Concept Analytics Lab

Survey of English Usage zooms on Covid-19 concepts

by Caitlin Hogan


Lab leader Dr Justyna Robinson gave a talk at University College London (UCL) as part of the Survey of English Usage Seminar Series about the work of the Concept Analytics Lab. Her talk covered a wide range of issues in the realm of concept analytics, including how to draw out concepts from written accounts via the Mass Observation Archive dataset. She focussed in particular on the role of concept change during the COVID-19 pandemic, when lifestyle changes forced people to adapt their routine, and thus the concepts they mention in their daily accounts to shift, in some cases drastically. 


The Mass Observation Archive began in 1937 founded by Tom Harrisson, Charles Madge and Humphrey Jennings, and its original tenure ran until the 1960’s, at which point it became defunct. Originally inspired by the founders’ desire to capture public opinion on the abdication of King Edward VIII, by 1939 the project aimed to have ordinary people record the day-to-day experiences of their lives, and nearly 500 did. This creates an invaluable documentation of peoples’ habits, lives, and thoughts, acting almost as a time capsule. In 1981, it was revived at the University of Sussex and continues to collect qualitative accounts of ordinary peoples’ lives and opinions to this day. Every 12th of May (chosen as it was the anniversary of the coronation of King George VI), the project calls for anyone to submit a record of their activity on that day, in honour of the original 1937 call going out on that same day.  The 12th May diaries collected  during COVID-19 pandemic were digitised by a grant provided by the Wellcome Trust. Digitised diaries from the first lockdown in the UK, i.e. 12th May 2020, were the focus of Justyna’s talk. 


Justyna discussed how records of ordinary peoples’ activities during lockdown marked a shift towards concepts such as REGULATION, which may be expected, but also the discussion of furniture, given the struggles we all had to adapt to working from home.  Excerpts from the diaries on this theme include the following examples:


  • most of the online activities I could cast from my phone to the TV or could be done on my phone, which was vital during the early stages of lockdown, as XXXX was using the home laptop to work remotely, until he received a laptop through work
  • I’m working from home and the work PC is on an old computer desk so giving me a 2foot space to work in. 
  • I can also stretch and do yoga during my working day and sit at a desk that is the right size for me- I am very petite and used to feel uncomfortable in the chairs in meeting rooms, designed for men. 


As these examples show, participants mention the struggles of accommodating working from home with limited resources in terms of space and furniture for use while working, and the struggles coexisting while some household members work, and others use furniture for other purposes. The examples illustrate clearly that we can talk about the same concept without using the exact same words, so this commonality would be lost if we only used simple corpus linguistic techniques in this analysis. As explained in the Robinson et al (2023), terms like restriction, freeze, coordination, and clampdown emerged while talking about regulations in the COVID-19 pandemic but were not exactly the word regulation itself. Linking these lexemes together allows a clearer picture to emerge of what topics participants wrote in their diaries. The insight into which concepts participants found important during lockdown would not have been detectable without concept analysis,  and especially invoking the notion of a keyconcept (Robinson et al, 2023),



As the lab continues to refine tools for concept analysis, talks such as this one is key to spread the word to new and emerging scholars about the role of concepts when surveying English usage. 



Robinson J.A., Sandow R.J. and Piazza R. (2023) Introducing the keyconcept approach to the analysis of language: the case of REGULATION in COVID-19 diaries. Front. Artif. Intell. 6:1176283. doi: 10.3389/frai.2023.1176283 

About Us

We identify conceptual patterns and change in human thought through a combination of distant text reading and corpus linguistics techniques.