the Library of Congress, Project Gutenberg, the Open Library, and so forth. Database queries can create new Wikipedia articles.

The information imparted by Dr Poulter highlighted features of Quill which may be used in a collaborative manner with Wikimedia such as the legal commentaries attached to texts.

The seminar closed with more tea and cake, and musing on the afternoon’s talks. The session saw researchers from across the University discuss topics diametrically opposed from one another; however, both sought out to demonstrate how digital modelling of negotiated texts may help researchers overcome challenges presented in the study of formal negotiations, and help further work into questions raised by existing research on negotiated texts. The abundance of research methodologies on offer throughout the university and beyond opens up innumerable pathways for future academic endeavour, and it is the hope of the Negotiated Texts Network that the development of technology — such as the Quill platform — can facilitate and promote new avenues of intellectual inquiry.

We look forward to seeing what may be discussed at the next Negotiated Texts Network event at the end of the term.