What is Digital Humanities, Part II (of many?)

The experience of teaching Digital Humanities beyond the ‘core cadres’ of the tech loving geeks has brought home to me how our definitions of the field are inadequate. I suggested previously that the lack of definition is not confined to the ‘digital’ – many academics in the humanities and social sciences define their field by subject matter and methods, but take the deeper location of the humanities in the current western intellectual paradigm so much for granted that it is never explicitly engaged with. I feel that as a definition of Digital Humanities, “Um … anything in the humanities that has a digital aspect”  may be an accurate representation of the state of our discourse, but it isn’t adequate.

Even Diane Jackaki’s definition “Application of digital tools to humanities research and pedagogy” while it appears better falls on the lack of a proper backstory which locates it in the context of the humanities and pedagogy in 2013. We could feed this to students, and tell them to learn it and shut up, hoping to gloss over the questions “yes, but what are the humanities?” As I said, the NEH definition is merely a collection of disciplines and disciplinary artefacts, no more.

 

The definition at Stanford, probably one of the best on the web, starts off very promisingly: “The humanities can be described as the study of the myriad ways in which people, from every period of history and from every corner of the globe, process and document the human experience” but after that quickly spirals down to the usual list of Depts – boxes on the academic organisational tree. ( http://humanexperience.stanford.edu/what  )

 

I would offer a slightly different definition of the Humanities – the quest to understand the human adventure by studying the artefacts we create in all forms – text, image, buildings, design – and the social networks in which they have meaning. From here I suggest we proceed, not to listing depts and things we study, and instead go down the road of paradigms.  For me, inserting ‘digital’ in there is in some respects very simple – any definition of digital humanities must work as a definition of the humanities; if it does not, it fails

 

Inserting digital into the humanities is on one hand very simple – it is new set of tools with which we can study the artefacts and networks of meaning which map out the human terrain. On the other hand, the digital is a very fundamental challenge  because digital technology is changing what it means to be human. The shifts from stone tablets to papyrus to bound codex book to printing press were fundamental changes in how knowledge was represented. Those transformations took centuries to filter through society; the changes now be wrought in knowledge creation, diffusion and re-creation by digital technologies are at least as fundamental, and are happening many orders of magnitude faster. If we remain focused on Digital Humanities as something which academics in humanities schools struggle to engage with, then we really are missing a much much bigger issue -how the digital is altering what it is to be human. This raises questions which go far beyond applying digital tools to the old undergraduate humanities subjects, and if we do not wake up and small the transformation ,we are doing a profound disservice to our students.

 

We have been accustomed to see two different paradigms for research – the scientific, which we value highly, and the humanistic, which we tend to dismiss as being less ‘real’.  One is very simple, and even simplistic; the other much more slippery and harder to grasp.

Formulating these questions requires us to go back to the fundamentals of how we define reality and inquiry. In looking at this, I was inspired by this image, tweeted by @RebeccaZantjer and re-tweeted by Matt Gomes (@invernessfalls) coming out of a class led by @foundhistory which attempts to tick the boxes by extracting evidence from some of the readings commonly used to introduce Digital Humanities.

Unfortunately while it is a great piece, and the Axiology quadrant is excellent, some of the other quotes chosen reveal just how theoretically weak our definitions of Digital Humanities are. Stepping back to an older model, I want to offer this instead, adapted from (Hogan 2009?)  The right hand column in the original was intended to explain the paradigm behind qualitative research, and while I think it is a place we can start from, and I have already made some changes to it, it does need more work.
Scientific (Digital) Humanities
Philosophic Basis, Ontology (Nature of reality) Scientific materialism in which reality is bound by laws of nature, physics, economics, Physical reality does exist, but reality as we perceive and understand it is a social construct, reality is shaped by the nature of the psyche, of perception, creativity, intelligence
Epistemology (nature of knowledge) knowledge is objective, based on measurable and observable ‘proof’ discovered  by ….  self verified evidence, grounded theory, recorded testimony…????
Methodology (methods) Experiment, large scale data collection, quantitative analysis study of meaning in text and symbol close and distant reading of ‘texts’, Phenomenology, ethnography, depth interviews, reflection, qualitative analysis, 
Axiology (what we value) Objectivity Engagement, collaboration,

 

The definition of Qualitative Research offered by Hogan in 2009 is interesting, and there is much in it which Digital Humanists can identify with:

Qualitative research is a multifaceted approach that investigates culture, society and behaviour through an analysis and synthesis of people’s words and actions

Unlike quantitative approaches, it does not try to transform  verbal symbols into numerical ones;
the data remains at the level of words,  either the research participants’ own words, the words written in documents or the words used by the researcher herself / himself to describe the activities, images and environment observed. It tries to get to the heart of what exactly led to decisions, or choices, that were made, and how these choices came to take the form that they ultimately did.

 

However, I suggest we can develop it usefully thus:

 

Qualitative research  Digital Humanities is a multifaceted approach that investigates culture, society and behaviour through an analysis and synthesis of people’s words and actions and creations

Unlike quantitative approaches, it does not try   aim to bridge the gap between science and humanities by transforming verbal symbols into numerical ones; and back again to create new narratives about what is to be human

the data remains at the level of words,  either the research participants’ own words, the words written in documents or the words used by the researcher herself / himself  is transformed in many ways  to describe, explore and transform  the activities, images and environment observed. It tries to get to the heart of what exactly led to decisions, or choices, that were made, and how these choices came to take the form that they ultimately did, and to empower us to make better choices as we create a new reality for the future

 

 

Partly I am iterating towards some better definitions of Digital Humanities, more rooted in contemporary understandings of ontology and epistemology, and in part I am using existing definitions to build off in order to suggest that Digital Humanities is not entirely novel, but  can and should locate itself as the next logical development in a long series of developments in the humanities, social sciences and indeed post-Kuhnian ‘hard’ science.
 
There are, I think, a number of points which most digital humanists can probably agree on. It may well be that as we develop undergraduate programmes in Digital Humanities, not all of these could be fully explored in Week 1 of a first year course, but some version of these should probably be stuck on one of those wonderful text boxes so beloved of textbook designers

 

Following from Kant, we generally agree that for most Digital Humanists, even if we fail to say so explicitly
  • reality does exist and can be observed.. Or, simply, gravity works, but the observer matters – as pointed out in a discussion of how an observer might react to Galileo pushing an old man off the Leaning tower to test gravity. Elements of reality are socially constructed.
  • And we generally like Heidegger’s “special hermeneutic of empathy“ which, for me, fits with ‘Historical understanding” (Collingwood) which also fits well with
  • Gadamer’s idea that experience and reflection change the observers understanding, an idea which links to Dewey and Schon’s ideas about the importance of reflective practice in education
  • Assert the importance of ‘human agency’ in creating our narrative (M.C. Lemon, and others, summarised in The History and Narrative Reader )
  • is ‘critical’(Liu) in asserting that the observer can and does change that reality and therefore
  • knowledge about the field may well be normative, (Williams, cited by Willard MaCarthy ) imposing on us responsibilities and demanding action
I have, of course, in my “Social Constructivism Since Kant  for Complete Dummies” left out some of the more recent thinkers in the field, but this is very much a work in progress.

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