Digital humanities (DH) is notoriously difficult to define. Even the website What is Digital Humanities, with its rotation of quotes from Day of DH participants, cheekily acknowledges this. The image above, I think, captures the dilemma of defining DH— we each have a limited perspective of the elephant that is DH. Like the blinded researchers conceptualize the elephant by touching it, academics understand DH by drawing from their own experiences within the field.
My first assignment in “Digital Humanities Now” was to research DH and find an example of a DH project. This left me in some state of aporia as each article or department mission statement I read offered a different definition of DH. My first impression was that DH existed primarily to make old or otherwise inaccessible documents available in a digital format. After a month of classes and considerably more online digging, I have a more complex, wholistic view of DH:
Digital humanities blends practice and theory
Digital humanities, most broadly, appears to be a set of methodologies. The various manifestations of DH projects— topic modeling, data visualisation, digital publishing, and many more— all rely on different computational methods. I think David Berry and Anders Fagerjord’s “digital humanities stack” (pictured below) is a helpful visual for DH’s blend of practice and theory:
While I am not familiar with all the terminology Berry and Fagerjord use, I find their setup enlightening. The bottom level represents the fundamentals of DH and each stack builds upon the previous one. I realized, looking at the digital humanities stack, that what I perceived to be DH was merely its “interface” level. Projects such as text encoding and digital archives are the result of entire systems, structures, data, institutions, and encoding. The methodologies and ideas behind these projects are also considered “digital humanities.” Another insightful aspect of the “Digital Humanities” stack is its fluidity— each stack and its respective parts flow into one another. No aspect of DH exists on its own; rather, its practices and theories are inseparable.
What “practice” and “theory” mean
Digital humanists employ empirical thinking in a manner that resembles the scientific method.
image credit: “The Scientific Method,” wikipedia.org.
“Practice” in digital humanities is the application of computational methods to academic inquiries. DH treats its subjects (often texts) like scientific data. The digital humanist creates a hypothesis regarding the subject and through a carefully-formulated trial/ experiment reaches a conclusion. Franco Moretti, known for advocating”distant reading,” demonstrates how DH favors quantitative (rather than qualitative) analyses of the humanities. Although Moretti’s approach is admittedly extreme, it reflects the important view that DH is scientific in practice.
The “theory” side of DH is a set of principles that guide the research process. These principles include but are not limited to:
- Precision: Digital humanitarians ask questions that are capable of a numerical answer. Because computers respond to commands, scholars in DH must establish the parameters of their study and feed their computers specific prompts.
- Observation: DH views the process of experimentation as interesting as the outcome. Negative results are still published in the hopes that future researchers will learn from the DH methods employed.
- Usability/ Sustainability: When formulating DH research, scholars are conscious of their successors. They ensure that the project set-up and techniques will be useful and can be replicated. Technology is always developing and digital humanitarians want their work to be relevant in the future.
- Accessibility: Part of the digital humanities’ mission is making information accessible. Taking into consideration copyright law, scholars in DH strive to make data public to fellow researchers and the general public. For example, the Old Bailey project allows users to access over 100,000 criminal trials from London’s Central Criminal Court from 1674- 1913. Documents of this nature would otherwise have been inaccessible to the public.
How practice and theory interact
As the “Digital Humanities Stack” suggests, practice and theory are inseparable. Theory guides how scholars practice DH and the issues that arise from the DH process in turn influence DH’s principles.
Having focused on practice/ theory, I now turn to another essential aspect of my view of digital humanities:
Digital humanities encourages a vibrant, collaborative academic community.
Just as technology has made the world more interconnected, DH has made the academic community more interconnected. Many DH projects require a team of scholars, which fosters a collaborative environment. As I have already highlighted, a major focus of DH is re-deployability. DH scholars do not work in a vacuum but rather communicate with one another to ensure that their work is useful and sustainable. The image above captures the communal aspect of DH well. The figure on the left has a tangle of thoughts that, with the help of technology and a peer, becomes a clear idea (the light bulb).
Data visualisation is a helpful tool for demonstrating the strength of the DH community. A 2018 study from the University of Mexico produced an image of the co-citation network (authors who have cited one another). The massive web of co-citations is a testament to digital humanitarians’ awareness/ use of each others’ work.
DH scholars design their projects for maximum possible re-use. Another mark of the DH community is the use of metadata standards. Initiatives such as Dublin Core are an effort to establish standards for the collection of data. Metadata standards ensure the ease of future DH research.
Despite the strong community DH fosters, scholars within (and outside) the field continue to debate the future of digital humanities. I now investigate a major debate regarding DH—
Is digital humanities revolution or evolution?
Some skeptics of DH fear that the field is merely an effort to “update” the humanities in the technological era. The 2012 Debates in the Digital Humanities voices the fear that DH scholars sacrifice real pedagogy for technological buzzwords. Critics also worry that DH means technology will supplant books.
The image to the right, while used in a context complimentary to DH, still represents a somewhat mistaken view of the DH field. The depicted books are dissolving into pixels, an effort to show how works have become digitised. I interpret the pixels as ominous, suggesting that the books have disappeared into “the Cloud.” DH, however, is much more than making texts available online. A text’s online accessibility does not mean that its tangible form is obsolete.
I have observed that DH, in contrast to replacing print media, forces scholars to work more closely with their documents. In the process of encoding texts, scholars must critically evaluate the document’s communicative function. They study layout, lettering, intentions, etc. in order to preserve the spirit of the document in a digital form.
Furthermore, the notion that DH represents a “revolutionary” push to incorporate technology in the humanities takes for granted that the humanities has always employed computational methods. In the 1930s and 1940s, Josephine Miles and Robert Bush collaborated with IBM to create Index Thomisticus, a grouping of Thomas Aquinas’ works.
What makes DH “revolutionary” is its drive to standardize/ systematize the incorporation of technology into humanities inquiries. The humanities were never entirely divorced from technology, but DH embraces the digital in an unprecedented way. By fostering communities and providing support for research groups, DH marks a new, more explicit celebration of technology’s ability to enrich the humanities.
Finally, digital humanities is an opportunity for the humanities to re-design itself.
I suspect that critics are skeptical of DH because the field has forced the humanities to confront itself in the face of a rapidly-advancing academic environment. DH has raised uncomfortable questions— what is the humanities? what role should technology play in it? The precision demanded by DH research has also forced complacent scholars to re-examine the fundamentals of the humanities. When learning about text encoding, I realized that DH forces the academic to make explicit what had previously been implicit. For example, text encoding begs the question “what is a text?” Theoretical questions such as these may appear cumbersome at times but they also represent an exciting opportunity for the humanities to re-discover itself. I appreciate the precise aspect of DH because it encourages more rigorous scholarship and probes the fundamentals of the humanities.
Aside from revitalizing the theory behind the humanities, DH also enriches academic inquiry. I recently read a journal article that compared rhetorical differences between an ancient Hellenistic historical text and an ancient Jewish-Hellenist play. The author was able to count verbal echoes between the two texts, something that would not have been possible without DH. I hope to encounter more DH-influenced papers such as these in the future. DH is more than archiving Walt Whitman’s works or mapping cholera in the Caribbean— it is an exciting new theoretical and practical approach to the humanities.