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The utility of topic modelling for discourse studies

Research output: Contribution to Journal/MagazineJournal articlepeer-review

<mark>Journal publication date</mark>1/01/2019
<mark>Journal</mark>Discourse Studies
Issue number1
Number of pages19
Pages (from-to)3-21
Publication StatusPublished
Early online date21/12/18
<mark>Original language</mark>English


This article explores and critically evaluates the potential contribution to discourse studies of topic modelling, a group of machine learning methods which have been used with the aim of automatically discovering thematic information in large collections of texts. We critically evaluate the utility of the thematic grouping of texts into ‘topics’ emerging from a large collection of online patient comments about the National Health Service (NHS) in England. We take two approaches to this, one inspired by methods adopted in existing topic modelling research and one using more established methods of discourse analysis. In the study, we compare the insights produced by each approach and consider the extent to which the automatically generated topics might be of use to discourse analysts attempting to organise and study sizeable datasets. We found that the topic modelling approach was able to group texts into ‘topics’ that were truly thematically coherent with a mixed degree of success while the more traditional approach to discourse analysis consistently provided a more nuanced perspective on the data that was ultimately closer to the ‘reality’ of the texts it contains. This study thus highlights issues concerning the use of topic modelling and offers recommendations and caveats to researchers employing such approaches to study discourse in the future.